This was a question I was recently asked on Quora, but it’s one that comes up almost daily during coaching sessions with my clients. So, here’s a slightly edited version of my response. While geared towards entrepreneurs, it applies to anyone who wants to get things done but occasionally loses momentum.
The reality is that you won’t always feel motivated, even if you generally love what you do. You’ll feel frustration, anxiety, confusion and boredom (and those are the easy ones!). Even when motivated, you may feel stuck and not able to activate (an executive function of initiating action that doesn’t always correlate with motivation, or wanting to do something).
So, start from this reality and accept you will have challenges staying motivated (even if you didn’t have ADHD, being an entrepreneur is difficult, but having it does make things tougher). But also realize you have solutions! (And not just for getting motivated, but for most entrepreneurial stressors.)
Prepare some strategies and workarounds in advance, so you can pull them out of your handy ‘SOS: I Need Help’ toolbox. This may be a physical box with index cards, a computer or phone file, an actual file folder, or a paper or electronic notebook. Sometimes, we need pre-packaged options to choose from, as ‘doing what comes naturally’ just doesn’t cut it, and it’s easy to forget ideas we’ve had in the past – even ones that worked. Memory is not reliable, especially when feeling overwhelmed. So, when something (a strategy, tool, system, mindset, etc.) works or sounds inspiring, make a note of it and put it in that toolbox. You may need it, or a variation, in the future. At other times, you’ll be able to use an uncomfortable situation as a springboard to inspire your innovative mind to create success strategies on the fly. When you begin thinking like a detective, you will discover solutions that had eluded you when you were caught up in a victim mentality. Go for it!
Allow for ‘Down Time’: Realize that being an entrepreneur is time and energy consuming to the extreme, which drains motivation. Build in white space; free time to recharge your batteries (even at the expense of not getting everything done as scheduled). Make time to reset your brain by being outside, by exercise, mindfulness or meditation, journaling, reading, listening to or playing music, doing hobbies like artwork or gardening, playing with pets or spending time with friends and family you like (note the caveat there!), napping, volunteering, etc. You don’t have time, you say. True, but if you don’t make time, you’re working with the law of diminishing returns. As the airlines say, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Stepping away often gives new perspectives and greater energy (how many ideas do you have in the shower, or when taking a walk?).
Edit Your ‘DO’ Lists: Of those things on your ‘Do’ list, what can you Modify? Delay? Delete? Delegate? Outsource? Not everything is urgent, and even if it is, there’s usually a way to change other’s expectations so you can still deliver, so long as you are clear and considerate in your communications. Or change your expectations about your deliverable, so you’ll want to get it done. Watch out for paralysis by analysis, overthinking or over-researching. Perfection is the enemy of productivity and motivation. Create a ‘Do NOT Do’ list so you don’t get sidetracked. Create a place to jot down non-immediate ideas or concepts (a Parking Lot for your thoughts) so you don’t lose them, but don’t get distracted by those brighter, shinier objects.
Change Your Systems: Expedite what you can so you spend less time on routine (boring) tasks, whether it’s better organization for greater efficiency, setting up templates for repetitive tasks, using productivity-related software or creating systems that improve ongoing processes. Let go of the guilt or need to do it all and get help where you struggle. If you are spending an inordinate amount of time doing tasks that can be delegated or outsourced, hire someone so you can focus on your strengths. You’ll make less profit initially, but you’ll develop a much more powerful business with less likelihood of burnout. Sometimes we just need some support and compassionate accountability. Join a mastermind group, find a business accountability partner who will also benefit, or hire a supportive coach.
Planning Time Saves Doing Time: When there’s so much to do we want to just jump in and get going – until we’re overwhelmed and lose motivation. Build in time for long-term, weekly and daily planning. You’ll save that time and more because your ‘doing time’ will be more effective and targeted towards success.
