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Are you feeling overwhelmed by the world? Try the rule of three

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Anne was working in the garden last weekend. Her heart sunk into her boots, because it’s such a big project. Just in time, she remembered a rule.

Cherry trees. Magnolia. Rose bushes. I came to the garden center for stone flower containers to make borders for the front yard, but I couldn’t find them in the size I was looking for and now I already started checking the trees and bushes. Should I buy cherry trees? And how many? Or was a forsythia a better idea? Wait, the olive trees were on sale, a Van Gogh garden would be nice too.

And there, next to an old olive tree, my heart sunk into my boots. What was I doing? How did I get here? How should I proceed? ‘Whatever’, I thought, ‘I’m going home.’Just in time, I remembered the rule of three.

What are the first three things?

The rule of threes. I picked it up from a book about social awkwardness by Ty Tashiro. When he was a child, he struggled in social situations. Whenever he had to do something scary or confusing (like visit a party), his parents helped him to repeat the first three things that were expected of him. For instance: looking people in the eye, shaking their hand, saying your name.

Three things to remember, that’s manageable, no matter how socially awkward you are. Three things, let’s cross that bridge first. It’s a trick you can always use in times when you don’t know what to do next.

By the way, it looks a lot like one of the essential elements from ‘Getting things done’, David Allen’s productivity method: divide big projects into small action points and start doing these.

Bird by bird

In the wonderful and wise book ‘Bird by bird. Some instructions on writing and life’, writer Anne Lamott shares an anecdote from her youth that illustrates this: her ten year old brother had to hand in a paper about birds the next day and he had just got started. His dad sat next to him, put an arm around his shoulder and said: ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ Step by step. Bird by bird.

Lamott also quotes writer E.L. Doctorow, who once said: ‘Writing a book is like driving a car at night. Your headlights will only enable you to look ahead a few meters, but it’s enough to get you home in the end.’

Limit yourself to the first three things. It seems to me that this rule is perfect for all big projects or for times in your life when you cannot see the forest for the trees. Decorating a nursery. Finding a job. Buying a car. Writing a novel. Taking the lead in a project. Organizing a wedding, or a divorce. When you find yourself getting overwhelmed, when you really don’t know where to start, when you can’t see the forest for the trees:  think of the first three things you have to do. Make sure to do these. After that, you’ll find out what’s your next step.

Start with the wall

In the case of the empty front yard, these were my three things: make a wall out of stone flower pots, moving the compost container and removing the mess. So why was I worrying between the plants? There was nothing to worry about yet!

Outside, in the stone department, I picked different planters. At home, they turned out to be better than the planters I’d had in mind first. I had to go back twice for a couple more, but when the wall was ready, the compost container and the tidying were easy peasy. And, even better: now that the garden is cleared out and I’ve made the border, it’s suddenly crystal clear where I need to plant some trees. The whole project is manageable and fun, I feel like finishing it. You’ll see, bit by bit, the garden will turn out just fine. It’s spring!

Want to read more?

Ty Tashiro, ‘Awkward: The science of why we’re socially awkward and why that’s awesome’ (HarperCollins)

David Allen, ‘Getting Things Done’ (Penguin Books)

Anne Lamott, ‘Bird by Bird’ (Anchor Books).

Text: Anne Wesseling - Photo: Becca Tapert