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?

Image woman with burning paper

Writing during a pandemic

The appropriate content for such a title should be a blank space. How can I write while trying to make sense of the What If’s and the What Actually’s of this pandemic?

It is an irony that I now have more time to write thanks to an extended spring break at the university where I work part-time, yet it is harder than usual to write. I open up my laptop, intending to work on something, anything, but instead I find myself bouncing from Twitter, to Washington Post, to the New York Times, with a dash of NPR and the New Yorker. Hours pass. My daughter comes in, wanting to go to the climbing gym, and I jump. Doesn’t she know what’s going on? Doesn’t she know all the permutations of social distancing and how we are all supposed to act as if we might be contagious if we have any hope of preventing… I take a breath or two before I speak. But that was a few days ago. In less than a week, enough has changed that she knows almost as much as I do because everything is closing down. And everything that was normal to do even a day before is now inappropriate or somehow sinister. And as I both planned and feared, I can’t visit my mother at her assisted living center for the foreseeable future.

I would say it is distracting if it weren’t such a failure to find the right word. All-consuming? Immobilizing? Unlike an approaching hurricane, this disaster inches forward, and in my country, invisibly until testing is universally available.

Yesterday I took a break from pandemic news to read a nice NY Times Article about how to manage procrastination. The author shared the theory that we procrastinate to avoid negative emotions. And he shared other tips to manage procrastination that reminded me of some of my favorite strategies. What was most helpful for me was to journal about the emotions that are interfering with my writing right now. Nervousness about what is happening. Even more than that, a FOMO (fear of missing out) in which I worry that there will be some important announcement that I need to know that I won’t know if I don’t constantly check the news and Twitter. Even worse, sometimes that seems to be the case. I took a much needed nap the other day and woke to find out that the governor was closing schools for the next two weeks.

So how to get myself to write when I am torn between staring at my screen with dark circles under my eyes or hiding under my covers? I will fall back on some of my old favorites. Write first. When in doubt, write first. Even if I cheat and look at one or two headlines, stop and write first. Looking at Twitter, for example, could be a reward after I get some work done.

Right now, I can’t stop thinking that I should check news reports more than once a day, but I could deliberately limit how long I allow myself to do so.

Finally, I have been remembering my first year of teaching middle school, years ago. It was one of the most challenging years of my life, and for the first few months, I would replay almost everything that happened in my head, constantly trying to figure out what I should do differently. At some point, I realized that I was obsessing about work every minute of the day. While I am all for reflective practice, I had to admit that I wasn’t gaining any benefit from endlessly worrying about how my job was going. So I made it a goal to stop work at a certain time each day, including thinking about work. And what helped me the most in stopping the overthinking was to pick up a favorite book to read and force myself to dive into another world.

So, that’s my plan for now. Write first, set time limits each time I peek at the news, and read for fun once I declare my work day over.

Write on, my friends. And hang on. May we find reason for hope in the face of so much to fear.