Avoid Overwhelm. While some pressure or stress is helpful for pushing us towards action, too much will trigger the ‘Fight-Flight-or-Freeze’ response. It’s brain-based and automatic. So, know your triggers. Often, this happens when we confuse a Project with a Task. You can’t DO a project, you can only work on a specific task. The more specific, the easier it is to begin it, whereas when we think of doing a project, all the elements lump together and feel overwhelming, triggering brain-based avoidance (this is NOT a moral/laziness issue!).
Keep Your End-Goal in Mind. Sometimes we get so caught up in the daily pressures that we lose track of why we became entrepreneurs. What does your work mean to you, to others, to the world? Why did you start what you are doing? What do you hope to achieve? Maybe you are going through a rough patch. Maybe you want to rethink some of the details. But you’re in it for a reason. Keep a reminder of that initial vision where you’ll see it.
An unrealized goal is nothing more than a dream. It’s your choice:
Keep it a fantasy or work towards attaining your goal.
Dreams Can and Do Come True When:
- Desire is strong enough and not in conflict with your basic life values
- Goals are clearly defined and at least partially grounded in reality
- Planning is realistic, taking your resources and motivation into account
- Effort is real, as is your belief that you can do it, so ‘I want’ becomes ‘I will!’
We all talk about making positive changes, and that’s great. But ask yourself how often those changes actually happen. Good intentions aren’t enough — you need a plan, and it has to be one that fits with your life. So set yourself up for success by following these Eight Steps to Turn Your Goals into Reality!
Set a realistic Long-Term Goal. This is a goal that is meaningful, but not necessarily easy. It will take work, and time, to accomplish, but it is do-able.
You may want to be rich, and you might get there (if you’re not already). That could be your long-term goal, but it would be easier to work towards a goal that seems more attainable, even given your current circumstances. Link your goal with a positive, emotionally motivating benefit. State it as a desire, then remove the possibility of failure and state it as a fact. Here’s an example:
“I want to be more financially secure. I will be financially secure.”
Establish one Interim Goal. What is one thing you can do that will contribute towards the success of your long-term goal? Buying lottery tickets is one option, but the odds of success are minimal. A better goal:
“I want to/I will manage my money better so I’ll have more of it.”
Consider what gets in the way. Examine your life and be honest with yourself as you ask, “What issues in my life are making it difficult to achieve this goal?”
My expenses are very high… My income is too low… I already owe on credit cards and back taxes… I don’t spend enough time on financial matters (it’s easier for me to ignore things and hope they work out)…
Isolate specific actions that you can change (now or in the near future). This is where you explore anything that you can do or change to help attain your goal. Here are some options for better money management:
I can stop eating out almost every night… I can plan my wardrobe better and buy during sales… I can move to a less expensive apartment… I can look for a better job… I can pay my bills on time and avoid late fees and interest… I can pull my paperwork together and file past taxes to minimize penalties… I can renegotiate my mortgage… I can get a better handle on where I spend money… I can create a budget that includes regular savings…
Justify (buy-into) each option, or table It as unlikely to work. Ask yourself what are the benefits of making a specific change. Put it in writing. As an example, here are reasons to support the specific action of not eating out every night:
Eating out every night is expensive… It loses the “fun factor” and is time consuming, so I have less time for other interests… It promotes drinking, which is a problem and additional expense… I spend more on gas or car service… It is more difficult to eat healthy when I have all of those menu options in front of me…
Examine the down side of change, isolate potential problems and explore creative solutions. Don’t just ignore the possible pitfalls, or your plans to change won’t last very long. Continuing the ‘eating out less’ example:
Problem: Eating out is my main social activity. I don’t want to give this up!
Solution: I’ll eat out on Fridays and Saturdays, and really plan and enjoy this.
Note: Give yourself permission to act with forethought and moderation, rather than overreact by completely eliminating eating out.
Problem: I never have anything good to eat in the house.
Solution: I’ll use an app to set up a simple meal plan and block in time for a weekly shopping expedition — especially for foods I like… or I can shop online and have the food delivered.
Problem: I hate to cook and don’t want to spend my time in the kitchen!
