To ensure I am making progress towards my lifetime goals, every week I pull out my list of lifetime goals and ask myself, "What can I do this week to move me closer to achieving these goals?" The answers become my list of mini-goals for the week.
Each morning I create my to-do list for the day, adding my appointments, meetings, work tasks, maintenance items, exercise, and commuting. I'm careful to add items each day from my weekly list of mini-goals, and try not to plan more than 6 hours in my day. I recognize that new things come up, and planned things often take longer than I anticipate. Six is the magic number of hours for me for what I can plan and still complete. If I manage to complete those six hours of tasks in a day, I'm satisfied.
This past week, when I was reviewing my previous week and planning what actions to add from my lifetime goal list for this week, I noticed that four undone tasks for last week were the same four undone tasks from the week before. I remember looking at the items during the week, and thinking, "Meh, tomorrow." For a couple of these undone tasks, I did that multiple days in a row. This was unusual enough for me that I had to ask myself, "What is this telling me? What am I not acknowledging in myself?"
So, I added these mini-goals onto my weekly list (yes, again), and started listening in the morning, when I had a chance to add them to my daily list, and during the day, when I had a chance to do them, and chose not to do the task. I listened, and, being gentle with myself, tried to figure out why I wasn't doing these tasks.
The first thing I heard myself say was:
"I don't want to do them right now."
This happens. Sometimes I'm not in the mood to do a task. It's morning and I haven't fully woken up yet. It's the end of the day and I'm tired. It's lunch and I'm hungry. It's mid-afternoon and I want to finish this other, perhaps easier, task. It's any time of the day and I'd rather be reading a book than doing whatever this thing is.
Whenever it is, I can usually remind myself, "I don't have to be in the mood to work on this." As E.B. White said, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.” The same applies to most anything. I don't have to be in the mood to do the task, I just need to do it.
This reminder often helps, but doesn't always work.
Scheduling a specific time in my calendar, making it a priority, works better.
I don't have to be in the mood to go to the meeting at work. I don't have to be in the mood to do laundry. I don't have to be in the mood to wash the dishes. I don't have to be in the mood to do any of the things on my list, but in some way or another I committed to doing them. Whether to my employer, to my friends, or to myself, I committed.
Schedule it, and do it.
And then I heard:
"I don't want to do them."
In reality I was saying, "I don't want to do this at all." Okay, this one is different than not in the mood. I'm saying, I don't want to do the work to accomplish this task, I just want to have accomplished the task. I had to wonder, "Do I want to do this, or do I want to have done this?"
That question comes from a ski trip in college after two friends, Chris and George, skiied down a particularly difficult double black diamond. When the two of them returned at the end of the day, they were exhausted. Chris let the rest of us know that he and George had gone down the hard run, and George exclaimed it was the hardest run he had ever done, and he hadn't even wanted to do it. He was terrified the whole time. Chris turned to him somewhat confused and said, "But, you said you wanted to do it!"
George answered, "No, I said, I wanted to have done it, I never said I wanted to do it."
I love/hate this statement because it illustrates how so many dreams never blossom into reality: "I want to have done it, I don't want to do it."
Maybe this goal of mine is something I want to have done, but don't want to do. If I don't want to do the work, it's time to cross it off the list as never-do and move on. It's okay to let dreams go, replace them with other ones.
I crossed it off my list, and moved on to the next task.
I heard myself comment:
"It's too stressful to do."
One of these recurring tasks is particularly stressful for me. If I'm not working on the task or even starting the task because of stress, the first thing I need to ask is, "How do I make this less stressful?"
First thing I can think of to do see if I can give this task to someone else. Can I pay someone else to do this? The task won't be done perfectly (let's be realistic here, I wouldn't have done it perfectly either), but it will be done. There might be more time spent on explaining what I want and checking in on progress, but I, myself, won't be doing the work.
An advantage to this solution is that the person doing the work likely is not as emotionally involved in the task as I am. Without the emotion-clouding thoughts and stress-inducing viewpoints, the person doing the job can likely finish faster and with better results that I can.
That's my first plan.
My second plan is to consider if I'm blowing things out of proportion. Taking stock of the task, not for a long time, but maybe a few minutes, pondering about what is the worst that can happen if things go poorly with this task, will reset my expectations and help me realize, hey, you know what, this isn't as bad as I think.
With the reduced stress levels, okay, I can tackle the task. I have it on my list for a reason, so let's get to it.
But sometimes, the stress does have a reason.
"I don't want to deal with the fall out."
I'm not a fan of confrontations. With the response options of fight or flight, my choice has historically been flight: avoid the confrontation and wait it out. Perhaps needless to say, this approach has not always been the best one (for well-chosen definitions of "best").
This one I'm still working on, with the help of incredible co-workers, opportunities with coaches, and the book Crucial Conversations. The book is recommended by many upper-level people at work, and describes how to have conversations when opinions differ, emotions are strong, and the stakes are high.
So far so good.
Again, taking some time to walk through various scenarios of the possible consequences of my tasks reminds me that I'm assuming the worst possible outcome, and projecting my fears onto another. Perhaps things aren't as bad as I think they are. If I approach as honestly, as kindly, and as objectively as I can, maybe things will work out.
Maybe the fall out won't be so bad.
And so, I arrive at the last reason I hear from myself:
"Starting is hard."
Let's be realistic here, I think, THIS ONE is the real reason I tend not finish my tasks. I don’t finish because I haven't started. Once I start, I'm usually lost to the world, completely absorbed in whatever I’m doing. Yet, I have some mental barrier to starting some tasks. I just Can't. Get. Started. I'm certainly not finishing this task if I can't even start it!
The mental barrier to starting can be time: I need at least an hour to finish this and I have only 20 minutes. The barrier can be choice: I'm totally going to work on th...OOOOOO LOOK SHINY! It can be location: I'm in a loud coffee shop with no internet connection. It can be resources: I need to look up this particular statistic before I finish this one paragraph. The barrier can be process: I need to work on part D, but I need to finish part A before I start part B, to finish part B before I start part C, to finish part C before I start part D. The barrier can be size: ugh, this task is too big. The barrier can be lack of knowledge: I don't know where to start.
I need to remind myself that all of these mental barriers are surmountable or removable.
Did I make the task too big? If so, what is the smallest action I can take that will help me start this task?
For my writing tasks, opening the editor, loading my manuscript, and searching for the string "RIGHT HERE" (the last thing I write when I stop writing mid-piece, so that I know where I to start for the next session), is often enough to kickstart my writing sessions. I changed my task this week to, "Open book in editor." I can do that.
Do I have only 20 minutes to work on this, but it'll take an hour? That's okay, I'll be 20 minutes further along than I was before! Go go go!
Am I in the wrong place to concentrate? That's okay, I can practice my acceptance of the situation and work it to my advantage. Maybe something in the cacophony will improve this task?
Do I really need to do A to do B to do C to do D? What I really want to accomplish is D. What other ways can I finish D? Can I do half of D?
And when I don't know where to start, I can start back at the beginning: the requirements of this task in the first place. What problem am I trying to solve with this task? Is it as easy as clean clothes, or as complicated as world hunger? The beginning is where I can start.
Because that's the key to most of these barriers I've placed in front of me.
This week, I have strong hopes of finishing those thus-far-not-done-for-three-weeks tasks. This week, I’ll move closer to completing some of my lifetime goals.
How about you? How's your week looking?