The Can-Do List
My chaotic method for getting into motion
For the last seven years, my partner and I dreamed of distant shores and destinations unknown. The first step was buying a boat. The second was making it ocean-worthy.
When COVID confined us to living and working in our 36’ sailboat, we decided it was time to get off the dock. We began preparing in earnest to take the big left turn out of the Golden Gate Bridge. Our vessel is 42 years old and the project list overflowed with upgrades and replacements. My partner and I were abuzz, learning and applying new techniques that couldn’t fail in deep ocean waters and harsh weather.
We tackled many projects around work schedules, turning our small living and working space into a construction zone. In the spring, Azimuth spent two weeks as a fish out of water. Our skills spanned electrical, plumbing, rigging (fiber art!), and more. By the end, the repetition of learning new methods had everything feeling like some sort of arts and crafts.
For all the progress we were making, one project loomed large and spanned our scheduled time in the yard - installing eleven big hunks of specialty bronze called “thruhulls”, intentional holes that go…through the hull. Drilling a hole in a boat feels decidedly nonsensical. These allow grey water to exit and seawater to enter for engine cooling or desalination to potable water. The boat would still sink without getting this project right.
We found enjoyable rhythms within the dawn to dusk work. The winding commute down and up Mount Tam, the cute roadside stop for breakfast sandwiches and picking priorities. Sunset beers on Fridays with the boatyard guys. Continuing work under the lights as everyone left for the night. Days started and ended in wool sweaters, peeled off in the height of the day. We were surrounded by old boats and experienced folks passing along helpful tips and nudges of encouragement. There was a sweet yellow lab who had sailed from Australia and often stared out over the bay. Our favorite day was spent at a nearby park assembling rigging with a friend.
For years, my inclination was to dwell in the planning stage, diagraming dependent steps, talking through who does what and when. While in the yard, my approach shifted by necessity and I fell into making can-do lists.
I was getting nowhere telling myself, “today I’ll install x,y,z” or “next Wednesday this will be done”. I decided to focus on the inputs rather than the outputs and attuned to the tiny steps that got me moving to a new vantage point. Extraordinarily messy lists became my spell for casting aside analysis paralysis. Here’s how it works:
Grab any scrap of paper. I’m partial to large legal pads.
Think on your big projects: plans for your self, dwelling, relationships, community, biome.
Add list items that are only one step away from where you are now.
As tasks are completed, scratch them. Messier the better.
The list is done when everything is crossed off or the paper is exhausted or you are just ready for a fresh batch. My characteristicly sloppy cursive adds a certain flare that reads incremental progress over perfectionism.
Writing this sort of list activates my brain to go in small and steady. It encourages adding gathering items and know-how, rather than just the finish line. I sit down and rattle off things to Google, how-to videos to watch, supplies to order, clearing space to work, advice to request, demolition, measurements, setting out all the supplies needed, and other tiny next steps in front of me. Drinking water has made the list, so has taking breaks. While in the yard, I was doing this every day.
This menu of options boosts my confidence and mood, knowing that I am prepared for any of them. Over time my capacity for envisioning the small steps has grown too.
Time in the boatyard taught me about staying on course when the work feels impossible or unknowable.
These days the newscycle of catastrophes shifts quickly on our screens and in our communities. We see calls to action to leave voicemails for senators, to pump more dollars as the antidote to the crisis of the day. These levers are ours to pull, and I’m curious about other ways to engage our time and creativity. To go in small and steady.
My offering is handful of “can-do” items at the end of each newsletter. Here are a few:
Find a space outdoors you are comfortable lingering in for a moment. Stay until you observe at least five living things.
Follow your reading preferences to a new book from Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, and other Black and Indigenous writers with these flowcharts created by A Room of One’s Own, a bookstore in Madison, Wisconsin.
Take a peek at competitive midterm elections near you with Swing Left. I emailed a campaign a little bit about me and some things I could do to help, and got started from there. (thanks for the suggestion, Sara!)
Grab a scrap of paper and try a can-do list of your own. What tiny actions can you take towards your/our big work?
I too love your writing style. I am partial to graph paper. And, scratching out my accomplished tasks (big or small)…what a feeling!
Lots of good tips, especially the legal pad. Love your writing!