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In Praise of Tiny Triumphs

WorldIn Praise of Tiny Triumphs

Spring arrives, and with it, a semi-annoying, semi-invigorating mandate to spring clean — to clear out spaces both physical and psychological. Because I am constantly looking for reasons to get rid of old things, old ways of thinking and being that have outstayed their usefulness, I’m drawn to spring cleaning as an annual rite.

But because I am also constantly reckoning with a pesky sense of dread regarding obligations of any size, I also find the concept of spring cleaning over-ambitious and intimidating. On days when routine chores like going to the post office or separating the laundry feel like punishments, the project of vacuum-sealing sweaters in mothproof storage bags seems unfeasible.

A friend was telling me about readying for a twice-a-year neighborhood yard sale, how she had begun decluttering in anticipation of the event. I felt a mix of excitement (it’s that time of year again!) and panic (it’s that time of year and, once again, I have waited too long to call the accountant!). Then she mentioned how accomplished she felt after sewing a button on a shirt to ready it for the sale.

I started thinking about those tiny things we put off, the little tasks that aren’t necessarily arduous, but for whatever reason — they’re not part of our regular routines, we don’t have to do them to function — we procrastinate getting done. When we actually do them, the sense of relief we experience is almost transcendent.

Take sewing a button on a shirt. Yes, the shirt has been out of commission for four years, but it’s OK, you rationalized, you have other shirts and always more pressing things to do. But when you actually sit down and sew the stupid button, you feel an outsize sense of achievement that’s totally disproportionate to the effort and time expended. Look at your handiwork! And now you have another shirt!

I started making a list of these tasks, the endlessly put-off, tiny things that occupy space at the bottom of the mind’s running to-do list. Shining shoes. Repotting plants. Sharpening knives. Getting the car washed. I made chicken stock recently from scraps that had been sitting in the freezer for months. I felt a sense of accomplishment that I can only compare to what someone might experience after lifting a car off a trapped child.

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