How to Stay Calm in the Midst of Big Projects

“Instead of trying to accomplish it all — and all at once — and flaring out, the Essentialist starts small and celebrates progress. Instead of going for the big, flashy wins that don’t really matter, the Essentialist pursues small and simple wins in areas that are essential.”

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

If you’ve ever been guilty of biting off more than you can chew or of expecting too much too soon, then perhaps you will resonate with Greg McKewon’s encouragement to start small and celebrate progress.

In recent years I’ve come to value and even cherish the art of the small start in my work, my friendships, and even in cleaning the house.

But it’s a fairly new practice for me to begin to celebrate the progress that comes as a result, especially when that progress is unimpressive.

What does celebrating progress look like?

progress

Today for me, it looks like this round rug in my sunroom office.

I’ve wanted a round rug in there for, oh a few years maybe? I’ve waited because I didn’t know exactly where to shop, wasn’t sure what style I wanted, and I didn’t have the room the way I wanted it anyway. Besides, I already had a rug that kind of worked and I was convinced a different rug wouldn’t make much difference.

But I’ve been dedicated to making small changes in this sunroom over the past few weeks and the small changes are adding up to nice progress. I took some time looking online and found this simple jute round rug, ordered it, and it arrived on my doorstep this week.

Now, my tendency is to continue to look for the next small change I need to make or obsess over lists of what has yet to be done.

Instead, several times since that rug arrived, I’ve sat in my sunroom and looked around, snapped a few photos, and spent some extra time reading in my favorite corner. In short, I’ve celebrated progress by actually enjoying the room. And this simple act of appreciating the progress on purpose has brought a lightness and calm to my soul.

celebrate progress

These have been ways I’ve celebrated progress rather than looked in disdain at the still unfinished room. I moved my desk! I picked out a rug! Is it finished? Not yet. But I celebrate progress anyway.

This week at (in)courage, I’m sharing what starting small and celebrating progress has looked like for me in the area of personal health, both for my body and for my soul.

I also have a conversation with my dad and my sister on this month’s episode of The Hope*ologie Podcast about what celebrating looks like in our own lives and how we think it’s important to mark progress even if it’s small and even if it’s silly.

There are 3 ways for you to listen to the podcast: At Hope*ologie (including show notes!), on iTunes, or here on Soundcloud.

Today I hope you’ll save yourself from overwhelm in the midst of big projects by embracing the days of small beginnings and celebrating the progress that comes as a result.

What My Sister Taught Me

I’m firmly convinced our genius is at least partially coded into our childhood play. Want to get an idea of how those first graders will change their world? No need to read their spelling words. Just show up at recess.

But I don’t know about all that yet, because it’s 1985 and we’ve got the day ahead of us, no plans but the Barbie world. We huddle over the pile of pink goodness ready to piece out what belongs to whom today. I’m eight and it’s my big sister’s turn to pick first.

myquillyn and emily

I study her choices carefully – the pink cabinet, the blue and pink pillows, the cushy sofa. These three must be the top items in the pile since she chose them first. I end up with a lopsided table I don’t know what to do with. Barf me out.

Days later, it’s my turn to pick first. I know just what to do! Pink cabinet, blue and pink pillows, cushy sofa. Yes!

I look up at her after my clean sweep, unable to hide my victory smile since I obviously just chose all the best stuff. Instead of reacting, she ignores me, and picks the table with the uneven top. Wait, is she trying to psych me out?

What is this? No anger? No you just got all the good stuff lecture? Not only that, she just chose the worst thing in the pile.  The worst thing!

How am I supposed to know how to make my Barbie house beautiful if my teacher keeps picking different furniture?! How am I supposed to know the best stuff if she keeps changing her mind on what the best stuff is? I am having a total cow.

Look at her over there in her corner, busy setting up her awesome space. I lean to one side to watch her work and notice she has that crooked table looking just fine, using it as some kind of loft-like bed for Skipper. I look back at my first-pick choices and they don’t look so great now.

I vow to choose the lopsided table next time. But next time always comes and no matter how I try to catalogue and then copy her choices, it makes no difference. It didn’t matter what she has to work with. She will make it look great, no matter how imperfect the pile.

And while it may on the surface seem like an older sister’s evil plan to make her little sister crazy, I think it simply comes down to this: her gift is that she sees differently.

The Nester's House

That feeling of discontentment, of missing out, of not having something vital I needed to make beauty showed up during those long days of play. I blamed it on the lopsided table and my lack of first pick, but these weren’t my problem.

My problem was I didn’t yet know how to trust my own ideas, couldn’t see beyond the obvious, and wasn’t willing to take a little risk.

My sister had eyes to see the usefulness in the mess and the beauty in the lopsided. Part of her art, even back then, was her eyes could see potential.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned I can have those eyes, too.

Myquillyn didn’t immediately apply this to her real life. But it was always in her, this ability to somehow see beyond the obvious and envision something no one else could.

