I read a great article recently by Ozan Varol called “The to-do list trap”. Here, he laid out a typical “to-do” list with 6 items – except the items varied greatly. For instance, one was “order groceries” and another was “write book”. Clearly the former could be achieved within 30 minutes, whereas the latter is a huge project that could never be completed within a day, week or even month.
With a to-do list like this, a few things happen;
- We seek out the easiest tasks to do – we all want that dopamine hit of crossing something off the list!
- In general, those easiest tasks are the least important tasks. So while we might feel accomplished as we check things off, we’re not making progress towards things that will move us to the next level.
- We can never finish our to-do list in a day, week or month. Eventually this leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction and frustration. We lose trust in ourselves to do hard things, and ultimately this loss of confidence makes it even harder to do hard things.
So what to do?
How can we get those Hard Things Done?
As Ozan suggests, we could try keeping separate to-do lists – one for “high priority” items and the other for “regular” items.
However, for me, a big task like “write book” is always going to get passed over – no matter which list it’s on. In fact, it doesn’t even necessarily need to be a big task for me to procrastinate and put it off. 🤔
Usually, almost by definition, the most impactful things on our list will be difficult in some way. They may not necessarily be big, but they’ll be somewhat unknown or uncomfortable. They’re usually things we haven’t done much of before – which is exactly why they’ll have more impact than the rest of the list put together.
Make the Hard Thing Easy
When you look at something important that needs doing, the trick is to think of the next smallest action you could do to move that project along. Maybe it’s a phone call, a “shitty first draft” of one small section, “research options for xxx”, make a decision that unblocks the project, or some other task that will move you closer.
Each action you define should be sufficiently small so that you would expect it to take less than an hour. Remember, that if you make it too big, you probably won’t do it!
A friend refers to this idea as “kicking the ball further up the field”, which is a concept I love.
If you’re not sure where to start or how to break it down, just decide to “spend 30 minutes thinking about the next steps for xxx”. Chances are that after a few minutes of focused thought, you’ll know what you should be doing next and can spend the rest of that time actually getting started.
Remove Other Options
When it comes time to work on that thing, be firm with yourself and don’t give yourself any other options. Close other tabs (or hide them away like I do with Chrome’s new Tab Groups) and just have the apps and pages open that you actually need. Then beware of the tendency to derail yourself by overthinking.
If you’re planning to start working on that hard thing next, just start by getting the files and apps open that you need to work on it. By having your setup primed like this, it’s like laying out your gym clothes the night before – it just makes it that much easier to start!
Try setting a timer and committing to spend a chunk of time without being pulled away by your email, Slack messages or other notifications (or make it easier on yourself by turning them off!). Start with just 20 or 30 minutes until you build up the focus skill to stay with something uncomfortable for longer.
The truth is that taking small, consistent actions on those big tasks is the boring way to succeed.
Find Joy in the Awkward Start
Although making hard things small and removing other options are the main approaches I use to get myself to do them, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits adds another layer – and that’s to find joy and meaning in the task. He suggests viewing the task in a way that serves others, or finding a way to make it adventurous or playful.
I love this idea as it takes the heaviness out of the task and gives us permission to have fun with it and just try something out. Not sure where to start? What would be the craziest way to approach it? Or the most compassionate? I often need to remind myself that the first draft is just a starting point and it’s usually easier to fix a first draft, so just get something down!
Doing just a few small (even tiny) but important things a day really does add up to make a big difference. Break anything big into its smallest next step and give yourself the satisfaction of crossing something off and use the momentum to keep you going the next day. You’ll be getting those hard things started and finished before you know it!