Solution: I’ll check out services that prepare and deliver meals for a week. It’s probably still less expensive than always eating out — and healthier!
Take steps to make these changes happen! Ask yourself: What can I realistically do to solve this problem? List each specific action you are willing to do in order to make your new plan work. Turn your project into do-able tasks.
How and when will I do it? Assign a specific time to each action, and schedule it on your calendar as a Task-Appointment. Without an assigned task and time, it is likely to remain a fantasy! So if you plan to eat out only on Fridays and Saturdays, schedule a time to confirm with friends or family in advance… make restaurant reservations, if necessary… download coupons or Groupons to save even more…
How can I make this easier/self-motivate? What can you do that will make staying with your plan easier?
Build in immediate rewards:
- Combine your grocery-buying with a special event (getting a massage, meeting a friend for coffee, etc.)
- Link it to something you already do each week. “After yoga class on Wednesdays I pass by Whole Foods, so I’ll go food shopping.”
- Associate doing it with giving yourself permission to spend time on something else, guilt-free. “I’ll shop after work every Tuesday, have fresh store-made BBQ chicken for dinner then spend the evening catching up on my favorite TV shows.”
- Create a ‘fun factor’: “I’ll invite a friend over on Sunday and we’ll both prepare meals for the week”… “My partner and I will have a mini-date night making dinner together”… “I’ll take a cooking class at the Y”…
- Reinforce your goal: Bank the money you’ll save by not eating out, and use the time you’ll gain to join a book club, paint, play guitar, or do whatever brings you joy!
Build in reminders:
- Visual: Have a photo that represents your long-term goal as a screen-saver.
- Physical: Keep a money jar to represent your savings (dimes instead of dollars?)
- Emotional: Post an attractive affirmation of the benefits you will get from your actions… Mention that ego-boosting self-respect you’ll get from working towards something that is important to you!
- Auditory: Have set times to listen to podcasts on topics related to achieving your long-term goal.
Monitor Progress. When we begin something new, we are high on the excitement, challenge and novelty of the project, and eager to see results and reach our goal. So we stay interested, but, sigh…, not for long. Frustration kicks in and other priorities and new bright and shiny objects will take precedence, unless we reinforce and frequently encourage our commitment. If we’re serious about change, we need to track progress (or lack of) to keep it in the forefront.
Track your actions. Write down everything you are doing, or have planned to do, to help reach your long-term goal. Then track how often and how well you are actually following through with those actions. Studies show that people who want to lose weight do better if they write down everything they eat – this is the same concept.
Maintain self-awareness. Tracking your actions isn’t enough. You’ll want to determine how well they are serving you in reaching your long-term goal. Ask yourself, “What am I doing?”… “How am I doing?”… Be honest in your feedback. Ask “What can I change for the better?”… Take time to consider whether your plans need to be modified, delayed, delegated or deleted. Note: Build this review into your regular Planning Time (weekly, or at the least, monthly).
Prepare for dead-ends. It is difficult to maintain actions, however well-intentioned and thought out, over an extended period of time. Sometimes we are fortunate, and actions become sustainable habits or routines. But not always, so be prepared to switch directions when what was working stops being effective, and substitute a different strategy.
Give yourself credit! Even for those baby steps you take to make progress towards your long-term goal. If getting there wasn’t a challenge, you wouldn’t have had to put so much effort into making it happen. So be your own best cheerleader for what you’ve done, instead of critically focusing on what you haven’t yet accomplished.
Hint: Don’t strive for perfection; it’s a set-up for failure!
Get help. It is easier to stay on-track when you have outside ACCOUNTABILITY! Consider working with an accountability partner (preferably, not a spouse or partner) or a supportive coach. I can offer you a terrific online accountability/action group, The TUIT Project, or individual coaching to help you clarify your goals, determine the best strategies to achieve them, and provide support to make this process easier and more successful.
Summary of the Process:
Turning Goals Into Reality
Long-Term Goal: “I want to be more financially secure; I will be financially secure.”
One Interim Goal: “I will manage my money better!”
