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Affirmative action often begins with a list, writing down your stated goals on paper.

In everyone's life, there comes a time when it will seem like a good idea, whether it's to fulfil a childhood dream or whether it's on your 'Honeydo' list1. Of course you don't do it every day, so you might have no idea where to start, which is where these instructions will come in handy. It might not make you an expert, but you'll know more than you did before!

Think On It

It sounds silly and sappy, but the first thing you need is to want to do it. It's no good if you're so frightened of doing it that you'll never get started, and even worse if you're afraid of succeeding - you'll sabotage yourself subconsciously. So whether it's because of peer pressure or a promise, or whether it's simply about time you did it - convince yourself that you want to, and it will be much easier.

That doesn't mean you should surround yourself with motivational posters. It does mean that if there's a problem holding you back - if you're anxious about any of the steps you'll need to take, or if you simply don't even know where to begin - you'll need to acknowledge that getting past the problem is part of the task in hand.

It may not be much like riding a bicycle, baking a cake, solving quadratic equations or giving a massage, but you'll find you'll have some transferrable skills - you know how to do a variety of things already, so learning the techniques for one more will be easier than if you had to start from the very beginning. Just imagine learning to paint if you didn't know how to control the muscles in your hands!

Breaking Down The Problem

Get a piece of paper - alternatively, if it's a simple problem, just run through this process in your head. Visualising what you need to do will help you figure out where to start and how to proceed.

  1. Write down your goal at the centre top of the page.

  2. Now, break it down into steps, starting with the goal!2 What needs to happen for it to get done? What do you need to do to get to that point? Don't be too detailed, just write down the key words.

  3. If you get to a point that has two prerequisites, just split the list. For example, 'send a birthday present to my auntie' would require wrapping it and bringing it to the post office - but you'll need to get both the gift itself and the items required for wrapping it before you do that, as well as her current address!

  4. Work your way through the problem until you've broken it down entirely - now you have a handy description of what needs to be done, and can simply work your way up the list backwards! You'll be surprised how many steps will seem relatively simple, and you'll be able to see exactly where you're having trouble.

  5. If you get to a step you don't know how to do, and don't know how to break down, circle it in red and leave some space under it to write the results of your research.

Now that you know which steps need to be undertaken, you can tick off the ones for which you have the materials and knowledge. Then go through the list again and find the ones for which you're just missing the materials, and at least note down what you need and where and how to get it. Finally, go through it again for the steps that are still giving you trouble, and try to break down those steps into sub-steps. Identify the problem. What don't you know how to do? Or maybe you do know how, but don't know the official term for it? Look up any unfamiliar words using any resources you happen to have lying around. And then, if all else fails, get researching!


Many problems can be solved by simply thinking about them - but many can not. You may not have the experience or the knowledge to figure out something that may seem obvious to a professional - so go ask them! You can do this indirectly - by reading a book or an article someone has written on the subject as a kind of FAQ3, or actively, by going out and asking someone. There are many wonderful resources at your disposal:

  • The library:

      This will either seem obvious or far too old-fashioned - but knowledge of the more specialised sort is still best found at the library. If you don't find the book you need, there will be friendly librarians to help you sort through the vast amounts of data, or you can probably order a book from another library. If it's a subject you'll be dealing with often, or a protracted project, consider buying the books that you'll need, so you won't have to worry about returning them on time and in pristine condition.

  • The Internet:

      If you want information quickly, cheaply, privately, and from the convenience of your own home, you can't beat the Internet. Someone will have written about nearly any subject, and that information is fairly easy to find if you know how to search for it. Use different search engines and different keywords to track down what you need to know. You'll probably get the most relevant sites if you search using American English, simply because that's how most of it will be written. If you're looking for directions for something particular to one country or people - a recipe, for example - it helps if you speak their language well enough to search in it and understand the results!

