I once saw a mug with Queen of Procrasti Nation (sic!) written on it, pretty crown included, of course. By the time I decided on buying, the store ran out of it. Now that’s irony, Alanis!
Avoiding duty is way too familiar. Did you notice that the smarter you are, the smarter excuses you can create? And you’re too smart for your own good, since you so easily convince yourself to not do things. Yeah, starting a Netflix marathon before starting work on your project the day before the very important deadline is a genius idea. So is looking at your to do list, adding ‘take a nap’ and immediately ticking it off. (I hope I’m not the only one adding stuff I’ve already done to my to do list just to scratch the hell out of them!)
It’s all good, right until the deadline kicks in and you panic and scramble and mess up. Sometimes it feels like an extreme sport. Yay, the adrenaline rush of being late and missing out on stuff! Almost there… almost there…! Sure, sometimes you make it just in time so you can pat yourself on the back for being so resourceful. Almost feels like success. Still, the decision to avoid the laundry list of things to do will inevitably ruin all the Netflix marathons and naps and reading sessions, since the nagging little voice is always there in the back of your head: Hey, you should be doing other things!
It took me long enough to realise overwhelm was the main reason I routinely avoided my to do lists. (If I even had one! Writing the tasks down is half the solution, by the way.) There is just soooo much to do. Work stuff. Home stuff (sub-stuff of home stuff: cleaning, cooking, decluttering). Other People stuff (friends, family, spouse). And, yeah, Me stuff. Where do I begin? Everything should be done, of course, but where do I start? Oh screw it, I’m not dealing with any of this.
And then I didn’t and it piled up and I was buried under all the lovely little items.
The funny thing was that as soon as I started doing something, the ball got rolling and I managed to continue ticking things off my list. So then, to trick my mind, I started little tactics to get me started, because, I figured, that’s my entry point to Getting Things Done land — and my way out from overwhelm.
1. Start at the beginning
Don’t measure tasks based on which is more urgent than the other if that spirals you down into analysis paralysis. Start with the first one on the list. Or the last one. Can’t decide where the ‘beginning’ is? Pick one task at random. Or close your eyes and point somewhere on your piece of paper. Do a raffle. Or something. Just don’t waste too much time on drawing pretty little stars on your paperslips and scavenging your granddad’s old top hat from the attic to draw all of them from. Please. Don’t.
2. Just start… somewhere
Sometimes there is no way you can start at the beginning. I think this is especially true with creative stuff. Back when I started writing my book, I decided that the proper way to begin is at Chapter 1, paragraph 1, and continue from there onwards. Naturally. Except I had ideas for Chapter 8 before I had anything written down for Chapter 2, and I had loads of pages with stuff I didn’t even know which chapters they were for yet!
Didn’t matter. I wrote when I was in the mood for writing, wherever that decided to fit in the end. When I had no creative juice for actual writing, I edited. Do whichever part feels right! Not in the zone for product development? Answer e-mails. Pay your bills. Write a shopping list. Pair socks. Whatever. Just start working on that great pile of to-dos and make it smaller. Bit by bit.
3. Start with the hardest one
Mark Twain’s highly actionable advice goes “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Getting over with that dreaded phone call, finishing something you’ve been putting of for ages or finally saying no for an event you postponed to decline for days may not be the thought worth waking up for in the morning, but I guarantee it will make you feel like you have superpowers. You may even find yourself yelling ‘Yeah, world, BRING IT!’ afterwards. It’s that good.
4. Find a good investment
Is there something on your list that is a really small task but could potentially make a huge difference in your day? Do that. Eat something healthy to give you energy. Organize your desk a bit to feel more sane – don’t aim for Pinterest-worthy layouts, except if that’s your to-do item. :) Stand up and stretch. Wash your teeth and get properly dressed if that will make you more alert and productive. (Sorry, people not working from home, this may sound really basic to you, but I’m not ashamed to admit that the dress code for home office at Casa Urban Eve is sometimes pyjamas, fuzzy socks and 2-day-old balerina buns. Glamour to the max.) Take care of yourself.
5. Create sequences whenever possible, and go in order
Instead of going back and forth, try to find corresponding items on your list and tackle them logically. If you have recurring tasks, take notice of your habits and figure out which is the most practical way of ordering them. Notice if something actually hinders you if you do it in a certain order – like mopping before sweeping. It will save you time in the long run.
A really silly example: if you need to wash your hair and paint your nails, try not to start with the nails, since you’ll have to wait for them to properly dry before washing your hair (and therefore lose time), or you’ll risk having to do the whole thing over again.
6. Find something that only needs ignition
I find myself most content when both the washing machine and the dishwasher are doing their thing while I’m working. Feels like I’m in three places at once. Want to feel the same? Find a task that only needs some action, and from there it takes care of itself on its own. Ask a follow-up question on an e-mail and let your letter pal think on the answer and get back to you later. Delegate a to-do item to someone else. Put the slow cooker on. Things happening in parallel is beautiful and feels so productive!
7. Start with the most urgent one
I know, it’s obvious, but sometimes you have to do it. You’ll know which one it is if it has ‘they’ll kill me if I’m late’ next to it. I also know it’s more adventurous to leave it for the last minute, but doing it sooner will actually reveal important details or hiccups you can handle while you still have (some) time left. If you have absolutely no tolerance for that project right now, try the Pomodoro technique as a deal with yourself: set a timer for 20 minutes and allow yourself to stop after it goes off, but until those 20 minutes are on, you’re doing it.
If you already know how much time the urgent task is going to need, work backwards to figure out when’s the latest you can start. Count in lunch breaks, slow periods and other tasks as well! If you have to present a document by 5 p.m. and you normally take 3 hours to finish it properly, don’t start it later than 2 p. m..
8. Continue something you’ve already started
There’s always going to be unfinished tasks, leftovers from yesterday, half done, 90% finished, and so on. Find a loose end! Sometimes it’s easier to get back on the saddle by finding something that’s not a brand new thing to do. Also, you’ll get to tick something off your list a lot sooner! ;) Some people like to start something at the end of the day and not finish it, just to have a continuing point for the following day. Try it out and see if this works for you. It might be less daunting than doing something from scratch first thing in the morning.
9. Start with something you wanted to do TODAY
It’s easy to fall behind, but it’s even easier to stay behind. If you’re always handling yesterday’s to-do items, you’ll never catch up! Doing Wednesday tasks on Friday and Thursday things on Saturday means it’s never going to be Sunday on a Sunday. Stop. Before handling your backlog, pick something meant for today and actually do that.
10. Start with something that’s almost it… but not quite
This also falls into the ‘mind trick’ category a bit, but hey, my mind is easily tricked with pretty colours and stickers. So maybe you can distract yours from creating excuses, too. If you have a big task ahead of you (or something you dread to do), try to find a gateway activity that gets your foot in the door. And then work your way towards the actual task.
You should go running? Oh, you’re just dressing up in your running gear and leaving the house. Who said anything about running? Just get dressed. Is the kitchen a mess? No big cleanup for you! Just put away one mug. Or wipe down the counter. Nothing more! You should be writing a really cool newsletter for your blog? Just open up a chatbox to your BFF or sister and start telling them about the topic you want to write about. (Warn them beforehand that you might do this, so they don’t think you’re more odd than usual.) While talking to someone you know and love you might even stumble upon some really friendly phrases you can use in your eventual letter!
One last thing…
Done is better than perfect. This comes from Elizabeth Gilbert’s mother, by the way. Write it on a post-it note and stick it to your monitor.