One Short-Term Goal: “I will cut down on expenses.”
One Action Goal: “I will stop eating out almost every night.”
One Action Step: “I will check out price options for home delivery of meals.”
SNOW DAYS – For many, it means working from home. Great for avoiding hazardous roads, but when it comes to productivity, there are some built-in hazards you’ll have to negotiate. Remember these three words to make your work-at-home days more successful. WORD #1: Preparation – Yes, follow the Boy Scout credo and be prepared
Snow Day in Ossining, Westchester NY by Susan Lasky
Always have a work-related contact list and critical info (passwords, etc.) at home – snow day or not.
- If possible, sync your office computer with your phone and laptop or tablet. Don’t depend on being able to access your office computer remotely; the internet may go down in bad weather.
- As an extra precaution, print out the contact list and other critical information. (Do this periodically.) It is possible the electric may fail, especially in areas with snow-laden tree branches and exposed wires. You may need the printout to make an emergency call or two. (Keep your cell phone charged and have a spare, charged power source in case it does – consider investing in a solar-powered charger.)
If you have advance warning of the snowstorm, give thought as to what you can work on at home that would be the most productive use of your time.
- These may be tasks that will help you finish an important project you are working on now, or a project you’ve been meaning to get to that you haven’t had time for in the office, or it may be a good opportunity to do some planning, away from the urgency and interruptions of office life.
- Gather any materials you’ll need to do the work from home. Again, don’t count on being able to remotely access office computers, assuming your company even has that technology available for your use. (Take note, company execs – given this year’s weather, it may be time to review your policies on secure networks and remote access).
WORD #2: Expectation – Be realistic, this is NOT another day at the office There is a limit to what you will be able to accomplish – choose carefully – don’t promise (even yourself) more than you can reasonably deliver. Realize that you WILL have distractions – house chores will call to you (especially if the work you plan on doing is less than fully engaging): “Straighten up … clean … cook … patch the hole in the wall … organize the closet … ” PUT ON THE BLINDERS. If you were at the office, you wouldn’t be tempted. You will probably receive, or have to make, some personal phone calls. This is not a day for chatting, although others who are stuck at home but not working may think it is. Limit the calls, as you would at work, “Hi, how are you? I’m okay, but working… will call you back.” Children – they are home as well, and DO need your attention. Build in time to spend with them – you can’t work a full schedule unless they are older or you have in-home childcare. Take an hour and go out sledding with the children. You can be just as productive – even more productive – for having taken a play break. Then don’t worry if you use the TV or a video to babysit part of the time. Consider a project they can do nearby, while you do yours – have some ideas in advance (Preparation!). WORD #3: Clarity – Know what to do, and when to stop Be VERY specific in terms of what you will work on – the more focused you are, the more productive you’ll be in what could become a very distracting environment. Begin the day with a clear and detailed written outline of what you have decided to accomplish. This helps to maintain a focused work ethic at home (and gets you back on track after external or internal interruptions). Create your own benchmark – have a goal that, when achieved, will make you feel you had a fulfilling stay-at-home workday. Reach your benchmark and STOP WORKING. Celebrate with a cup of hot chocolate, or maybe some tea, laced with rum and spices (I think they call that a hot toddy ).
There is often a collapse in our understanding when it comes to getting things done. We’re taught to believe that if we were really motivated, we would get started on that work project, organize the closet or declutter the entry. We’re told that if we really cared about our family’s health, we would consistently prepare tasty, nutritious meals. We tell ourselves that if we’re not exercising or finishing the online course we started, lack of willpower and poor self-image is to blame. If only we tried harder… Maybe, but not likely.
Activation, unlike motivation, is an executive function skill, also known as Initiation. That means it is brain-based in an area of our brain (the frontal lobes) that may not be as consistently high-performing as we’d like. Especially so for people with ADD / ADHD. This is the area of our brain that is largely responsible for things like organization, time management, prioritization and activation (the ability to get started on something). It is easily overwhelmed by too much to do, confusion as to how to do things, or the dread that comes when a project seems too big or boring to be easily accomplished.
