If you ride a bike (I don’t ride a bike) your bike probably has gears. And you will know that there is no “best” gear on your bike.
Sometimes it is “best” to be in a lower gear. Sometimes it is “best” to be in a higher gear. It depends on the terrain and the conditions of your ride.
With STUFF you will divide your regular tasks, chores and/or expectations into different “gears”. There is no best gear to be in. But depending on the “terrain” and “conditions” of your life at the time it may be better to be in a lower or higher gear.
STUFF is divided into five gears. But it doesn’t have to be five. Maybe you need a more granular system. Maybe you don’t need or want as many different sets of things to maintain and you may just stick with two or three.
Don’t feel pressured to have exactly five gears. It’s all about what works for you.
When things become almost impossibly hard you know you’ll need to use your Survival gear. The most important things to do are the things you must do in order to survive the day. If you don’t do these things you will have almost immediate problems which will make life even harder.
You need to feed yourself and anyone who is dependent on you (including, but not limited to, children and pets).
You need to take any medicine that you need (and ensure that anyone who is dependent on you also takes any medicine that they need).
There are many things which are bad to neglect in the long term but are probably fine if you skip today. Not brushing your teeth might lead to cavities and expensive and painful dental work in the future. But it’s probably fine if you don’t brush your teeth or have a shower for one day.
When you are in survival mode you need to do the things you NEED to do. Leave everything that isn’t vital for your immediate survival.
When you are not in survival gear it might be time to assess your task list and work out which things are your Survival Gear so that if and when you end up here you already know what you have to do and don’t have to make any decisions.
Getting out of it
Survival Gear is unsustainable. You can’t stay here long term. You might not be able to stay here for more than a day or so.
It’s easy to think “tomorrow will be better” and then struggle even more when it isn’t. All of your Treading Water tasks will build up and cascade, sooner or later, into disaster.
When you are in Survival gear you may need help to get out. This is when to call in for help if you can.
At a time when you’re NOT in survival gear make sure you remind yourself that it’s okay to ask for help at this time. It’s okay to ask for help at any time! But when you’re in Survival gear is when you really need to ask for help. But when you’re in Survival gear you might not feel like it’s okay because you’re overwhelmed with shame and guilt. So try, if you can, to let your higher-gear self instruct your lower gear-self to seek help. Or at least give them permission.
Your priority in the Survival gear is to survive. Do the things you need to do to still be here tomorrow or next week.
The Treading Water gear is where you go when things are very hard and possibly likely to continue so for some time. Things aren’t going to get better in the immediate future but you still need to get through the days, and possibly weeks ahead.
As well as all of your Survival Gear tasks you need to make sure to keep up with anything that, if neglected, may cascade into chaos or further difficulty.
Some things get harder the longer you don’t do them. If you don’t do the dishes today then you might not be able to prepare food. If you don’t do the dishes today they will be harder to do because all of the food will get crusted on and the dishes will pile up and there will be more of them. Doing the dishes for two (or three or more) days is much harder than doing the dishes for one day.
If you work you might be able to take one day off here and there but if you stop going to work entirely you will not have a job. That could definitely make things much more difficult!
Some things don’t really get harder if you neglect doing them. Sure your floor might get sticky and your things might get dusty and maybe your sheets will get smelly. But it’s not more difficult to wash bedsheets that have been on your bed for four weeks compared with bedsheets that have been on your bed for one week.
When you’re Treading Water prioritise the tasks which need to be done to make sure that tomorrow isn’t even harder than today.
Getting Out Of It
Treading Water can be very hard work and if you’re here long term it might be because you don’t have the capacity to do anything extra.
Sometimes after being in this gear for a while you’ll regain enough energy or cognitive capacity to reach more stable ground. Sometimes you just need the storm to pass. For the season to change or to find a less stressful living situation.
By focusing on what needs to be done to get through the day we hope to regain the capacity to make the changes that you need to change in order move into the Usual gear.
Sometimes you need to re-assess your task list and admit that, actually, this is the Usual Gear for now.
Your priority in the Treading Water gear is to make sure you don’t slip down into the Survival gear if you can manage it. You try to do the things which mean that tomorrow won’t be any harder than today.
It’s vital that you include some leisure activities in your Treading Water gear. Give yourself a daily task to do something just for fun. It might be more important to play a fun and relaxing video game for an hour than it is to vacuum the floor. Because if the weight of uncompleted chores makes you feel to guilty about having Fun Times you’re going to find things even more difficult than they have to be.
