Like many people, I have a running to-do list with many “not urgent” items. Things like “replace wiper blades on car”, “organize the mess in the pantry” or “Email ABC customer to see how things are going”.
Due to their non-urgentness, these things often get left to the “not doing today” section day after day.
After a few days or weeks, I start dreading even seeing them on the list. There’s some weird resistance to doing them. They feel hard, arduous, draining, awful.
Ugh! Do them some other day!
But every once in a while (which is not often enough), I review those types of items and I ask myself:
How long would it actually take to do this?
And many times, when forced to thing about the *duration* of the work instead of the work itself, my perspective changes dramatically.
I can literally email that customer in less than 30 seconds:
“Hi Gil, I want to make sure you are satisfied with the product. How are things going with it?”
How long would it take me to organize my tiny pantry? 10 minutes?
Done. Two minutes.
How long would it take me to take the new wiper blades that have sitting on the floor for over a month, walk out to the car, take the old blades off and put these on? 15 minutes?
Not all the “non urgent” tasks will be quick to do. But in my experience there’s always far more tasks that can be done in under a minute than I imagined.
Why Didn’t I Do Them Sooner?
I’m sure there’s a variety of factors, but I know for sure that one of them is that my brain conflates the strength of my feeling of dread for the task with the actual strength needed to perform the task.
Imagine that the brain has many gauges that range from “easy” to “DAMN. That’s a LOT”. There’s a gauge for emotions, a gauge for physical actions, a gauge for mental processing, a gauge for measuring the things in our world, a gauge for measuring how long things will take, etc.
The thing I’ve experienced is that once the brain registers “DAMN. That’s a LOT” on ANY of the gauges, it loses track of what is was measuring and assigns that value to everything in some vague underlying feeling of anxiety.
Examples: There’s A LOT riding on this email to my customer. There’s a LOT of recyclables that keep falling out of the pantry.
Brain concludes: It’s going to take A LOT of time to do it.
But you’re asking about temperature and reading the pressure. You’re looking at the wrong gauge.
If you can be mindful and ask the question: “OK. How long will this actually take?” Then you can often snap out of the automaticity of “A LOT” and look at the specific gauge you are concerned with.
What’s great about this is that there’s something incredibly motivating about knowing that a long-dreaded task can be permanently vanquished in under a minute (or a few minutes). Once you see that, you want to do it right there, before you even evaluate the other “non urgent” tasks.
Another thing I do when those tasks start collecting on the bottom of my to-do list: I figure out how much time each will take, then I put all the ones that are “under 10 minutes” in a single block of time. Then I have the most productive and rewarding hour in months. And it feels like I have superpowers when I’m done.
Even Time-Intensive Dreaded Tasks Benefit From This
Even if you look at the dreaded task and estimate the work involved is many hours, this exercise in being mindful of what gauge you are looking at is helpful because you have to think through the whole task if you are going to come up with a decent estimate.
Often, since you haven’t fully faced the task and looked at the gauge, the dread comes from not being able to see any path forward. It’s vague, cloudy, or (feels) downright impossible because you haven’t thought of a single way it might be possible.
The only way to get a good estimate of time it will take to do the task is to spend some time thinking about the task. And once you do that, you’ll have at least one possible path to completion you’ll almost certainly feel more confident about the dreaded task.