That’s when the protective amygdala— the part of our brain that helps us to manage stress— steps in with its fight, flight or freeze response. So we go into avoidance mode. OK, this is an oversimplification, but it helps us to understand WHY we find that doing some things becomes so challenging that we continually procrastinate, even if we are motivated to get them done.
Just because we’ve decided to do something, doesn’t mean we will actually get it done – despite motivation by desire, rewards or dire consequences. This lack of ability to get going can be both frustrating and scary!Here are eight strategies to help you overcome overwhelm, minimize the avoidance factor, get activated and successfully accomplish your goals.
Stop Identifying Yourself by Failure. Procrastinator. Lack of willpower. Lazy. Unmotivated. Selfish. Inconsiderate. Untrustworthy. These are words that make me want to quit, not put in the effort needed to overcome a brain-based executive function challenge. So recognize that despite the widespread ‘Just do it’ mentality, it’s often necessary to find work-arounds. Let go of the negative self-talk. Accept that you’re having difficulty beginning a task, and instead of being self-critical and judgmental (which accomplishes nothing), be gentle with yourself. You may be anxious about the task, uncertain about how to get it done, uncomfortable about doing it (like calling a company to complain about something), or stuck because you might ‘do it wrong.’ Avoid paralysis by analysis. Often all that’s needed is that first step, which is what activation is about. Identifying what is getting in the way is part of the solution. It’s important to take action despite your feelings, but it helps to understand them. Studies show that you’re 50% more effective if you first get clarity as to why it’s tough to get going, than you’d be if you just push through and try to get it done.
Set Aside Planning Time and Action Time. They are not the same. Planning time is for deciding exactly WHAT you are going to do, and HOW you’ll get it done. It’s the time to determine your priorities and decide WHEN you’ll actually work on your tasks (your Action times). It’s the time to make DECISIONS, so they don’t hold up your progress once you start working. Sometimes we plan to do something without being realistic about how much available time we actually have (the ‘white space’ in our calendars). So when planning, take all of your time commitments into account. And don’t overplan. Activation takes effort, so leave space for recharging, along with time to deal with interruptions, unexpected tasks or spill-overs from tasks that take longer than planned. If you skip Planning time and go directly to Action time, it’s easy to lose focus on what is most important and spend that Action time pursuing any new bright and shiny object (or checking emails, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.). If you haven’t planned very specific tasks for your Action time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all of the options when you are ready to work.
Use your Planning time to gain CLARITY. What are the specific tasks that will enable you to make progress towards your goal? A project is too big to ‘do’ in one sitting, so the thought of ‘doing’ an entire project is overwhelming, resulting in avoidance rather than clarity. It’s easier to activate when there’s something very specific to do, with no conflicting priorities and a set time for starting –and ending– your efforts. It’s the way you solve that proverbial question, “How do you eat an elephant?” (the project you tend to avoid because it’s just too big, scary or unappetizing). How? One bite at a time! Begin by breaking the project into do-able tasks, or individual bites that aren’t too painful to swallow. The smaller you make them, the easier they’ll fit into your busy schedule. Prioritize those tasks (what has to be done before you can move on to the next task?). WRITE DOWN THE STEPS! Then, when you are in Action time, put on your blinders to stay focused on the designated task.
Make the Task more Appealing. How can you turn a need-to, should-do or must-do into a want-to? Same task, different attitude. Even then activation may be difficult, but it’s easier when you see a positive reason for accomplishing a task (even if it’s just to get it over with so it no longer gives you angst!). How can you add a fun element to the task? Some ideas: Do it with a friend, working together or just in parallel play… get out of your home or office and work in a coffee shop or park… upgrade your writing tools with a special pen and appealing notebook… promise yourself a reward for getting the task accomplished (even if it’s just some guilt-free ‘me’ time)… make finishing the task a game… have a giant check-off list, etc. Or try one of my favorites: get to work on it to avoid doing a task that’s even less appealing! Remember the benefit. Write down what you will gain from finishing the task. Keeping the goal in mind can make the work that goes into accomplishing it less onerous.
