I’m starting this post on a Friday, which is much later in the week than I usually like. I’ve been on the road, and this just kept falling further and further down on my list of priorities. It would be pretty ironic if the first time I missed a posting deadline was when I was writing a post about Executing on daily tasks.
Ironic, but not out of the ordinary. Because for me, this is definitely the hardest part. Don’t get me wrong – on some days, once I’ve got my day planned out and my tasks prioritized, I just start with the “1”s and knock them out.
But not always. Sometimes I’ll knock out that first “1”, then maybe the second. And then a certain tasks stops me in my tracks. I hesitate. I start looking down the list at the other tasks. The “2”s and the “3”s, tasks that I know for a fact aren’t as important because I evaluated them in the cold, sober light of the morning… they start to look enticing. I start to think about how good it might feel to cross those off, make the whole list a bit smaller. They have to get done anyway – is it really that important that I do these things in the right order?
Yes. It’s incredibly important. In fact, it’s everything. It really comes down to one, simple idea:
If you truly want to be more productive, you have to learn how to do things when you don’t feel like it.
I can be downright masterful at avoiding the task at hand. I can get busy with other less important tasks. I can engage in Pavlovian activities in exchange for quick dopamine hits, like getting up for water or coffee, chatting with a co-worker, scrolling through my phone, organizing my desk. But eventually there comes a time when even I can no longer fool myself… when my desk is clean, my other tasks are crossed off, the deadline is approaching and there is nothing between me and the task at hand other than the fact that I don’t want to do it.
And of course, the only way to get past this is to actually do what I’m supposed to do. Yes, it’s hard. But 90% of the time the hardest part, the greatest point of resistance, is the start. It can be suffocating. To quote Shakespeare,
“Between the acting of a dreadful thing and the first motion, all the interim is like a phantasma or a hideous dream.”
Ok that might be a little dramatic if all we’re talking about doing my timesheet at the end of the day. But seriously, how often in life do we encounter things that we know we should do and we just don’t do them? Is there anything we can do, other than, as the Nike slogan goes, “Just Do It?”
No. “Just Do It” is actually the only answer.
But I have developed a few strategies to help me get started on those days where doing it seems impossible.
Break it down. Sometimes I avoid a task because it seems like too big of a thing to handle. I might see it as a three-hour task, and so I tell myself I’ll wait until I have a three-hour block of time to do it. Ha! In my experience, three-hour time-blocks don’t typically fall out of thin air. Sometimes if I really need to do something, I’ll break it into smaller tasks, with the first task in particular being really small. For example, the first task might be, “Open this spreadsheet, this email and this PDF file at the same time.” And see what happens.
Study the problem. If I really can’t figure out why I’m stuck on something, sometimes I’ll give myself permission to stop and take a step back. I’ll open a word document, set a timer for 5 minutes (the timer is important: I don’t want to spend too much time on this), and I’ll just start writing about it. Almost like a journal entry, a sort of letter to myself asking why the hell this is taking me so long. It might start off, “Man, this has been on my to-do list for two weeks and I have no idea why I’m resisting it so much. I know that so-and-so is going to be disappointed if I don’t get it done by Friday. The problem is I just really don’t understand why…”
And that’s usually when I figure it out.
When I write a sentence starting out with “The problem is…” I know I’m getting somewhere. Maybe I’m avoiding a confrontation. Maybe I don’t understand the need for the task and I’m worried about looking stupid if I ask about it. Maybe I’ve put it off so long that I’ve forgotten some important details. Writing it out brings clarity, allows me to forgive myself for these rational (but ultimately bad) excuses, and move forward.
The 5 Second Rule. If you’re really stuck, check out this book by Mel Robbins:
My wife read this for work, I picked it up and it was a great read. If you want the cliff notes, check out her TED Talk:
From the moment that you have the idea… you’ve only got five seconds to take action, otherwise it’s gone.
The exercise is simple: if you want to do something, as soon as it enters your head just start counting down, from five to one, and then push yourself forward. Yes, it sounds cheesy. But I’m telling you, it works. In particular, I find that it’s helpful to 1) count down out loud, and 2) at the end of the countdown, engage in some physical act toward the task at hand (ex. open the email, pick up the phone, get up from my chair). I’ve used it for everything from initiating tough conversations to getting out of bed in the morning.
I certainly don’t have this all figured out. I still put things off, but I’m trying to get better. Call it grit, call it discipline, call it whatever you want, but it takes practice. The only way to get better at doing things when you don’t feel like it is to do things when you don’t feel like it, again and again.
How much better would your life be if you just did the things you knew you were supposed to do?
So just do it!