What To Do When You Can’t

COVID-19 has been a rough ride. With so many experiencing mental, emotional, physical, and financial harm, I am greatly looking forward to the day when this will be behind us. In the meantime, like many of you, I’ve been watching webinars and listening to podcasts. While much of what I have heard has been helpful, I have found that traditional wisdom, particularly as it relates to time management and productivity, has not been quite as applicable. The reason for this has to do with what we “can” and “can’t” do right now.

Can’t is a broad term, and we tend to apply it to a variety of situations. In order to understand how to cope with “can’t,” it helps to first acknowledge that our use of the word tends to fall into one of the following three buckets:

Three buckets that describe three different definitions for the word can't.

BUCKET 1: Can’t = I don’t want to

In the world of productivity, these are items that we tend to procrastinate. It isn’t that we lack the ability to accomplish these tasks, it is simply that we don’t feel like taking action. Often, this is something unpleasant, like carrying a heavy bag of trash to the can in the garage or having a conversation with a prickly person. We use the phrase, “I just can’t” as a shortened form of, “I just can’t rally the energy, focus or desire to tackle that right now.” Strategies for breaking down large projects into smaller tasks, for initiating action, and for maintaining focus are all very helpful for this kind of situation.

BUCKET 2 Can’t = I don’t know how

Tasks that fall into this bucket are numerous, as are the strategies for tackling them. Generally, these are jobs we need to do, but we aren’t sure where or how to proceed. This might include things like writing a term paper, fixing a broken appliance, doing math homework, and applying for loans. We aren’t sure exactly what to do, so we set aside the responsibility as something we “just can’t do.” When we find ourselves in this position, we need to identify where the knowledge gap lies, and identify tangible next steps to get the answers we need to move forward.

BUCKET 3 Can’t = I am unable or am not allowed to

Things that fall into this bucket are tasks, chores, and actions that even with the best plans, intentions, and tools, we are not physically able to complete. For instance, most of us are not able to fly to the moon. Similarly, the majority of us – even with practice – will never be able to run a mile in under 4 minutes. In the days of coronavirus, most people are dealing with items in Bucket 3… and for many of us, this is a relatively new experience.

Back in the early and mid 20th Century, living with true “can’t” was more common. Generations lived through times of ration cards, bombings, movement restrictions, and economic disaster. Fortunately, recent times, while admittedly imperfect, have been comparatively better. On the whole, we’ve been able to move about, work, study, plan, and in many ways control our lives.

In contrast, over the past couple of months, there have been many things we simply have not had the freedom to do:

  • Get a haircut
  • Dash into the store to pick up bleach
  • Host a dinner party
  • Hop on a flight to visit family
  • Go on an in-person date
  • Shop in a local/non-essential store
  • Hang out with friends
  • Eat out at a favorite restaurant
  • Go to the movies
  • Attend class
  • Go to prom
  • Hold the hand of a dying loved one in the hospital

Fortunately, we seem to be moving toward once again being able to do many of these things. Still, the pace and manner in which we will be “returning to normal” will be slow and uneven. As a result, there may be items on our “to do” or “wish to do” lists upon which we simply cannot currently act. How should we respond when we run up against full-stop roadblocks?

I suggest three groups of questions to ask when you face a task that you cannot tackle at this current moment in time:

Re-evaluate Importance

  • How necessary is this?
  • Does it truly have to be done, or is it optional?
  • Is it physically, legally, and ethically possible to do this right now?
  • If not, can it wait another three months? Six months? Twelve months?

Consider Alternatives

  • How can I do this in a way other than the one I know?
  • What other approach could I take that might yield a “good enough” result, even if it is only temporarily?
  • What other experience or effort could I pursue that would give me a similar emotional payoff?
  • Can I pass this off to someone who is better positioned to deal with it right now?

Let It Go

  • Could I remove this task from my life and be ok?
  • Might this be the time to finally release this goal and find another that is more achievable?
  • Might I free myself of guilt if I remove this from my plate?

*     *     *     *     *

There may be some tasks that we need to simply set aside and plan to deal with later. Some may need to be approached with a work-around mindset. Still others may, upon close inspection, not warrant the weight of being carried into our future.

Can you think of anything you’ve been planning to do, cannot now do, and perhaps might decide to simply let go?

