The idiom “can’t see the forest for the trees” refers to the anxiety we experience when we get caught up in minutia at the expense of seeing the larger picture.
But what about the inverse, when we feel overwhelmed by the vastness of the task at hand, doubting our ability to ever tackle the whole damn forest?
My answer? Limit output to a first, small step. When we are facing a tremendous project like a dissertation or a healing journey, we may struggle to know where to start. When we’re in that type of overwhelm, we need a tool to help us to shift our perspective from the whole damn forest to tackling one tree at a time.
This week I focus on Anne Lamott’s short assignment tool, the one-inch picture frame, which she writes about in her book Bird by Bird. Lamott uses the one-inch picture frame when she is overwhelmed because it helps her intentionally limit her productivity to a manageable and small assignment. Doing this allows her to focus and take an intentional first step towards her goal. She even keeps an actual tiny frame on her writing desk because, she says,
It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (17-18)
Even though Lamott’s applies her tool to writing fiction, the one-inch picture frame is applicable anytime for any overwhelming, multi-step task.
In my post this week, I explore three specific applications for the tool: writing, productivity, and healing.
Because the one-inch picture frame helps us to limit overwhelm through taking small, actionable steps, it is applicable for all types of writing projects, not just fiction.
I practiced it multiple times last week while drafting my dissertation—perhaps the most overwhelming writing project I’ve ever attempted. I successfully filled multiple 500-word writing sessions with rich analysis, details, or description. For the sake of this week’s The Tending Year post, I wanted to apply the tool to a brand new writing assignment: a blog post for the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives about my experience working in the archives as an 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellow. Below, I break down my thought process (in italics and parentheses) as I drafted my post from scratch.
(I spent an entire week in August looking through Lisa Ben’s papers at the ONE. How could I possibly limit my reflection to just 500 words?)
What the Archive Taught Me (Shitty first draft title, but it prompts me to write a list)
Before my archive trip, I didn’t know that… (Gives my list a theme)
- Lisa Ben’s friendship with Forrest Ackerman. (Possible topic 1)
- Her father was a poet, too. (Possible topic 2)
- She kept track of all the sci-fi films she watched and stories she read throughout her entire life. (Possible topic 3. This one seems most interesting for a 500-word blog post, because I can write about the ways she did this the same task in both youth and in her older age)
So, now that I have my topic, I can use the one-inch picture frame and describe it in detail. I have crafted my own short assignment: write ~200 words on each example of Ben’s sci-fi tracking system (in youth and older), which leaves me ~100 words for an introduction and conclusion. Using the one-inch picture frame, I narrowed down the forest of a week’s worth of research to one interesting tree with two similar branches—a perfect scope for a 500-word blog post.
Justine Wise, creator of ThinkDigital, applies Lamott’s one-inch picture frame tool to productivity in his article “What Anne Lamott Can Teach Us About Productivity.” Wise uses the one-inch picture frame to build “momentum” when he feels stuck in overwhelm, focusing on four specific applications:
- Give yourself something small to focus on.
- Make your activities time bound.
- Batch unpleasant tasks.
- Quit while you’re ahead.
I’m particularly interested in points 2 and 4. Setting a time limit for a small, actionable assignment can maximize our efficiency. For example, if I give myself a whole evening to tidy up my apartment, I might waste 30 whole minutes on filing papers that really don’t need to be filed; but, if my friend says “Surprise, I’ll be there in 10 minutes!” then I’ll choose to clean the most important things (dishes, put away stray items) and simply stack the papers or avoid them all together. If I know option 2 will get me to a good level of clean, why don’t I just limit my tidying process to 10-15 minutes in the first place?
Similarly, quitting while I’m ahead means that I don’t over-clean/edit/design/preen/etc., which helps me to remember that good enough is good enough. As any creative will tell you, sometimes we actually make things worse by over-doing attempts to clean up or revise a creation. It’s good to know when to put a task away for the night, or at least for the time it takes to take a break and walk around the block.
Illysa Ducoat (LBC, FT), applies Lamott’s tool to emotional healing in her PsychCentral article, “Through the One-Inch Picture Frame.” Ducoat uses the physical image of a picture frame during her sessions to show her clients that they don’t need to do everything at once: “Our task is to help our clients shift the focus from plowing through to selecting what’s first, or next, and pace themselves to ensure success, not feeling overwhelmed.”
In fact, taking healing in small steps, or one-inch steps, can help clients to build new ways of thinking about what healing looks like and can help to squash our instinct to compare ourselves to others’ healing journies. Ducoat writes,
The idea of facing one’s trauma, one’s darkness, can be very daunting. It isn’t always the best idea to hold your nose and jump in. Sometimes, putting in a foot or even a toe is the best place to start. Every single person’s window of tolerance is different, and that’s OK. Remember, the picture frame is about managing our own expectations for ourselves as well. It doesn’t matter how your cousin or your friend faced their stuff. They’re not you. Only you can determine your healthy pace.
Remember: the one-inch picture frame method helps us to calm overwhelm by limiting our efforts to a first, actionable step. The more we do these steps, the closer we get to our goal. Below, I offer a few practices that you can apply or adapt in your own efforts to shift your perspective from vast overwhelm to specificity and success!
If you’re writing an article or a dissertation, you’re probably working with multiple methods, theories, cited material, analyses, etc. I know how overwhelming it can feel to sit down at your desk and face that blinking cursor. So, make the intentional decision to limit yourself to just one aspect, such as a definition or a close reading, for example filling in the blank in a sentence like “When I say discourse, I mean ___” or “When Lisa Ben was young, she liked to ____.” Think of this exercise as forming individual bricks that will eventually serve as the foundation for your larger project!
Got a task you’re not jazzed about? Set a timer. You can of course set an actual timer for, say, 20 minutes for one task, but you can also use pockets of “waiting” time for doing one-inch picture frame types of tasks, like putting away dishes, making the bed, tidying up your desk surface, picking out your outfit for tomorrow, packing a lunch, etc. If you can pair your one-inch picture frame task to a cue and enjoy the results afterwards, you can turn it into a habit! For example, when I’m running my bath at night, I use that limited time to scoop the kitty litter and take it out. My reward? A bath and two happy kitties.
Remember, healing is not linear. Those of us with chronic mental and/or physical health issues cannot snap our fingers and feel better—instead, we must make individual choices and changes, see how and if they improve our lives, and then adjust or hone, and finally celebrate our practice or honor our survival.
Try to pick just one of the following one-inch picture frame scale tasks and practice it for just one day, knowing that you really are making a change and committing to your healing.
- Drink more water.
- Use a positive mantra to guide your decision making.
- When someone asks you to do something, say “Let me get back to you” before you automatically say Yes.
- Catch yourself when you start to do negative self talk and choose not to feed into it (here are some tools you can use to help).
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.
If you want a little extra help with changing your habits, I’m currently accepting new one-on-one coaching clients. You can read more about my coaching practice here and email me to book a session. You can also download a FREE guide to habit formation and maintenance by subscribing to The Tending Letter in the pink box below this post.