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?

Slow Down

Today’s affirmation arrived over a decade ago. I was attending a professional development workshop that included an optional visualization activity in which you identify an obstacle to your success. For me, the obstacle itself was unclear, but my reaction was to whisper to myself, “Slow down.”

Those words made sense to me. In order to achieve goals that matter to me, I need to slow down rather than hurry up. Not stop. Not avoid. Not hide. Keep working but accept that it takes time for the work to unfold. It reminds me of when I took art classes and the goal was to look again and again at the model to see what I was missing in my attempt to draw what was in front of me. It took hours.

I’ve heard and read similar advice in recent years for writers specifically. I don’t know about you, but it’s hard not to feel a bit sulky about this advice. I don’t want to slow down. I want to be some kind of super-writer, soaring across the pages, generating enviable daily word counts that amaze every reader. Every reader! (Ha. I had to rewrite that phrase because it reminds me of another thing that makes me sulky as a writer is the fact that I won’t be able to connect with every reader. In fact, the only way to connect with every reader is to say almost nothing, and that seems, um, pointless.)

This advice also reminds me, at least as a caution, of one of my favorite pieces of advice from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes a man leaning his ladder against a wall and climbing up the ladder as fast as possible. The man appears to be moving quickly, but what good is this effort if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall? In time management terms, you have to slow down at least long enough to find the right wall. Make sure that your efforts are leading you in the right direction.

I suppose this affirmation relates well for where I am right now. I have been taking stock of my writing and re-assessing next steps. It makes me feel restless and uprooted. I am much happier when I am in the thick of a longer writing project. The direction is set, and I can move forward, sometimes quite rapidly. Even then, though, I reach a point when the work grows unwieldy, and I have to navigate more choices and search for changes to make it better. No matter where I am in the process, I always observe other writers generating a constant flow of polished, published works while I move at what is sometimes a snail’s pace within an endless round of not-yet-finished drafts.

Our culture is not a fan of slowing down. I am a bit amused by the memes of people outraged that someone in front of them in traffic is moving more slowly than necessary. The sight of someone paying by check rather than a card seems to wound the people waiting in line at the grocery store. The assumption is that if we aren’t moving quickly, we are falling behind.

But what if the only way to do something well, to say what you mean to say, to fix a problem rather than put a band-aid on it, is to move slowly, thoughtfully, forward? Of course there will be moments when the best response is a quick response, especially in an emergency. And then there’s the siren song of procrastination, so I guess I need to remember that slowing down is not the same as NOT doing the work. It is okay to be slow. This is not a race, not if “this” is something meaningful.

Let others pelt down paths that might lead nowhere. Find your own path. Take one step forward. Another. Breathe. That one step forward is the destination, no matter how small or gradual the movement.

clock set at 9 am

Writing in the flow

Writing about my prime time of 9 am yesterday made me think about the concept of flow. It feels as if I am most likely to experience flow at 9 am each day, and I even have a clock in my office stopped at 9 am to remind me of that feeling.

The concept of flow is often attributed to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. My understanding is that flow refers to the experience of being immersed in a task in a way that is so satisfying that you lose track of time. You are caught up in the flow.

My impression is that flow, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, so it is not necessary to read too much into it if you aren’t sure you have ever experienced flow or the only examples that come to mind are watching a movie or playing a video game, both of which can be enjoyable and deeply engrossing activities but don’t necessarily involve creating something new. At any rate, I know you can be highly creative and/or productive without experiencing flow.

Still, it is a nice concept to consider because it feels great to be immersed in a task, to get carried away by it. Dare I say it? To enjoy what one does! For some reason, this is reminding me of a line from a Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza says he always looks mad when he is at work because otherwise people think you aren’t working. It sometimes seems as if it is inappropriate to experience joy and satisfaction from work. Yet I am radical enough to think that everyone should find an activity that generates the experience of flow (or something like it), whether as a profession or as a hobby.

At any rate, I am most prone to experience flow when I’m writing. This fuses a bit with my interest in time management strategies because I have discovered that routine and momentum boost the likelihood that I will experience flow. To paraphrase “Field of Dreams,” if I build it (the space to write), it (flow) will come.

This also explains why I love writing first drafts the most. That is when I am most likely to get lost in the moment. Editing, on the other hand, is not conducive to flow. For me, it’s usually conducive to feeling grouchy and channeling self-doubt, not to mention requiring many stops and starts. On the other hand, writing new drafts without interruptions is when I can get lost in the moment.

When I got my first full-time job as a teacher, during my first (blissful) summer off, I got into a routine of writing first thing in the morning. I was working on a novel, and I always stopped each day, Hemingway-style, with a sense of what I needed to write next. I found the experience so rewarding that I got up at 6 am without hesitation. I just couldn’t wait to get back to the words.

I don’t always feel that same enthusiasm and satisfaction, and I don’t always experience flow when I write, but routine and momentum (and reducing interruptions and ignoring doubt) help.


I have discovered that if I am not immersed in novel-writing, I am very cranky. Be glad that you are reading this online and not hanging out with me right now. I’m getting on my own nerves.

What I find ironic is that when I am in the midst of novel-writing, I long to be free to dabble on whatever I wish. Technically, that’s where I am right now. As I seek feedback on my novel, I have time to explore, to work on short fiction, to build my blog, to tweet, to research markets, etc. It turns out none of these small actions are especially calming, nor are they less time-consuming than the novel. I also find it daunting to decide what is top priority. When I work on a novel, it’s easy, and I save my prime hours (or minutes, as the case may be) for the novel. Indeed, any other goal for the day waits until I work on the novel.

I don’t have that same focus right now, and it’s making me terribly irritable. I have plenty to do, but apparently I’m not a fan of plenty.

I know, I know. This concern is very low on the long list of Things Deserving Concern right now. My goal is to seek a rhythm and routine that might help me surf through my shifting priorities.