There are many things I’ve convinced myself I should be doing. I should ride my bike, lift weights, learn French, learn web software development, write, create art, cook, spend time with Tanya, spend time with friends.
But why should I do all these things? Because I’m not working and have the time. My puritan streak says I should make use of my time, be productive, create, get things done. Otherwise I might as well be working.
Intellectually I know this is madness. No one cares what I accomplish1. My parents might have cared but they are long gone. And anyway, one day I’ll be dead too, as will all those who remember me.
I exaggerate; I do ride my bike sometimes. The simple solution would be to ride my bike all the time because that doesn’t take willpower and it doesn’t stress the brain.
But I get bored doing the same rides all the time, and anyway, I’d only injure myself.
So, with all these things I could be doing, why the whirlwind of inactivity? An Inability to Prioritize, and Perfectionism.
An Inability to Prioritize. There’s not enough time to do everything, and to do only some things means not doing other things. And I can’t decide which things to not do. That’s the problem with life: you can’t do it all which means you have to let go of some things.
You have to prioritize.
It seems I’m not very good at that, probably because I’m not very good at choosing the things I won’t do.
I’ll start something, get something partly done, then think I should be spending time on something else, and quit the current thing unfinished. Then I lose the context, lose the ideas that were in my mind, and when I come back to it, it either takes a while to get back into it, or the ideas were sufficiently subtle that they have gone. And that assumes I even come back to it.
What makes it worse is that some things I could be doing are big, daunting, open-ended, never-ending things: Learn French, Write a Book. What makes it worse still is that I question if I really do want to do those things, or if they are just things that I think I should do – for some deep, distant psychological reason. How do such things even fit into a prioritization scheme?
Perfectionism. For writing and art, I want the output to be good – I don’t actually expect perfection. But I don’t want to waste time on something that won’t be good. Unfortunately it’s easier to do nothing than to be good.
It’s also hard to put in the time to make something good when there are so many other things waiting to be done.
Sometimes starting is the hardest thing. Once I’m doing an activity it’s often easy to get lost in it. It’s just starting that’s hard because it means not doing all the other things I might be doing. Or sometimes it seems that it will be difficult – learning French for example – but once in it my brain starts to enjoy the activity. So just start. Tell yourself it will just be for 5 minutes. If you want to quit after 5 minutes, quit. But there’s a good chance that you’ll continue.
Schedule time for each of the tasks you need to do. Schedule the start time and the duration. Start on time, set a countdown timer, and don’t stop until the timer goes off. Or don’t stop if you want to continue.
Finish things that are not completely open ended
Assuming a task is not open ended, once started, finish it. If it is open ended, break it into smaller chunks that can be finished after starting. This means letting go of all the other possible things I might be doing, but at least it gets something done, and that feels good. I’ll feel satisfaction, and I won’t have something hanging over me.
The Ivy Lee Method
- At the end of the day choose 6 things for the next day. Prioritize them.
- Next day work on the top priority thing until it is finished. Then work on the second highest priority until it is finished. Etc.
Even big, never-ending tasks like Learn French can be split into smaller tasks, like Do Lesson 5. This allows you to always have a prioritized list of tasks.
The Raymond Chandler Method
Raymond Chandler had a very simple method to help him write. He set aside time, but he didn’t have to use that time to write. However, he couldn’t do anything else either. It was either write or do nothing.
“He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try. He can look out of the window or stand on his head or writhe on the floor. But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing. …. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. B. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”
Let Go – Stop Caring
This is the Buddhist approach I suppose – let go of craving, of attachments. If I don’t care how well something turns out, it’s easier to get it done. It’s never that simple of course because I want things to have some level of competence and elegance, but the bar height can be lowered a bit.
But It goes beyond the level of competence, because it also means not caring about whether I even start or do the thing. Do some web development? Why bother? Life is much easier when I stop caring.
Give Up on Things
Sometimes you need to completely eliminate things from that overwhelming, hanging-over-you list. Things that you think you should do, but don’t want to do and have no good reason to do. Warren Buffett had a scheme where you list the top 25 things you want to do, then circle the top 5. The other 20 become your Avoid-At-All-Costs list.
Have days when you do all the small tasks on your list
Sometimes small tasks just build up: get new light bulbs, sell something on Ebay, clean the floor, do the laundry, and so on. It gives me satisfaction to spend a day just taking care of small tasks with no thought to the bigger, more “important” things I might otherwise be doing.
This blog post is an example of two of the above Answers: Stop Caring, and Finish Things. I decided not to try and make it perfect, just adequate, and to have fun doing it. And I’m finishing it, even though there are other things I think I should be doing. This way it will be done and not hanging over me.
I wrote it for me, to help me learn and internalize some techniques so I can have, if not a whirlwind of activity, at least a breeze of activity.
Starting in December, everything will be different 🙂
- If anything, people don’t want to know about other people’s accomplishments because it makes them feel bad for not accomplishing more themselves. As Gore Vidal famously said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.“
Links and Other Clicks
Mark Manson’s wonderful article about the pain you are willing to suffer.
Another great Mark Manson article about wanting less.