What makes a task difficult?

Since I often spend time thinking and talking about time management, I’ve pondered what makes some tasks difficult. Maybe it’s me, but it helps to consider why a specific goal is difficult for me. That is, if I articulate/recognize what makes something hard to do or hard to start, I often make more progress than if I just plow ahead (or spin in perpetual procrastination).

Some tasks are difficult simply because they take a long time to complete. There are no shortcuts. You just have to put in hour after hour after hour. Once I know that, the obstacle can be overcome because I either realize a) I don’t have time to do this, so I change plans or b) I have to put in time each day until some distant moment arrives and I will be done. What is amazing is that I really have reached the end of fairly massive projects just through day-to-day effort, including some super short sessions on hectic days.

Sometimes a task is difficult because some necessary bit of information is not available to me. That is, I don’t really know what I’m doing, and the truth is that’s more often than I realize. Lol. And sigh. But if I can figure out what I don’t know, I can then assess if a) I can learn/gather that information, b) I can muddle forward and eventually improve, or c) this is a dead end and I should seek some other version of this goal that is achievable. Though this is not a romanticized you-can-do-anything-Cama! way of thinking, it works pretty well for me. It sometimes means I have to change my goals or change my approach or extend my personal deadlines. But that seems wiser than always being stuck in place, unable to move forward because I didn’t assess the situation further.

Another way I’ve found tasks difficult that is harder to address, and that’s when the task creates anxiety for me for some reason. Often, the above steps help me manage anxiety because I have thought through the situation, but not always. Some tasks carry risks of embarrassment and/or failure and/or something worse. A few strategies that sometimes (but not always) help are to stop to recognize how I feel and then try to make sense of why I feel that way. What am I afraid of? Do I have any control of the risks I am facing? Can I plan ahead of what to do if things go wrong? (I am a habitual planner—you may have noticed this already. But I assure you I plan time to be spontaneous once a week 😉 ). Other strategies that can help is to treat an anxiety-producing task as a game or creative outlet. I love to embrace a sense of play whenever possible. And of course, all the strategies that help me manage stress can help with this stress too (exercise, sleep, time with friends/family, laughter, volunteer work, art, dance, music, etcetera).

And in any of these cases, I always need to know at least a few answers, or answers-in-progress, to this question—why does this task matter to me?

To be good at something

Over the years, my children have at times sought to identify what they were “good at,” or some “special talent,” or perhaps complained that others seemed to be at ease with tasks that were for them more challenging.

Some of my children have shown interest in art and music, for example, and this has led some well-meaning relatives to ask if I thought my kids had talent in it.

I bristle at the question (but try to mind my manners). In some analytical, statistically-driven way, it is possibly true that there are qualities that we could call talent or that there are individuals born with an affinity or proclivity for certain tasks. Even in those situations, I sense a bit of a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” dilemma because individuals who are surrounded with the opportunity and encouragement to engage in a task have a good chance at improving at that task. If one has some kind of “natural tendency” to build on, so much the better, though at some point whatever was natural gets replaced by skills that are acquired through years of practice.

The point of my bristle is that I don’t think we are fated to be artists or writers or musicians or athletes or teachers or doctors or marketers or whatever. A natural affinity combined with opportunity to practice may increase the odds of one of these outcomes, sure. But too often people take the inverse to be true, concluding that they must not be “good at that,” and they will never get better at it because they did not have an immediately detectable affinity and/or plenty of opportunity. To be an artist, to be a writer, to be a musician, to be a (fill-in-the-blank) is reserved for those lucky other people, not them.

I disagree. I believe if you want to pursue any art or skill, if you work at it, you can get better. You should not close the door on something you might enjoy just because you aren’t yet “good at it.” It may take time. It may not turn out the way you imagine. But don’t give up without giving it a fair try (whatever “it” is—the arts, sports, academic subjects, specialized skills).

I should clarify that I am not giving career or financial advice here. Many wonderful artists, writers, musicians, athletes, etcetera make money in ways that have little to do with that pursued art/skill. So it may be that you will need a day job, as it is called. Or maybe not. You don’t know what the future holds. So don’t close doors on yourself just because something is hard at first.

I also don’t know that it is necessary to be the best at something to find the work rewarding or of benefit. If I am honest, I am weary of the clamor and pressure within the culture to be best, perhaps because I find that this sends the signal that if you can’t be best, don’t bother. As if only the best are the ones who matter.

I reject a scarcity mindset in determining who matters. Everyone does. Period.

Instead of the pursuit to be the best, I embrace the goal of getting better. Am I getting better at what is important to me? If so, good.

So perhaps don’t worry about finding what you are good at. Focus on finding what you want to get better at.

Start where you are

One thing the pandemic has taught us is that teens sure know how to complain. Or is that just mine? But one of the complaints that has struck me is this feeling that oh, if X or Y had happened, I’d be fine now, but because it didn’t, I’m not and how can I ever do (fill in the blank)? Such as, if I had gone to school in-person last year, I’d be fine this year in school, but I didn’t, so how can I possibly do well? Or if I had reviewed more for that standardized test that no one but admissions teams and college publicists care about, I wouldn’t be nervous about taking it next year? Or, if I had joined that sports team at age 4, I would be a professional now at age 16 (note: I am pretty sure I’ve read a study that says the opposite is true, but I try not to mention this because facts should not interfere with one’s need to complain). Some of these complaints include the subtext, or sometimes the direct statement, that if I the parent had forced my child to do something my child didn’t want to do (or, as in the case of in-person schooling before vaccines were available, something that seemed super risky for our family), my child would be on easy street right now. But that didn’t happen and, thus, there’s no hope. It will never happen, whatever “it” is.

To which I say, maybe so, but start where you are. No matter what you want to do, you can never control what happened before, whatever opportunities did or did not flow your way, whether you or your parents made wise choices or not, all of that is in the past, and none of it has to be an obstacle, or at least, it doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle if you choose not to treat it as such. Just start. So everyone around you seems to be perfect or already crossing the finish line? It doesn’t matter. Let them run their own races. You run yours. Start where you are. So you have no idea when you will get where you mean to go (wherever that is)? Okay, but you won’t get anywhere unless you start. Why do you have to know exactly where it is all going? Does anyone know, even the ones who act like they do? (Narrator whispers: No.) Just start. Nothing happens until you start. Nothing gets better until you start. You can’t even make choices — maybe there are some goals you don’t need to pursue, some actions that should not continue, but you can’t make any meaningful decision —until you start.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for goal-setting, for figuring out what you care about and why. But a lot of that doesn’t mean much if you never start. If I am going for a swim, I may have to decide where and how far to swim, but I won’t get anywhere until I jump in the water.

Start where you are. Build from there. Learn from the past, sure. Dream about the future. Make the best decisions you can based on what you know in the moment. But most of all, focus on the small steps that lie before you now. Take one step. Take another. You may be surprised by what comes next.