One question that meditation has taught me to ask is: Where is the resistance?
In meditating, there is always something that is trying to grab my attention. Often, all I need to do to get rid of it is figure out what it is, acknowledge it, and label it.
“Okay, my mind wants to focus on that upcoming meeting. That’s good to know.”
I can label it, go back to meditation, and then address that issue when I’m done with my meditation. If the meeting is weighing on me, then maybe I need to spend some more time preparing. I’ve identified the problem, and I can then take steps to ease my anxiety.
Lately, I’ve been trying to ask the same question of my productivity.
Find the Resistance
I create a list of things that need to get done each week on the previous Friday and I create a list of things that need to get done each day the night before.
When I look at those lists in the morning, I ask myself: Where is the resistance?
What is the task that my mind most strongly recoils from?
What is the work that I instinctively think, “Well, I’ll start with some other things and do that later.”?
That’s the source of resistance.
And that’s the thing you need to do first.
Eat the Frog
A few years ago I read a book called Eat That Frog! by Brian Tracey.
The title comes from a quote that he claimed was from Mark Twain, suggesting that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, you could be pretty sure that nothing worse could happen to you during the day.
After a few minutes of research, I’ve found that Mark Twain never actually said anything like that.
Tracey’s idea, though, is that you should start your day by tackling the hardest task on your to do list. Once you take care of that, the rest of the day will be easier.
Attack Your Most Difficult Tasks First
This makes sense for a number of reasons.
Right at the top of the list is that we have more willpower at the beginning of the day.
Our most difficult tasks are the ones that require the most willpower. For efficiency’s sake, then, it makes the most sense to match up our willpower supply with the willpower demand. We’re going to get better results on higher willpower tasks if we perform them when we have more willpower.
Next, we need to tackle the most difficult projects first because otherwise they will weigh on us.
Knowing that you are avoiding work comes with its own little anxiety boost. Add to that the fact that this is something that we think will be difficult and the anxiety is amplified. This will make us less productive on the rest of our work.
Plus, the longer you avoid the work, the bigger it will feel. I can say this from experience. The more you put something off, the more it feels like there must be a reason you’ve been putting it off.
The act of procrastination justifies itself by making the work feel even more difficult, which leads to more procrastination and a vicious cycle that intensifies until a deadline intervenes.
Make it Easier
Sometimes sheer willpower isn’t enough to get it done. In those cases, you need to make your task easier.
I find that the most useful tactic is usually to break a task or assignment into smaller pieces.
If you need to write a report or prepare a presentation, you can break it into research, outlining, writing, and polishing. This allows you to pick just one task, say researching, as your difficult task on Monday. You can feel good about making progress while leaving other pieces to later in the week.
This also makes the task feel less overwhelming, which makes it easier to start.
Which brings us to the next tip: Just start.
Starting a task is often the trickiest hurdle to overcome. Because of this, any way that we can get ourselves to start is helpful.
One option is to give an end time.
Maybe writing a report is overwhelming, but doing research for half an hour isn’t too bad.
Pick a window of time that you will commit to working, and then allow yourself to quit, guilt-free, at the end of that block. What I have found is that often I realize that the work is not as difficult as I anticipated. Once I am in the zone I work well past my time limit and get a lot done.
Even if you don’t keep working after the end of your time block, you have overcome the obstacle of starting. When you come back tomorrow, it will be easier to start. You’ve got a little progress under your belt and you know you were able to start yesterday.
The important thing is just to find a way to start making progress.
Often we end up wasting more time worrying about starting than we actually spend doing the work. If we can get rid of some of that worry time, we can get more done and achieve bigger results.