Great results, can be achieved with small forces. ~ Sun Tsu, The Art of War
Sometimes when it all seems too much, we need to distil all-the-things down to their essence. We need to simplify, to find a tangible anchor for the chaos of change or a reassuring system to help us bear the weight of pressure.
1940s Hungarian communist leader Mátyás Rákosi coined the term szalámitaktika or ‘salami tactics’. In order to gradually amass power, little bit by little bit, the idea is to attack a huge goal one tiny and deliberate slice at a time. When applied to big tasks or bold goals, szalámitaktika reflects the cliched saying ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ It’s also reminiscent of Bill Murray’s title character in the 1991 film What About Bob? whose therapist prescribes him ‘baby steps’ to help him get through his day by focusing on literally putting one foot in front of the other. These simple approaches helped me to trudge my way through the work of a PhD. One step, one bite, one slice at a time.
At the moment educators in Australia are coming towards the end of our school year. Many of us dream that this is the time of year that we wind down, gently relaxing towards the summer holidays in a slow-motion dance of joyful teaching and leisurely planning for the next school year. Insert cocktail-drink-with-umbrella emoji.
The reality is that this time of year, for many of us, is manic, overwhelming and crushing in its pace and pressure. My way of dealing with the current mania is by tackling my to-do-lists with military precision and the salami-tactics baby-steps approach. My main arsenal in this operation? Trello? Spreadsheets? A wall of IdeaPaint scrawled with notes? No. It’s a stack of Post-Its.
The humble Post-It, an accidental invention born from a failed adhesive, has potent power. When Steve Jobs died in 2011, around the world people posted Post-It note messages on the windows of Apple Stores around the world. The Apple Store in Munich created a mural of Jobs’ face out of 4001 Post-Its. This month, these jewel-like beacons have been used in Subway Therapy in Manhattan, a post-US-election project incited by artist Matthew Chavez. Chavez set up a tunnel in the NYC Subway as a public art space onto which anyone could post their messages of support, optimism or hopelessness.
Post-Its can be used for collaboration. I’ve enjoyed getting staff or students to use them to draw together and reorganise ideas. Post-Its can be used for annotation, communication, display, feedback, personal notes and even for delight. Last year, a colleague was having a rough week. I took multi-coloured packets of Post-Its and covered her computer monitor with Post-It messages of ‘you can do it’ and ‘you’re awesome!’ and other such platitudes. It was silly enough to lift my colleague’s spirits. She left those notes there for some time.
But what I’m using Post-Its for now is to anchor me, organise me and help me cope with multiple work streams. I’ve used a Post-It note system for some time. I write a weekly or long-term to-do list on a Post-It, or more often a series of notes, and post them up in front of my desk. Sometimes I also have one or more desktop Post-Its going; these are my short term lists.
Importantly, as I complete tasks, I cross things off the Post-It list and triumphantly screw the Post-It up and throw it in the bin when the to-dos are done. The triumphant scrunching and tossing into the bin is an important ritualistic part of this method. It is in the closing of the fist, the flourish of the wrist and watching the note hit the trash that I feel a sense of accomplishment. This year I tried to move to a notepad system, but found that the notepad pages were too big; each could house an overwhelming list of to-dos that grew and grew and never seemed to be done. I could cross them off but I never felt that I was getting near the end of the list. I felt more despair and less success. I returned to Post-Its. They are small. They lend themselves to being do-able.
When I have a lot on the go at once, I adjust my Post-It system. Post-Its can be moved around and re-arranged. I can have different Post-Its for different categories of work. I can colour-code. I currently have a series of long-term and daily Post-Its on the go, but their manageable size means that I can feel a sense of accomplishment when I ‘finish’ one, or I can re-organise my thinking on a new note or series of notes.
My whole year has been about momentum, about putting one foot in front of the other, about being in motion. By deploying Post-It notes with military precision and ninja-like agility (or so I imagine), I am able to slice off one piece of salami, one bite of elephant, at a time. These unexceptional adhesive squares give me something tangible to hold onto in times of intense work. Their modest size allows me to celebrate small, daily successes, and I can breathe deeper and easier as I slowly watch my to-do lists dwindling, changing, or at least becoming more manageable.
It’s the little things.