This is where you usually are. And these are the things you usually do.
This list will be different for everyone. Some people are able to do more than others. Some people are able to do less. Some people will Usually go to work or school. Some people are not able to do that usually.
Your Usual list might look like someone else’s Treading Water. Your Usual might even look like someone else’s Survival. Someone else’s Usual list may look like your Fulfilling list. Or Future list. Or be completely unattainable.
That’s okay. This is about you and what is Usually manageable for you.
I don’t have examples for this list. I don’t know your life or your lifestyle or your capacity or your goals.
These are the things you Usually are able to manage and do reliably.
Sometimes you have a really good day. Or a good week. Maybe you have some time off work. Maybe you’re in a relationship which gives you energy and inspiration.
And sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do with that time. You have so many options! So many ideas for things you wanted to try or start at some point… which do you choose?
By preparing in advance for this situation, you will be in a better position to utilise that energy in a way that makes you feel great!
But most importantly, remember that this is a great time to assess or re-assess your other gears. Use that excess capacity to have a look at your usual gear and think about whether it’s got the right things in it. Check out your Treading Water and Survival gears and see if you’ve got your priorities right. Be kind to Future You who may not be in a position to make (good) decisions. And also be realistic – you don’t want to put too much pressure on Future You at a time where they may not be able to cope with it.
Staying in it
Look. I don’t think there’s a reliable way to make sure of this. Sometimes things get hard again. They just do. And that’s okay. Try to be prepared for that!
Future & More
You may have long term goals or plans that aren’t really daily or regular tasks. The “Future” gear is where you put those things.
Sometimes your set of gears may change permanently or long term. Maybe you leave a relationship, work or living situation which was causing ongoing stress. Maybe an illness you have gets treated, you start a new medication which really helps or you get a mobility aid or support worker which takes some pressure off leaving you with more time, energy or emotional capacity to do more things.
If your Fulfilling gear becomes your Usual (amazing!) you’ve already got your ideas for what goes in your new Fulfilling gear (and don’t forget to re-assess your lower gears and make sure they still make sense for your life).
Fulfilling and Future both start with F. There’s not really a firm border between them. And there really can be as much graduation between these as you need. Maybe you have many different levels of F! Maybe you just have one and work with STUF. That’s fine too.
Being in the wrong gear
Gear Too Low
If you’re in too low a gear you’re not doing as much or the right things that you could be doing. And that can lead to feeling bad about yourself. You may feel lazy or feel guilty because you know you could be doing more.
Uncompleted tasks may build up and make you feel bad and overwhelmed. Which may all of a sudden mean that lower gear is the right one to be in and you missed out on being in a higher one when you should have been.
However it’s easy to feel lazy, bad or guilty when you actually are doing as best you can and you’re in the right gear after all. I’m sorry. I can’t tell you which is which. But please try and be kind to yourself either way.
Gear Too High
It’s easy to think that once you gain enough momentum you’ll be able to coast through the harder times. When I first developed the gear system I certainly assumed that if I got things right, if I set my expectations at exactly the right level I would keep progressing upward indefinitely. Because I’d never be held back by all of the things I’d left undone I’d be able to just keep being able to do more and more…
That didn’t happen. But what I discovered was that as I’d had those different sets of expectations for myself in the past I was able to pretty smoothly “change gears” back down again.
Being in too high a gear means you won’t be able to do everything you think you should do. That can make you feel lazy, guilty and ashamed. By adjusting your expectations as your capacity to do things changes you can minimise how bad you feel about either not doing “enough”, or not being able to do “enough”.
Okay but… how do I do this?
What am I actually putting in these ‘gears’, exactly!?
For me I mostly use it to manage my expectations for my household tasks, chores and daily or regular things I want to do. I’d like to exercise 3 or 4 times a week. But when I’m not in a great place I know that it’s more important to exercise one time than it is to to feel too bad about not doing enough that I don’t do any exercise at all.
Where do I put all this?
I wish I could give you the perfect system or app where you can track everything in a seemless way. But I don’t believe that exists.
The best tracking system is one that you keep using.
Maybe it’s a bullet journal with a page, or pages, where you write out your different lists.
Maybe it’s Habitica or Todoist with different tags for different gears. Maybe it’s just all in your head!
Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your past self, your present self and your future self.
Maybe you’re coping great right now. Maybe you’re not coping at all. But feeling bad won’t help you feel better, and shame is a terrible motivator.