A writer friend wrote a poem a day during Poetry Month in April. He said, “I get an idea for a poem, write it in the evening, polish it the next morning, and then,” he brushed off his hands, “done!”
Oh, how I envied him, getting to done.
My problem is, I’m always doing. I’m rarely done.
I rewrite the first page of my novel endlessly.
I check out five books from the library, and before reading any, I check out five more. The towering stack taunts me.
I flit from one project to another at work, and if it wasn’t for external deadlines, I’d continue to flit and polish and perfect and whatever it is I do to avoid getting things done, while my To-Do list grows longer than Rip Van Winkle’s beard.
I need to get to DONE!
Enter the squirrelly thoughts. They go something like this…
If I finish (fill in the blank), then what? There might not be another novel in me. The book I want at the library might not be available, so I better check out everything. If I don’t do (fill in the blank) perfectly, I’ve failed.
This is poverty mentality. It’s scarcity thinking. It’s a trap.
Luckily, I have a wise mind that reminds me…
Half-baked is better than burned.
There will always be another book to read.
A job that’s good enough and off your plate is preferable to a job that wears you down in your quest for perfection, which, as the saying goes, does not exist.
And no, you don’t need to take on more than your plate can carry. The eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome results in nothing more than heartburn. No joy in that.
I could just throw away my To-Do list. Done!
But then I’d turn into a sloth who watches Wheel of Fortune into the wee hours, if such a feat is possible.
It seems to me, three things are holding me back from getting to Done. See if any of these resonate with you:
1. Lack of Time
I mean, come on! I’ve got THINGS TO DO. Look at the list! How can I possibly get them all done?
Well, I can’t. At least, not all at once.
If I decided to run a marathon, and the most I’d ever run was from the couch to the refrigerator during a commercial, would I lace up my Skechers and line up at the starting block with well-seasoned athletes? Probably not. Besides, I don’t even run from the couch to the fridge, because I live in a miniature playhouse and can just reach over.
But I can run for one minute. And if I add a minute a day, by the end of the month, provided it’s not February, I’m running 30 minutes a day. Or thirty-one, if it’s January.
What if I applied that same logic to the dreaded To-Do list?
Let’s say I start at 10 minutes a day. I can get a surprising amount done in 10 minutes.
That stack of magazines? I’ll plow through them, ripping out articles I want to read, tossing the rest in the recycle bin. Done!
I’ll read two of those articles. Done!
I’ll edit one page of my novel. Done!
I’ll weed out a file cabinet. Vacuum. Make salads for lunch. Draft a blog post. Done, done, done, done!
Add a minute a day, and by the end of the month, I’m spending up to 40 minutes on tasks. Think of how much I can accomplish in 40 minutes! Makes the head spin, doesn’t it?
There’s just one catch: Anyone who’s read my ramblings for any length of time knows I’m commitment-phobic. I’d sooner watch Wheel of Fortune than commit to 40 minutes on a task, because if I commit to 40 minutes on anything other than TV, I might actually get something DONE. God forbid.
Plus, I have the squirrelly belief that I can do everything all at once to perfection.
Talk about high expectations. No wonder I’m burned out. No wonder I can’t get started. Which brings me to hurdle number two (and three, but let’s not skip ahead):
When I print out my To-Do list at work, it’s as long as one of those receipts from CVS pharmacy. My eyes glaze over. My stomach tightens into a hard ball. I have the urge to surf the net, spiral down the email rabbit hole, or cram something sugary in my mouth.
I’ve discovered I can accomplish three tasks a day. Not fifty. Not five. Three. If I complete three tasks and have time left over, I tackle another. Three items on a To-Do list leaves plenty of white space. Room to breathe. And for an introvert like myself with limited energy to spare, breathing room is good.
Many days, I accomplish more than three tasks. But tricking myself into focusing on three helps me overcome the feeling of overwhelm.
What if my boss expects me to accomplish more? Well, if I work X number of hours a day, and there’s just one of me, and I need to eat and go to the bathroom X number of times during those X number of hours, the math might not add up. In which case I’ll say: “This isn’t sustainable. If you want me to be accurate, and finish the jobs you’ve assigned, something needs to go.”
Yeah, in a perfect world.
Some bosses are open to that kind of honesty. Luckily, mine is. If you’re not so lucky, all I can say is: pace yourself. Remember, doing more than is humanly possible isn’t sustainable in the long run. And no job is worth dying over. At the very least, don’t overload your plate on your off hours. While many organizations expect an employee to be plugged into the system 24/7, it’s my firm belief that we worker-bees need to educate the powers-that-be about what’s realistic, and what’s in the realm of: “In your dreams, bucko.”
But I digress.
Which three things do I choose to tackle on a given day?
Whichever three would keep me up at night if I didn’t accomplish them. Not everything on the list is numero uno. Some are fives. Or sevens. I start with the most important, and work my way down.
Sometimes, that number one item is so important, I can’t muster the energy to start. Like submitting my short story to a literary magazine. Or rewriting my novel.
Which brings me to point three:
In his book “The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles,” Steven Pressfield writes:
“Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”
Yeah. That bugger, Resistance, disguises itself as perfectionism, procrastination, laziness, fear, and whatever it is that keeps us from acting on those projects that feed our souls.
For me, the disguise is perfectionism.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard’s famous command was: “Engage.” He meant, begin. Go forth. Picard never added, “But only if you’re positive you’ll make zero mistakes.”
No, settled in his captain’s chair, legs comfortably crossed, he commanded, “Engage.” It was outer space, fer crying out loud! He didn’t know where the ship was headed, or what lay ahead, or how he’d deal with whatever crisis occurred—and there was always a crisis. Didn’t matter. With a casual flick of his finger, Picard was ready to brave the unknown.
Occasionally, someone on board would request, “Permission to speak freely,” which, if granted, gave the officer a free pass to say whatever was on his mind without being punished.
What if I applied Star Trek logic to those Things I Want To Accomplish that makes Resistance sneer? With those nifty words, “Engage,” and “Permission to fail,” and “Granted,” I might actually get to “Done.”
Wow. What a concept.
So, for those of you who have hung in reading this ridiculously long post, my formula for getting from To-Do to Done is:
Make your task list manageable and realistic
Choose the three most important tasks to work on
Do the work in a set interval of time
Give yourself permission to fail
When you’re done, let it be. It’s as good as it’s going to get.
Which, in my book, is Done.
Wow!!!! Very smart advice. I’m a list maker, for sure. It gives me great satisfaction to cross things off!! Is your book really done?
No, I had to take a break because I had client work to do.
Thanks for this. Simple but not easy rules to live and work by. And The War of Art is one of my favorite books ever, up there with Bird by Bird. I keep this quote in my office so I can see it every day:
The working artist will not tolerate trouble in her life because she knows trouble prevents her from doing her work. The working artist banishes from her world all sources of trouble. She harnesses the urge for trouble and transforms it in her work.
It’s all pretty aspirational for me, but also inspirational. Some day I will get there.
Great quote! Thanks for sharing it. Yes, it’s not easy. Resistance, especially, can be overpowering. I’m halfway through Pressfield’s Turning Pro. And yep, Bird by Bird is one of my favs, along with Writing Down the Bones.