Getting anything done is really only about one thing – overcoming the resistance.
We have great ideas about things we want to do. We churn them over and over in our head. We think about them all the time. And then we don’t do them—for weeks, months, even years. We make long to-do lists, master to-do lists with these things on them, yet we still do not do them. We copy over the master to-do list, moving the task to new sheets of paper. Still, we do not do it.
We resist getting up early, any form of exercise, and just about anything without an immediate deadline, even when we know that doing these things regularly and in a timely way is in our best interests.
Why Do We Resist?
Human beings are miraculous excuse-making machines, and we have no shortage of reasons why we shouldn’t be doing what we really should be doing. Here are just a few of my go-to excuses:
It’s going to be boring and take a long time. I vastly overestimate how long something will take and how boring it will actually be, and I don’t think I am alone in this. Just yesterday, I finally did a task that I had been putting off for a month. It took me 15 minutes. I am telling you about this now, so I clearly did not die of boredom. It is done, and I feel great about it.
I have some strong emotions about the task. Something about the task is evoking some strong negative emotion in me – fear, sadness, self-doubt, anxiety – those are the top ones. Strong emotion is the reason I don’t do my taxes until the last minute, balance my checkbook regularly, take care of that routine medical test, or put my retirement savings into anything but the safest and lowest-yielding account available. Who wants to do anything that makes you feel bad, sad, scared, nervous or just generally uncomfortable or that may bring you bad news? Totally understandable.
I think things will take too long. This is the most ironic. If I think that things will take too long, shouldn’t I start them now? Will they take longer than the time I’ve been spending thinking about how long they will take? Never. As a matter of fact, in all previous cases in which I have used this excuse, when I actually set my mind to get it done, it was over and out of my life in no more than 3-4 steps.
Clearly, my thoughts, and probably yours too, are not always rational when it comes to resistance. So, how do you get over the resistance and get all those lingering tasks and projects that you really want to be doing done? This has been a work in progress for me for many years, and I am still learning. Here is what has worked for me so far. I don’t always follow my own advice, but when I do, I find that it makes all the difference in the world.
Set priorities. More often than I would like, I find myself on the hamster wheel of life, working on tasks that pop up right in front of me and scream for attention instead of the really important things I should be doing. Entire days, weeks, months, and years – yes, even years, can be consumed by living life this way. I know I am never going to get rid of this stuff, but I can make some room for the important in my life by first figuring out what that is and making it a priority. Taking my cue from Leo Babauta, I try to take the time each day to set my Most Important Tasks (MITs) and make sure that I do them first.
Decide if I’m going to do it or not. One of the most liberating things I can do to bring my stress-invoking to-do list under control is to remove items that I am never going to do. I’m sure you know what I am talking about – those items that always seem like a good idea, that you might even think that you should do, but that realistically are never going to be enough of a priority in your life to make them happen. Trust me – you won’t run out of things to do if you start taking things off your list that you will never do anyway.
Make different lists. When I can’t decide when or whether I will do something, I make a different list for it. A To-Do list, by its very definition, is for things that you are going to DO. I reserve it for only those things that I have committed to doing and that I intend to schedule a specific time for. For all other things, I create any number of lists that meet my needs, but that carry with them no commitment of actually doing anything. Things I will do when you retire. Or things that you I do if you win the lottery. It can be a dream list. Or a creative idea list. Things that seem interesting list. Just not a to-do list.
Create a daily schedule. Each day, I take my MITs and the other things I need to do in the day, and I schedule a time for them in my calendar. If I am going to do them, when am I going to do them? This also helps me to compare my fantasy of what I can get done in a day with the reality. Three back-to-back two-hour meetings today? I’m probably not going to accomplish a whole heck of a lot more after that draining experience.
Make monthly to do lists. Sometimes I find that resistance arises from mental clutter as I try to decide what I will do next. I just kind of stare at my to-do list in a deer-in-the-headlights sort of way, and then a sudden urge to procrastinate comes over me. What helps me to reduce the mental clutter is to organize my tasks in terms of what needs to get done when. I used to do this by keeping a page for each month in my planner, and leaving a sticky note on that page with the specific tasks I need to do that month. Lately I’ve been experimenting with bullet journaling, where I’m using a future log – a simple two-page spread for the next six months in the notebook of my choice where I list all of the upcoming tasks I have to do. The clarity and relief that I get from this simple exercise is life-changing.
And finally –
I try to not let my emotions decide when or if I will work on something. Notice that I said “try” because this is a challenging one. Fear, sadness, self-doubt, and anxiety are powerful resistance feeders. We all have tasks that invoke some of these negative emotions in us and make us want to avoid them. What I try to remember is that these emotions are strongest before I start the task. I acknowledge that I will continue to feel them every time I see the task on my list and fail to act on it. The only way to really get rid of these feelings is to start – dive in – feel the icky emotions and do it anyway. Don’t wait for the moment when you feel like doing these tasks, because guess what? That moment is not coming. Take out your calendar and schedule all that icky stuff. You may not do it today or next week or this month, but there needs to be a time in your not-too-distant future when you will commit to doing the task if you are ever going to do it at all.
These are the things that have worked for me so far, but I’m always looking for new ideas. What has worked for you?