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31 thoughts on “What To Do When You Can’t”

  1. So many things that I truly cannot even list them right now. The one thing that comes to mind though is for my 5th grader, who was supposed to have all sorts of fun activities she was going to experience this spring culminating with graduating from elementary school. All of those things are now null and void as the school year has officially been ended in NY. They will continue to distance learn until the academic year ends, but going school in the actual building is done and over for this year. We are trying as best as we can to let it go but does hurt. I mean glad my family so far are all healthy, but still, the reality of losing out on all her special events is a bitter pill to swallow.
    Janine Huldie recently posted…5 Ways to Organize Your Home While Spending Time at HomeMy Profile

    1. Yes, it totally hurts. My heart breaks for all the students who are missing out on these important milestones and rites of passage. They only come around once, and you feel so bad that they won’t have a chance to make this up. I guess this becomes one of those “workaround” situations. Parents all over are trying to find other ways to celebrate. Sending love to you all, and I’m very sorry. I totally get it.

  2. Love the way we can sort “can’t” into many buckets. it makes me think what I can do instead.

    1. Perhaps more than ever, Lisa, we have the time and perspective to finally release things that aren’t serving us. Prioritize what matters most, and remove whatever else distracts you from it!

  3. Excellent thoughts and reflections! I think many of us are dealing with more adversity than ever before…in our freedoms as well as finances and hopes for the future!

    1. Yes, the finances situation is not to be underestimated at this time. People may have had plans to buy a second house or invest a college education, and they may now be in doubt. I think that is a reality for so many. I had hoped to improve my website, but now I think that may not be in the budget until next year. That’s just the way things go, right? We have to live in the reality in which we find ourselves, and pursue our top priorities as suits us best!

  4. Oh, Seana! I LOVE your “Can’t” buckets and the ways you broke down the different ways for delineating them. All of these resonate with me and make so much sense. Perhaps bucket #3 is at the top of my list right now. Life has taken a deep shift. Just going to buy groceries has become a production. It’s not that I can’t go, but it’s become a “thing” requiring more planning and mental energy than it used to. It’s the energy aspect that is a significant part of that third bucket. The look of productivity has shifted because so much of our world has changed too. It’s as if we are trying to do and accomplish something, as the ground beneath us is shaking and cracking. So we can move forward and get things done, but it takes longer, and we experience more difficulty focusing. That darn bucket #3!

    I find the images that you shared so useful. The next time I give myself grief over what I’m not doing, I’m going to conjure up the picture of bucket #3. Thank you so much for this one. Genius!

    1. I’m so glad it resonated with you, Linda! I totally hear you on the grocery store. You have to set aside a lot of time now, to stand outside and wait for your turn to go in. Once inside, you can’t be certain you will find what you need. It all takes so much more mental and physical energy for sure! Sometimes, we may simply feel that an item isn’t worth holding onto, that it no longer makes the priority list. Other times, we have to slug it out, at a new pace, under new circumstances, right? Happy to see that you and your family are all still well – stay healthy!

  5. Your ‘Can’t Bucket’ diagram visually broke down the reasoning behind each ‘can’t’ so clearly, all I could do is look at the screen and say, “Wow. So true.” Who would think that the two-word phrase, ‘I Can’t’ would have so many different meanings? Thanks for breaking it down for us.

    1. What a nice thing to say, Stacey. I hope it helps people dig down under the phrase and figure out what they really are saying, and hence what their next step should be!

  6. I was thinking there should be a 4th bucket for things we can’t bring ourselves to do, but I re-read your post and realized that’s covered in the 1st one. Procrastination isn’t always about being lazy; sometimes a lack of motivation has other causes. Great post and infographic – thank you!
    Janet Barclay recently posted…How to Create an Effective Contact PageMy Profile

    1. Yes, I completely agree. Procrastination has many causes, and laziness typically isn’t a good way of thinking about what is going on. As with all challenges, clearly articulating the problem makes finding next steps and solutions easier!

  7. This is wonderful, Seana! And the visual representation is perfect. One of the questions I ask myself is ‘may I?…’ do I have permission to … or is it allowed to… There are so many things that we may not do because our freedoms have been curtailed. As you say, they are starting to slowly be put back in place. I had a very unexpected text message yesterday confirming my hair appointment this week. I was stunned and so happy that they had decided to open. (Just to clarify, I’m in Georgia and the Governor has allowed hair salons to open – among other businesses). I don’t know what that experience will be like – I’m sure it will be different.
    Diane Quintana recently posted…Are You on Track to Accomplish Your Original Goals, Or Have They Changed?My Profile

    1. I’m sitting here feeling a bit jealous that you are going to get your hair done. The hair situation up here is pretty grim, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to address it! It’s been good that I haven’t been out and about much. Then again, I guess letting my roots show and looking a bit shaggy has sort of been part of my patriotic duty, right?

  8. I love this post! I find that I need to forgive myself for judging the “I can’t” I do to myself. I usually start my vegetable garden at the beginning of April. I went out and got some, planted them, and lost 50% of them due to the frost that happened. So, I decided it wasn’t necessary to replant them and am pushing this task to mid-May. My herb gardens are complete and doing well. Instead of adding veggies, I ended up clearing out and de-weeding the mulch beds.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Speed Up Weeknight Cooking ChallengeMy Profile

    1. I feel your pain, Sabrina. I’m up in CT and we are probably going to face a frost warning this upcoming weekend – the second weekend of May! Such a bummer. All I’ve got in my garden are some flowers and herbs, and I guess I’ll be waiting awhile before trying anything more.

  9. Your questions really made me think. What I’m realizing is that letting go of some of the things I can’t do is actually sweeter than I thought it would be. For instance, I can’t go to restaurants. dining was something I once loved to do. I never could have imagined eating out was something I would lose interest in. I also think I’ve let go some of the things I have absolutely no control over.

    1. I’ve been thinking about eating out as well. What I’ve realized is that I don’t miss having the food, I miss the experience of being out, seeing new faces, sitting face to face with friends & family, etc. Curbside pick-up is not a substitute for any of that. I’ve also been wondering if/when I will feel comfortable accepting the risk to go out again. In the meantime, I’ve been cooking a lot, and it has been something nice to think about1

  10. For me, when I say I can’t do something, most of the time it’s comes from bucket #1. I don’t want to do it. These are the things that stay on my to-do list for too long. I finally decide :not to do it, delegate it if possible, or just bucket down and do it.

    1. I have had a variety of things in this bucket, and during this crazy time I’ve been thinking about many of them. Like you, I have chosen to simply remove a few from the list. Unfortunately, not everything can be “deleted,” but there are some, and it feels freeing to let these tasks go.

  11. I can’t completely let go of my son’s homeschooling though goodness knows I want to! It’s only Tuesday and I’ve had to recreate a 16th century painting “with items from around the house to keep it simple” (ha!), make a guitar out of a kleenex box, paint kindness rocks, and do a fitness challenge with him for his PE credit. Soooo, I’m letting the housework go a little. The dust will still be there in another month! Thanks for keeping it real with this post, Seana. 🙂

    1. Oh man, Sarah. You are really deep in it. I’m sure today’s official closure of schools for the duration was not welcome news. I hope you are connected with some other Moms so you can share the struggle. Dust will be there until the second coming, so it can definitely wait!

  12. I love the way this clarifies things, Seana. Almost none of my “can’t” items are in bucket 3. Even the things we can’t do or aren’t allowed to do, we can find a way around. Though, trust me, you don’t want me to cut my (or your) bangs. But I have a short but compelling list of things I don’t want to do, and a moderate list of things that I want to do but have a knowledge gap…but the effort to span the gap is an “I don’t wanna.” This is why professional organizers need professional organizers like therapists need therapists!
    Julie Bestry recently posted…Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? 5 Strategies to Cope With Pandemic Time DilationMy Profile

    1. Yes, we all need people to help get us moving and provide needed information. I guess the list of “can’ts” sort of depends on where you live. Out here in the suburbs of NYC, it feels like there are many things I cannot do, and that has been hard. Even as I look ahead, for example, for wanting to see my daughter in Arizona, I’m not sure. Her schedule has been changed, and travel has been changed, so I don’t know when I will see her in person. I have to wait. Such an unusual time for sure!

  13. It’s true — pinpointing which bucket of “I can’t” we are talking about determines the next step: what to do about it. (Let it go, delegate it, ask for help, etc.)

    1. Sometimes we say I “can’t,” as if we are out of control of the next step, when in fact we actually can. This has been an interesting time, where many things actually cannot be done. It’s been hard and frustrating. Many of the resources I normally employ are either not working, or are working in a limited capacity. In these cases, we may be able to identify a workaround, but there may be some things that are best dropped from the list.

  14. Some of mine is like you said – things we literally cannot do – by law or because they’re closed. And some of mine is just being pregnant or anxious. I love the different meanings of can’t, though. How often do we just give up on something and say, “I just can’t, guys. I just can’t!” Like you said again, in fact, we actually can. I just don’t want to!
    I haven’t been getting my eyebrows done or my hair trimmed/colored, and in fact, I really don’t need to be doing those things. I’ve let go.. for now.

    1. I don’t even think we should discuss the state of hair right now… it’s pretty grim LOL! But as you said, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve decided to consider my lack of grooming to be my patriotic duty:)

  15. Pingback: Where Did The Time Go? | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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