Do we make our lives more complex and stressful than we need to? (I know I do!)
I have a pretty full task list (it’s like a to-do list, but more professional sounding). It consists of writing, home renovations, carpentry projects and life admin to name a few. I don't have room for other commitments as I am already at a high utilisation level. However I have never let the word no stop me from adding to my workload yet (it’s a problem).
One day last week I was walking home with Alex (our dog) and came across two wooden chairs on the street, put out as part of a house cleanup. This is a common part of living in Sydney where residents can book a council pickup for unwanted large items. Sometimes in these discard piles there lie a gem or two in the form of furniture needing some basic restoration. These two chairs weren’t quite gems, but I thought they’d turn out nicely with a little work, so I took them home to my workshop.
The next day I set to work bringing them back to life by removing all the rusted screws, disassembling the parts and sanding them to within an inch of their lives. This was a good first day, but it hadn’t yet dawned on me how long this “little” project would actually take. As I was leaving the workshop I spotted a table that my neighbour had discarded and decided to grab that in case it yielded some good timber.
The day after I found two more chairs and an outdoor table set in another house cleanup. These were added to the other chairs and the first table in the ever decreasing space in my workshop. This was starting to get silly. As I left my I saw my neighbour (previous owner of table number one) and said that I could easily (lies) turn his old table into a balcony bar if he wanted. He jumped at the suggestion having seen how well my own balcony creation had turned out. Slowly the wheels come off my task list.
Unfortunately on deconstructing his table I discovered it contained as much real timber as a box of Weet-a-bix and would be about as reliable in the rain as one too. So I suggested I purchase some real timber and continue what I had started, he agreed and so the task list got longer. Somewhere during this time I bumped into a client and his friend who both offered me work. Not having any time or capacity to add more work to my list I naturally said yes and went about my day. It was shortly after when attempting to reassemble the first rescued chair that I realise I’d made a cockup along the way.
"Hi my name is Tom and I am a procrastinator..."
That is a long introduction to say that I have a problem. My trouble is at least three fold. Firstly I don’t know when to say no. Secondly I have a problem prioritising my list and frequently start things deemed more interesting than what is already on my list. Thirdly I don’t know when to say no. As a result my list builds and even as I tick on thing ogg, another two get added (see point one or three). As a nice guy who is a recovering perfectionist and an addicted procrastinator, saying no is the holy grail of skills.
This had gotten ridiculous I thought after throwing my toys out of the pram and assaulting several pieces of rubbish with a lump hammer. Why was I using up all my time sanding chairs instead of getting more important tasks done? Something needed work and that something was me. So I listed all the tasks on my mind (it grew by the hour) and then set about prioritising them before simplifying my approach to tackling the list. You can see where I start this process in the photo below.
How did I fix it?
I set about simplifying my task life with these three steps below.
1. I set much lower daily goals
Rather than try to take on too much and not achieve anything I started setting really simple daily goals. I would just aim for two tasks a day as a baseline, if I got more done that was a bonus, but not necessary. The first would be an easy task that had been on my list for weeks or months. By getting that done I got in a quick win and achieved progress. The second task would be something with a higher priority that perhaps needed many hours to complete. For this I would just aim to complete at least one hour of focused time on it. I accepted that I may not complete the task in a day, but that I would be making progress. It is a discarding of perfectionism and the subsequent procrastination for an approach of “just get shit done”.
2. Easy tasks less than 5 minutes
Like I said above I began with a simple task that had been on my list for weeks or months. The reason these were there was because they were so easy I could put them off til tomorrow, they could be done anytime, but often never did. As I progressed through my list I obviously ran out of these small tasks and was left with the tougher ones. However when a simple task came up that took less than 5 minutes I got it done rather than put it off. There were two reasons for this. One was that I prevented the scenario above, where I had multiple easy tasks sat waiting for weeks. The second reason was because it instilled a mindset of taking action and getting tasks done, rather than putting them to one side. My one caveat to this was when I was doing deep work on my complex tasks, this time was sacred and so anything that came up would have to wait until I’d finished.
3. I did the hard work
I certainly have a knack of putting things off when a shinier, more interesting task arrives. As shown with the street chairs example above. I think it is extremely common for many of us to put off the hard work, the jobs that are boring yet essential. Hence why I found that doing an easy task first helped to build momentum for the harder jobs. But doing the hard tasks are necessary and so I chose to make these a priority for my focus and energy over the shinier, fun ones. That’s not to say I have abandoned the fun chair project, but rather I am now committing less time to it and leaving it until the hard work is done as a reward for my efforts.
All of this seems like a lot, but I can’t tell you how much is stresses me out. I hate feeling as though I am wasting time, or not getting things done, yet my natural proclivity is to take on too much and then not do the hard work that has meaning. That said I like you have the ability to change my thinking and actions in order to improve and reduce unnecessary stress. That is what simplify means to me, it’s using your energy wisely to get things done so that you don’t feel like a hamster on a wheel.
You’ll be pleased to hear that following this process I have put the chairs to one side, fixed my shower fitting, completed my newsletter and finished making my client’s balcony bar. Already I feel empowered to do more on that list rather than feeling stressed and crushed by it. Perhaps you can benefit from taking a look at your own task list too. Let me know what works well for you.
Stay sane, stay well.