The Nesting Place

What my eight-year-old self would’ve have done to get my hands on some kind of guidelines for how to have a Barbie house I loved. If only she could have written down her secrets!

Well now she has. And the best part is, her secrets aren’t as secret as you think.

She finally wrote a book is for all the little sisters of the world who doubt they have what it takes to make home (or life) beautiful, waiting for permission and courage to create, take risks, and be ourselves.

Over the years I’ve learned these things from her, valuable lessons practiced in my own home that spill over into everyday life.

The Nesting Place Contentment

She didn’t teach me the best color to paint my walls. She taught me it’s okay to paint my walls the wrong color.

She didn’t teach me where to put my furniture. She taught me it’s okay to move my furniture around.

She didn’t teach me the right way to hang a curtain. She taught me there isn’t only one right way to hang a curtain.

She didn’t lecture me on the latest trends. She taught me how to discover what my own trends are, that’s it’s okay if they’re different from others, and it’s okay when they change.

She didn’t point out what’s wrong with my house. She taught me how every house has a silver lining and home is wherever we are.

homeShe taught me that my house isn’t just about a house. It’s about trusting yourself, making mistakes, trying new things, inviting others in. It’s about community and communion, healing and wholeness, memories and tradition, love and loveliness and hope.

The Nester's House

I truly believe what I said before, that hints of our personal genius hide in our childhood play, what I also like to call our art. I’m so glad my sister had the courage to hold on to hers, to listen to what makes her come alive, to ignore the naysayers who said she was doing it all wrong.

You have a genius art too, and it doesn’t have to be the e equals mc squared kind. It might be the relational kind, the insightful kind, or the kind that moves in the midst of fear. Whatever it is for you, it’s evidence that you are made in the image of God and the first step to uncovering that could simply be finding freedom in your own home.

The Nesting Place

This lovely book – The Nesting Place: It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful – is finally available everywhere today! Get yourself a copy, your mom a copy, and don’t forget your little sister.

Love you, Sister Girl. So happy you said yes to writing this book. I don’t know how people get on in the world without a big sister to teach them things. I’m so thankful for all you’ve taught me.

nesting place

When Your Soul Has a Bad Idea

One day last week I’m struggling through those old kinds of struggles that never seem to fully go away – self-acceptance, over-thinking, fear. My mind cycles through them as they sit on the Lazy Susan of my soul. Pick one up, turn the wheel, put it back again.

When Your Soul Has a Bad Idea - Chatting at the Sky

So the Susan is spinning at the rate of the world and I pick a book from my desk to read a bit before I began my own writing. Just as I do, some powerfully loud thoughts come rushing into my mind – doubt, quitting, unbelief. In the span of one second, I imagine what it would be like to be the kind of writer like the one who wrote the book in my hand. Thoughts of straight up copying her work barrel to the forefront of my mind.

My first response is shock – I would never do that! My second response is shame – How could I even think that?

Shock and shame are my most natural and immediate responses when my soul has a bad idea. But the more I think about it, the more I realize this is not the holy response, but the arrogant one. My shock and shame response is a better indicator of the condition of my own soul than having the bad thought in the first place. This is the response of a woman who generally thinks she can handle life on her own, a woman who doesn’t think she needs redemption. And so when her soul has a bad idea, she can’t believe it.

It’s true, I don’t copy other people’s work. At least, I haven’t yet. But I could. So could you.

What to do when unwelcome thoughts push their way in? Worry about what a terrible person I am? Wring my hands over the terrible thoughts I have?

Please. Thinking about stealing someone else’s work is a glitter rainbow compared to some of the other thoughts that fly through my head. That feels terrifying to admit but also strangely relieving.

Shock and shame keep my head a clean distance from my heart. That is a dangerous place to live. I don’t want this kind of disconnected life.

The answer isn’t to shame myself into better thinking. That never works.

Instead, the answer for me is two-fold. First, stop being shocked by my own capacity for terrible thoughts.

Until I stop being shocked, I will continue to gasp and gawk at every foul thought that comes into my mind. I will constantly point to some imaginary version of myself who never has stupid thoughts and then return back to my real self and the incongruence between the two will bring only dizziness, discouragement and hopelessness. My soul simply can’t survive the whiplash.

So first, refuse to be shocked. And second, turn toward love. Not the kind of self-love that cheers you can do it, you’re amazing! Listen, I’ve seen The Help, I know the quote – You is smart. You is kind. You is important. Yes. You is. We are.

But we also have an insane capacity for crazy, for jealousy, for selfishness, hoarding, back-stabbing, criticism, revenge, and procrastination. The answer to dealing with the shocking thoughts that come into my mind isn’t to try to stop having bad thoughts. The answer for me is to refuse to be shocked in the first place and instead, be loved. Be small. Belong to Christ. 