      You should, however, keep in mind that much of what you read on the net should be taken with a grain of salt - though these techniques may have worked for the author, they are most likely not checked by any editor, and may be inaccurate, geared toward getting you to buy or use a certain product, dangerous, or even illegal. Also, the Internet is a worldwide resource, and what works well under the conditions found in one country may not work in yours! Learn to distinguish how relevant the information is and how likely it is to be accurate.

  • Ask around:

      Most of the people who are good at something never get around to writing about it, especially if writing is not their main skill-set - so you'll have to ask them if you want their help. This can be done 'live' - talk to your friends, family, and acquaintances, or chat with anyone you meet whom you suspect may be knowledgeable - or again via the Internet, where you can ask total strangers for help without their taking offence. The more you already know about your subject, so you can ask for specific advice, and the more suited the place where you're asking - it's unlikely that you'll find many experts on knitting in a skateboarding forum - the more you're likely to be successful. Just remember to be polite and ask rather than demand, and you'll find there are a lot of people willing to show off their knowledge!

  • Take lessons:

      Some things simply can't be taught purely theoretically - and some just shouldn't be. Taking lessons from someone knowledgeable is not only a good way to learn a practical skill, it's also a good way to meet like-minded people and have a bit of fun! Since your lesson will probably be scheduled, and someone else's time (and possibly your money) will be involved, you'll have a greater incentive to actually get to work. This option also means that you probably won't have to buy special equipment until you've tried out your new skill and know whether you'll be able and willing to continue in future.

  • Once you know:

      When you've successfully completed the project, do return the courtesy and let others partake of your new-found knowledge! Don't run around badgering people about it - but you might try writing it down - perhaps as an h2g2 Entry - or returning to the forums where you got advice, to help others who are asking or even just to thank the ones who helped you!

Getting To Work

Ready to start? Think you're ready to start? Then go, and the best of luck to you!

If It Doesn't Matter

If the only thing that will be damaged if you don't succeed right from the start is your pride, and if all you stand to lose is a few hours and a bit of pocket change, then just go experiment! Take the list that you've made, start at the bottom, and simply work your way up to the desired outcome. If something doesn't work out right, you'll know which step is the problem, and can set about refining that one. You may not be using all the 'right' methods, and it may take you a bit longer than if you knew exactly what you were doing, but you'll get there in the end - and if not, you can always go back and do more research.

Just remember to use your common sense and apply all the usual basic safety rules - anything involving heat, explosives, heights, sharp implements, electricity, toxic substances, or living animals should be undertaken with great care. Take into account any advice you were given, because whoever gave it to you probably had very good reasons for passing on exactly that little gem of knowledge.

If It Does Matter

If you're doing something that can be dangerous, overly expensive, or have other long-term repercussions if it's done wrong, don't do it until you know what you're doing. This is very important. You may think that it's 'only' yourself who can be damaged if you fall off a ladder, but do you have the money for potential high medical bills, or for replacing your neighbour's prize begonias? It's not a sign of bravery to refuse help if you need it - it's a sign of stupidity.

There's always the option of letting someone else do it. There may not be much glory in it, and you may think you can't afford it - but if the alternatives are not getting it done at all or causing serious damage and still having to pay someone to do it, you may find that you have no choice. Some things are best left to professionals anyway. If it's just a case of your not knowing how to do it, ask to watch or offer to help whomever you hire! You may learn enough to do it yourself next time.

If it seems too expensive, there's room for creativity here too. You probably have skills that someone else could use - so why not barter? Babysit your friend's children for a day if she'll build a swing for yours. Paint your neighbour's garage in exchange for some help with your computer. And remember - money is just a more elegant way of bartering. If it would take you longer to do the project than to earn the money to pay someone else to do it to a professional standard, is it really that bad not to do it yourself?

1The 'Honey, will you please...' list made by someone's (probably American) significant other. Not to be confused with the 'Roundtoit' list, a different species entirely!2Yes, you should plan backwards, with the last thing to be done at the start of the list.3Frequently Asked Questions.

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