Think Progress, not Perfection. It’s easier to eat the elephant (work on that task or project) when you feel like it, or when you’re really hungry (deadline anyone?). But that’s a less effective way of ensuring you successfully accomplish your business or personal goals than if you were to commit to taking small, palatable bites every day (consistent effort). Prioritize the bites and keep them small, triumphing over your perfectionistic avoidance tendencies. Consistent small bites get things done!
Take a Short Detour to Gain Momentum. Sitting and staring at a blank screen won’t get that blog written. First, try doing a tiny action, like writing one sentence. This small action will often get you over the inertia hump, so you can continue. But if you find yourself unable to initiate action, take a detour. Do something physical (energizes your body and your mind). Take a short nature break (relaxes the anxiety and provides a feeling of well-being you can take back to your desk). Call a positive friend and make plans to do something fun. Listen to music that energizes and helps you stay focused. Make sure you eat and drink (dehydration contributes to brain fog). If you take medication, check that you’ve taken it. If you need ten minutes of down time, take it – even if it’s to check your social media or email (be safe and set a STOP alarm!). Remind yourself of your commitment to get to your Action task, and then, refreshed, get back to work.
Be Aware of Transition Trauma. Sometimes it’s hard to stop one activity to begin another. Our brains just don’t want to make the switch. Be clear as to what you plan to do when. Write it on your Daily Action List. Put it in your calendar as a Task-Appointment. Use alarms to define your Action times and alert you that it’s time to begin (activate). Get up and move between activities so you can clear the Zombie-like focus, or hyperfocus, from a previous task (or from that computer solitaire marathon session).
Find an Accountability Partner. When someone else cares whether we’ve accomplished what we said we would, we’re more likely to get it done. This is often difficult when you work alone. Just as it’s easier to get to the gym when you go with a friend, it’s easier to get activated and work towards your goals when there are others who are supportive of your efforts and cheerleaders for overcoming your challenges. Share with a non-judgmental friend, join a mastermind group, consider the benefits of individual coaching, or join a group like my TUIT Project, which is designed to provide support and accountability. A new online group begins each month—visit OvercomeOverwhelm.com.
Also consider the benefits of individual coaching. Contact Susan Lasky Productivity Solutions to discuss how coaching could help you move forward and have a less stressful, more fulfilling life. Susan is based in Westchester, but works virtually anywhere. She can be reached at 914-373-4787 or Susan@SusanLasky.com. You can schedule a convenient, no-cost or obligation Initial Consult at https://SusanLasky.AcuityScheduling.com.
As a productivity and organization coach, I emphasize that the most important concept for being productive is CLARITY. What – exactly – am I going to do, how and when am I going to do it?
Since time is limited and the things we plan usually take longer to complete than we anticipate, setting PRIORITIES is critical, or we’ll never feel truly successful – there’s always something else we ‘should’ have accomplished.
Sometimes, the Big Picture is just too big! When we begin thinking about everything, it’s easy to feel anxious (and go into avoidance mode). But when we set aside planning time to decide our key goals and prioritize them, we gain direction and lessen anxiety. This also helps us to be more realistic about what can truly be accomplished in a given time period.
So ask yourself, “What are my PRIORITIES – for today (now), this week or next (soon), in the near future (later) or for now, (whenever).” Priorities change; some get moved up, some pushed back and others deleted, so a weekly Planning/Review Session is helpful. This can be with yourself, but also with your spouse or partner for family and home matters, or with your boss or staff for work-related issues.
Without clarity, which requires prioritization, we’re in that state of confusion or overwhelm that holds us back from doing anything completely or efficiently. With clarity, knowing our priorities, we can more easily put on those blinders to block out distractions, whether external or internal. (A good reason to keep your Parking Lot list handy, so when those distracting ideas, should-do’s, etc. pop up and potentially take you off-task, you can capture, but not get caught up by them.) This clarity drives action and increases productivity.
Once we know what to do, it’s important to decide how we’ll get it done. That’s where project management becomes critical to success. Project management may sound complicated and overkill, but it is a simple way to make it easier to get even fairly simple jobs done.
Many to-do’s, including some that at first glance seem easy, may require a multitude of specific tasks. They are actually projects, not tasks! Even something as seemingly uncomplicated as ‘Clean your room’ can leave some people confused or even overwhelmed, which makes it a job likely to be avoided. Breaking it down into steps and writing down those steps helps make the job more do-able. Leave a space for adding a checkmark as it gets done!. If you are giving chores to young children, use graphics in addition to words on the checklist. Verbally telling someone the items on a list is a recipe for failure, as is trying to remember every step. Most people, especially those with ADHD or Executive Function (EF) challenges, cannot retain much more than one or two steps in their short term memory.
Consider ‘Clean your room’ vs. having a checklist specifying: ‘Pick up any trash and discard it… Bring any dishes to the kitchen… Pick up your clothes and put the dirty ones in the hamper… Hang up or fold the clean ones… Put the comforter over your bed, etc. BTW, this is why many people get overwhelmed by the idea of decluttering; they lump everything together, making it totally challenging to do. We can only accomplish one task at a time, and the smaller, the better!
That’s why project planning is so critical to success (as much as we may dislike the specificity that planning entails!). One minute of planning can save as much as 20-40 minutes of action – or inaction. So unless we take the planning time to spell out each of the individual tasks the project requires (tasks being single-focused actions that can more easily be accomplished in a single time block), and in what sequence we’ll ‘attack’ those tasks, we risk feeling overwhelmed.
And what happens when we’re overwhelmed? On the neurological level, our protective amygdala perceives it as a threat, kicks in and takes over from our rational frontal lobes/executive function brain. Instead of tackling our project, we’re more likely to go into the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response where avoidance rules. Not very helpful for getting things done!
So the more specific we are about what we are going to do and when we plan to do it (clarity and priority), the more likely that we’ll successfully accomplish our goal.
A simple example of how clarity makes a difference: “I want to go to the gym on Wednesday” vs. “I’m going to the 11:15 Intro to Pilates class, so I’ll have to leave at 10:45.” Which statement is more likely to produce results?
Most of us feel overwhelmed by the many important, but not always urgent, tasks and projects that we need/want/have to or should do. We’re frustrated and stressed by our failure to get it all done.
What gets in the way? It isn’t necessarily a lack of motivation that’s holding us back, but the challenges that come from a lack of time and/or clarity:
- What to do – conflicting priorities because there are just too many options
- When to do it – lack of time to do it all (we’re not always realistic about our time and energy!)
- How to get it done – confusion about how to accomplish a task or project
Other action-stoppers include:
- Procrastination, due to the lack of a pressing deadline or consequence
- Avoidance of tasks that are particularly difficult or boring
- Inability to activate, or just get started (begin stuck in the ‘off’ position)
- Time blindness that leads to poor planning – it’s either now, or not now
So, How DO We Get Anything Done?
Many people, especially those with ADHD, are ‘burst workers.’ It takes us so long to activate, that when we finally get going on something, we want to get all of the mileage we can. So we wait until the last minute then shift into hyperfocus mode, then get so caught up in what we’re doing that it’s hard to stop. It helps when there’s a deadline, as there are no longer conflicting priorities, and the adrenaline (think stimulant) is naturally flowing, helping with concentration.
But what if there isn’t a deadline? What if it is a project that’s important, but not urgent?
Start by Making the Project Do-Able… and Avoid Overwhelm
Projects can be complicated, and often involve many steps that can take a lot of time to complete. Just thinking about a project (instead of an individual task) can lead to feeling overwhelmed. Our protective brain perceives overwhelm as a threat, triggering the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. So instead of the increased clarity and focus we need to get things accomplished, we’re more likely to escape into avoidance mode.