I want to learn to keep company with my weakness even as I practice walking in the New Way of Christ.

I want to continually accept my capacity for sin, but embrace my potential for health, restoration, love, wonder, and mystery.

I want to remember I am capable of making bad choices while also bearing in mind that the Spirit of God chose to make his home in me.

I want to always see my ability to choose the old, but rejoice in my freedom not to.

I want to be aware of the darkness, but identify with the light.

Refuse to be shocked, but insist upon turning toward grace, forgiveness, renewal, and belief.

Refuse to be shocked, but receive the gift of acceptance.

Refuse to be shocked. And begin again.

Why I Want to Know You and Also Avoid You

“‘You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.’ In other words, ‘You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.’”

- Mark Roberts, on Ash Wednesday for Patheos

ash wednesdayWe got our first desktop computer during my senior year of high school. We were living in Detroit and Dad set the computer up on his brown L-shaped desk in his study. I sat at that computer for hours late into the night, but I wasn’t surfing the web – no, no. In fact, when a guy at my school that year mentioned something about one of our favorite bands having a ‘web page’ I was all, What on earth is that? You can’t have a page on a computer. Duh.

It was 1994.

Instead, what I was doing on the computer was typing all of my thoughts and ideas and dreams into a document I had saved there under the file name “emily.” (Sneaky. And also secure.)

I typed out all of my innermost and then printed out each entry, slid the page into a plastic protector, and collected them all in a white two-inch binder with a cool title page I made from super rad clip art.binderThat next year I took the binder to college with me, continuing to add to it as well as read from it when I wanted to remember. My roommate, Faith, asked me about the binder one day, wondering if I ever expected or wanted someone else to read the words I wrote in it. Maybe she thought the only reason why her quiet-ish roommate would have a diary the size of our Western Civ. textbook is if she intended on sharing the words with the world one day.

Her question surprised me. I didn’t write to be read, I wrote because writing helped me know what I thought about things. But her asking made me think about it and a small part of me, secret and hidden, liked the idea of sharing what I wrote with someone.

It felt like somewhere deep within, sharing the writing would be the most honest thing I could do. It represented what was most alive within me, and to imagine sharing that with someone else was a compelling thought. Risky, impossible, crazy. But compelling.

My desire to be known was stirred.

“Much of our isolation is self-chosen . . . This self-reliance has many attractions. It gives us a sense of power, it allows us to move quickly, it offers us the satisfaction of being our own boss, and it praises many rewards and prizes. However, the underside of this self-reliance is loneliness, isolation and a constant fear of not making it in life.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now

On the right-hand corner of my desk, right next to the books I’m currently reading, sits a small envelope holder. This is where I keep notes friends have written. I didn’t plan for it to become a prominent place, but every time I’ve received a note from someone in the actual mail, there it goes, right on my desk where I can see it everyday, a reminder of my inability to do this on my own – this living and working and moving through life.

on my deskFor the past several months I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. (It’s a long book, but I’m also a slow reader.) He writes in fascinating detail of the time he spent as a student at Columbia in New York, indulging in all of the things young students in the late 1930s could indulge in, resulting in “confusion and misery.”

“Yet, strangely enough, it was on this big factory of a campus that the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light. And one of the chief means He used, and through which he operated, was human friendship.” – Thomas Merton

Sharing life and friendship with a few peers at Columbia was in important part of a long journey Merton was on toward finding faith. When I read those words, I thought of the role human friendship has played in my own life, how I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.

Nothing causes me to face my own humanity, frailty, and weakness than when I am in communion with others. Nothing causes me to see myself as I really am, to admit I’m not as great as I think, or to face my perceived entitlements than when I am in the midst of other people.

I am easy to live with in a room by myself. Lord, I don’t want to live in a room by myself. Except for when I do.

To know and be known is both compelling and repulsive to me. Do I even know what that means? Truly? I don’t know if I do.

Today on Ash Wednesday, I acknowledge my hopelessness apart from Christ, my anxiety outside of his presence, my certain death if not for his sacrifice.

I acknowledge I have come from dust and will return to dust again. But more than dying one day in the future, I have already died with Christ. I acknowledge my need to de-tatch from the obsessions and addictions that convince me my old man is still alive and re-attach to Christ as my only hope.

I also acknowledge that the way God moves on earth is through the hands and eyes and feet of people – both the ones I’m naturally drawn to and the ones who get on my nerves.

I am hopeless without Him.

I am hopeless without them.

“No matter how sad, wounded, neurotic, or needy we are, that may be exactly what some other person needs us to be at that time. We don’t know the ways we comfort and save each other, not only in spite of our wounds, but also in some cases, because of them.”

-Heather King, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

I did not grow up in a church that observed Ash Wednesday. In the past few years, I’ve started to learn a little more and have found the Lenten season of deeper reflection to lead into an even more meaningful celebration of the resurrection at Easter.

For further reading: