Don’t Do It All Now

Recently I’ve been practicing doing things as I think of them, rather than writing them down on a list or mentally noting them for later. Lists are useful, but they’re not always needed. In fact, going without a list can be very satisfying. For more on this, read Do It Now.

Even if you try to do things as you think of them, you’ll sometimes come across a large project that you just don’t have enough time to tackle in full right now. When I see something that needs to get done, and it’s a big project, it’s tempting to go one of two routes:

  1. I don’t do anything, because it’s such a big project, and I’m scared of starting it now, because it feels daunting. Time passes. I know I need to do something about the project, and it’s on my to-do list or I’m reminded of it regularly, making me think, “I’ve got to do something about that”, but I still don’t start it, because now it’s become an official Big Deal in my mind, a whole scary beast that has taken on a life of its own, gnawing at my attention every time it pops into my consciousness.
  2. I dive in and try to do the whole thing now. I keep plugging away because I really want to get the whole thing done and cross it off my list. Sometimes this ends badly — I can’t finish the whole project, and maybe I’ve even created a mess to clean up later. Bummer. Other times I can get the whole thing done. The Band-Aid has been ripped off. I get to cross it off my list!

I think there’s a middle way that’s more consistently satisfying. If I see something that’s a big project, something that’ll be time-consuming but is not particularly urgent, I’ll only spend a few minutes on it. I do one tiny portion of the project, just to get things moving in the right direction. This prevents my mind from building it up into a Big Scary Thing.

At the same time, I try not to get too obsessed with finishing. When I worry about finishing, I’m thinking about some future state where the project is done and life is nothing but white fluffy clouds and cool breezes. But thinking of the finish line can actually be a bit stressful, because my mind isn’t on enjoying what I’m doing. It’s focused on the future, where things are done and perfect. Of course, things never end up perfect. In the future, yeah I’ll be done, but soon I’ll move onto something else. Meanwhile, in the now, I’m not enjoying myself. In fact, I’m getting kind of pissed off that the project isn’t done yet, and I want my fluffy clouds, dammit.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the satisfaction of crossing something off a list. What I’m saying is it can be even more satisfying if you take time to enjoy the doing of the task, without worrying so much about the finishing of the task.

For example, I’m in the midst of cleaning up the basement. There’s a pile of summer things lying out in the middle of the basement floor, waiting to be put away for the winter. When I see the pile, I try not to ignore it. I try to put one thing away. If I still feel motivated, I put one more thing away. If I really don’t have time right then, then I do nothing. But in general I recognize if it’s bugging me today, it’ll probably bug me tomorrow, so I try and give the pile 5 minutes of attention whenever I lay eyes on it.

I’ve found in the past when you ignore the pile, it does’t just stay the same size. It gets larger, at least in your imagination. The beast gets bigger. When you tackle a problem a little at a time, though, the pile of stuff is gradually diminishing. The beast gets smaller.

The same principle applies to projects at work too. Do things as you see them. If you run into a big project, don’t feel like you have to tackle it all today. Chip away at it over time.

This principle doesn’t apply to heart surgeons. Unless perhaps you’re a heart surgeon putting off cleaning your basement.

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