The only way a project becomes do-able is when it’s broken down into tasks (individual components). Tasks allow you to focus on doing just one thing at a time. Yet sometimes, accomplishing even a single task can be challenging.
Think about it: How do you eat an elephant? Bite-by-bite. How does Pac-Man win? Byte-by-byte. How do you tackle a project, bit by bit, step-by-step or task-by-task!
Enter the Tortoise Approach… Slow and Steady Wins the Race
How to Overcome Avoidance, and Cross the Finish Line (Get it Done!)
Start by choosing one very specific task (or mini-project) that will help you accomplish your project or long-term goal.
- If your project is to send out weekly blogs, your task is to write one blog
- If your project is to declutter your office, your task is to organize your desktop.
- If your project is to find a new job, your task is to update your resume.
You can put the task on your calendar as a Task-Appointment (an appointment with yourself to accomplish a specific task at a specific time).
But putting it on the calendar doesn’t mean you’ll get it done.
We’re most likely to complete things when there’s a looming deadline with consequences, when it’s a task we really enjoy, or if we’re trying to avoid something that’s even less appealing! Otherwise, so many things can get in the way, and we wind up with a large number of important tasks that we never seem to get around to completing.
So make the task more do-able by making it even smaller:
- Instead of writing a blog, jot down your ideas for the blog.
- Instead of organizing your desktop, clear the space around your keyboard.
- Instead of updating your resume, make a list of your job responsibilities.
The smaller the task, the more likely you’ll be to do it – especially if you’ve assigned a time to work on it.
Slow down and limit the amount of time you work on the task (so you’re more willing to do it!)
- These are the tasks that you haven’t been able to accomplish burst-working, so try a different approach – don’t try to get it all done in a day. Think progress, not immediate completion. (Also, be wary of perfection, which is often the enemy of progress).
- Assign just 20 minutes to the task, or if that seems like too much effort, go for 15 minutes… or even 10.
- The goal is to make your task-time short enough that you’ll actually get to it. You can do almost anything for 10 minutes! Don’t worry about finishing the task (unless you are on a deadline). The way you’ll finish is with consistent effort.
Shoot for the minimum time and set a timer
to keep you honest! If you’re on a roll and want
to work longer, it’s okay to keep the momentum going if
there’s nothing else you have scheduled. If you are still
having a hard time getting started on the task, use a timer
that shows the remaining minutes disappearing – so the end is actually in sight!
Like the tortoise, keep plodding onward.
Studies show that authors complete more books when they write for ten minutes a day than when they wait for the time and inspiration to do burst-writing sessions.
Commit to working on your task, or other parts of the project, on a regular basis (every day, four times a week, or whatever makes sense for you).
Even if you absolutely don’t feel like it, or you’ve been swamped by other, more pressing tasks, by carving out these short but regular sessions to work on tasks related to that important, but neglected project, you will get it done!
Often it helps to have other people to encourage your efforts and hold you accountable. My new program, Your Online Action Group, does just that, with the TUIT Project (so you’ll finally get around to it!). It’s inexpensive and super supportive. Everything is online or recorded, so no problem if you miss something. Check it out at www.OvercomeOverwhelm.com.
For individual coaching or group training, go to www.SusanLasky.com or contact me at Susan@SusanLasky.com.
Productivity, ADD/ADHD & Organization Coach at Susan Lasky Productivity Solutions
Susan Lasky helps people who are overworked, overwhelmed or disorganized to get things done by working with the way they think. For more than 25 years she’s helped them find the right tools and strategies to better manage their time, priorities, paperwork, projects, space and stuff, so they gain more time, energy and focus to grow their business, succeed in school or the workplace, balance work/home/self-care and truly live a life they love!
Susan is a Board Certified Coach, Senior Certified ADHD Coach, Edge-Certified Student Coach and Level II Specialist in Chronic Disorganization, as well as a trained Organizer-Coach and Office Productivity & Systems Consultant, certified Career & Life Planning Specialist, Holistic Time Mastery Coach, and a Golden Circle member of NAPO, National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals.