Beating the Overwhelm with Turtle Steps

I’m having one of those days. I’m wrung out, everything feels like too much trouble and there’s a low level anger bubbling resentfully in the background. My creative muse has fled and I don’t feel like I could string a rhyme together if someone paid me (they won’t). Inclement weather has invaded my brain and clouded it with such a fug of lethargy (is fug even a word? I don’t know but I like it) that my inner critic Brian has been having a field day. I just put tomato sauce on my husband’s sandwich, even though I know he hates it.

We all get days like this, don’t we? I get them less often than I used to, which makes them all the more surprising when they occur. What did I do wrong? Was it that meditation I missed? Did I get enough sleep? Are the planets aligned in the constellation of angry Mother-Hubbard?

Maybe all of them, maybe none of them. But one thing I do know, sometimes we’ve just got to accept a bad mood and ride it out, which is what I’ve been trying to do today.

When I’m feeling like this, the day ahead often feels overwhelming. I’ve been listening to a great audiobook this past month, The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck. Martha talks about turtle steps. Take the smallest step towards what you want to get done or where you want to be and half it, then do that.

In the midst of our house renovations there is so much mess everywhere that I’ve been ignoring because I don’t know where to start (we could have found the reason for my bad mood right here). So today, I ignored the piles of stuff I didn’t know what to do with and focused on sorting out one kitchen drawer. I felt a lot better. I’d achieved something. If I do a drawer every day the kitchen will be sorted out in…I’m too foggy to do the maths, but the point is they will get sorted.

In my Sunday post Robbin’ Hood, I wrote about the euphoria I felt after completing a half marathon last week. This was achieved in much the same way, with turtle steps. I set myself a target for a long run once a week, with a short run mid week and I upped the distance by a mile or so each week. I would tell myself that I was going to do the distance I set and then I would do it. This is also part of the way of The Way of Integrity, keeping promises that you make to yourself (so set them small and achievable).

On race day I had my own personal goal. I did a half marathon in my twenties and I walked some of it. Knowing this would probably be my last half marathon (since it took me fifteen years to recover from the previous one), I set myself the target of jogging it. I told myself it was 2.5 podcasts, only two and a half hours of steady exercise. I broke it down to myself in manageable chunks and then I took it one mile at a time (or one podcast at a time). Turtle steps. I didn’t start thinking about reaching the finish line until the last couple of miles. Those were two looong miles, but I focused on the smiling faces of the encouraging crowd, on the runners in front of me and on the feeling I knew I would have when I jogged across the finish line.

Had I begun to focus on the finish line at the start, I would have been overwhelmed. Had I attempted to run the distance in one go, without leading up to it with training, I would have been overwhelmed (and possibly in the hospital). But taking it in manageable chunks built up a sense of confidence that I could do it, so I did (with a lot of encouragement and energy from the wonderful people who supported the race, which you can read all about here if you missed it).

It’s a bit the same with our renovation project. People often ask when our house will be finished. But we’re doing a lot of the work ourselves and we’re taking turtle steps. We’re trying to enjoy the process, rather than focusing on when it will be complete, because as soon as we start listing all the things we still have left to do and wishing it was over then it becomes overwhelming, and that’s when we start spinning our wheels. If we’re able to take each part of the project as it comes and celebrate each small achievement on the path to completion (even tidying a drawer), then it stays an adventure.

Everything is built one small step at a time. This blog has 80 posts, 245 followers and almost 1000 views, but it was built according to my mantra of slow and steady. If I’d told myself to create a blog with 80 posts I’d likely never have got started. Turtle steps. Here I am, taking another one as I hit publish on this post.

Photo by Ludvig Hedenborg on

What turtle steps have you been taking lately?

So I managed 4 whole weeks sticking to creative writing. I enjoyed writing an extra poem a week, but I also found I missed talking to you. It seems blogging to an audience is a little different to journaling for myself. Perhaps because blogging requires me to refine what I’m thinking to make sense to other people, and maybe because it requires me to commit. You’re my accountability people, and I like it!

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