In Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott recounts her late father’s advice to her brother:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’
I’m guessing that nearly all of us have had this experience of overwhelm—whether it’s something “big” like navigating a major life change or something “small” like piles of laundry we can’t seem to deal with. In each case, “bird by bird” is sound advice. Pick up a t-shirt, fold it, start a pile. Repeat. T-shirt by t-shirt.
The high school students I work with on their college application essays often feel overwhelmed. I don’t know where to start. How many essays do I need to write? How can I possibly do this on top of everything else on my list?
I help students tackle their essays, bird by bird. First, we brainstorm, come up with ideas. Then they write one paragraph, then another and another. A draft emerges. Suddenly the pile is a little less daunting. We keep working, bird by bird, deadline by deadline, until they’ve hit SUBMIT for the final time.
Bird by bird. The perfect recipe to defeat overwhelm.