A Bakers’ Dozen of Strategies for Dealing with a Task That Seems Overwhelming

September 28, 2009 at 4:18 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Goal Progress, Productivity | Leave a comment

Feel free to creep along like this little dude -- just take a step, no matter how small.

Feel free to creep along like this little dude -- just take a step, no matter how small.

Everyone’s done it: gazed gloomily at a do list or inbox task and thought, “It’s hopeless. I don’t know where to start, and even if I did I would never finish this hellacious task.” The frightening item can be anything from brushing your teeth to mopping the floor to writing your dissertation; whatever it is, the following strategies consistently help me to get started, and often to finish.

1. This is the most important strategy, a veritable Secret to Success: break an overwhelming task into tiny, tiny pieces, then tell yourself that you only have to do the first step. I’m not talking smallish steps like “cook dinner.” I’m talking, “1. Take out the cookbook; 2. Find the recipe; 3. Take down the ingredients and arrange them on the counter.” And so on. You get the point. Sometimes taking down the cookbook is all you’ll manage, but chances are, once you take that first step, you’ll develop just enough momentum to keep you going to the end. Write those steps down; if you try to keep them in your head they will just become all jumbled, and you’ll feel overwhelmed again in no time.

To give another example, I’m trying to install my programmable thermostat, a job that everyone tells me is simple if only you turn off the circuit breaker so that you don’t electrocute yourself. (Electrocution would complicate things significantly.) So far the massive steps I’ve taken are: “Look at the circuit box and find the right breaker” and “Remove thermostat from packaging.” No matter. As long as I keep doing a step or two a day, I will get it done. And of course, if you complete a step or two, pretty soon it’s easier to finish the task than it is to pack everything back into a cabinet.

2. Figure out what materials you need or what preliminary steps you need to take, and deal with those first. I find that I often avoid even small tasks because I don’t have the materials I need: three gunmetal jump rings for jewelry making, or nail polish remover for a pedicure. Or perhaps I need to do the dishes and wipe down the counters before I can cook comfortably. In either case, the first small step is to make a short list of preliminary jobs and get them out of the way. So instead of beginning with “take down the cookbook,” step one is “empty the bottom rack of the dishwasher.” In some cases there may be a whole chain of things that need to happen. Just trace the chain back and begin at the beginning, whether it’s cleaning out the refrigerator or setting a pan to soak, and start there.

3. With chores that don’t lend themselves to individual steps, I set an alarm for a minimum slice of time. For yoga that’s 20 minutes; for this blog it’s 30. For things that I really dread, like opening the mail, it might be five or 10 minutes. Whatever. Just set the alarm and jam through that sucker as fast as you can. Again, momentum will often keep you going once the alarm goes off. Whatever happens, you have the choice to keep working until you’re done, reset the alarm, or just quit. The key is to agree with yourself that you really only have to do 10 minutes, and that you’re perfectly free to quit when your set period is up. If you start with the intention of doing an hour of 10-minute periods, you’re still going to balk at taking that task on. If you hesitate to try this strategy, thinking, “I won’t be able to get anything done in five (or 10, or 30) minutes, remember a favorite saying of David Burns, the author of The Feeling Good Handbook: you can only do 15 minutes’ work in 15 minutes’ time, so you might as well get cracking and make good use of the next five to 15 minutes. Even minimal periods really do work. For example, I finished my dissertation by making a bargain with myself to write for two 45-minute stretches a day. Within two months, I was done with a book-length project and had earned my Ph.D.

4. Play upbeat music. If you have an iPod and iTunes or the equivalent, make yourself a mix called “Happy Tunes” and really crank them as you cook or write.

5. If the task is a regularly occurring one like writing or practicing an instrument, have a little ceremony to ease yourself into it. The key here is little — don’t clean your house basement to attic. To use the example of blogging again, I make myself a cup of coffee, turn on my Pandora station or specially chosen “work music” (Download’s III or Autechre’s Chiastic Slide), and set my alarm. A cup of coffee or another beverage is a good, small ritual, as is a quick review of an inspiring quote.

6. Know what conditions you need to work and create them. I cannot work with a messy desk — it makes me feel cramped and anxious. (I suspect this makes everyone nervous, even proud slobs, but that’s another story.) I can’t cook in a dirty kitchen. Again, don’t feel like you have to clean your desk or mop the floor before you can write or cook. Instead, set a regular date with yourself to take care of the preliminaries so that you’ll be more inclined to apply butt to chair (or eyes to recipe book) when the time comes.

7. Some people work well on a reward system. I find that if I buy stickers at the craft store and set up a system, I am more likely to carry out loathsome tasks. Decide how many stickers each step is worth in advance, then dole them out as you work. You may want to give the stickers a real-world value, depending on how difficult the task is. When I was practicing networking (something I suck at for obvious reasons), each sticker was worth $2 towards a professional treatment. It took a long time to earn one — those suckers are expensive — but it really helped to have a goal to work towards. If you do decide to use a reward system, be sure to give yourself the reward promptly so that you’ll associate the reward with the task. So, for example, the minute I earn my facial I call to make an appointment for that afternoon. Another commonsense tip: if you have a problem behavior like eating or spending money, it’s not a good idea to reward yourself with chocolates or facials. That’s why I’ve stopped using prizes for myself; they’re just too damn expensive. The fact is, though, that the human mind is so fundamentally silly that it may well accept just the stickers themselves, and take pride in looking back and stroking stickers from past tasks.

8. When you’ve done your first step, take a moment to give yourself genuine praise. All too often, the tendency is to think that 15 minutes of work is nothing, and that you don’t deserve to feel good about having done it. Nonsense. When I’m writing down my steps, I deliberately insert “Revel in your clean floor,” or “Congratulate yourself on a job well-done” as specific, regular steps.

9. Do the “Prescription for Procrastinators” in David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook. Also, read anti-procrastination books like The War of Art regularly and implement the tips you find there. Believe me, I’m just scratching the surface here.

10. Make sure you start well before any deadlines so that you don’t feel obliged, rushed, or otherwise pressured. Count back from the due date, allot what seems to be a reasonable length of time for each big step, then increase that by at least a third. One of the biggest pieces of wisdom I have to impart: Everything always takes longer than you think it will.

12. Another piece of wisdom that’s time-tested and true: You work yourself into feeling. You do not feel yourself into working. That is, if you wait to work until you “feel like it,” you’ll be waiting a long time. When’s the last time you ever simply yearned to mop the floor or open a fleet of bills? Do the job knowing that either it’s going to suck start to finish but you’ll feel better once it’s done, or (actually more likely) that once you’ve gotten started you’ll kind of get into it.

13. Make the task as sensually pleasant as possible. If you’re going to mop the floor, add essential oils to the hot water and breathe deeply. Make sure you have a nice cup of tea nearby. Set up a space heater if it’s cold. Whatever. Just make sure you’re not suffering physically by breathing nasty fumes, thirsting, freezing, or otherwise suffering.

That’s my advice. Now I’m off to take do 20 minutes of yoga.


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