Life / Can Do

Helpful tips to living a better life

7 Ways to Power Through Difficult Tasks

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When faced with a difficult task, it is tempting to throw up ones hands and just give up. Even if we have the option to give up, that task left undone can linger in the back of our minds and be a constant source of stress and feelings of failure.

Here are some ways to get through a difficult task:

1. Break up the task

A task that is too big can usually be broken down into smaller, less daunting tasks. The may be some portion of the task that we are just not ready to tackle so by breaking it down we can still make progress on a portion of the task until we are ready.

For example if you have the task “Redecorate the living room” you may not have enough continuous free time to finish it in one session. You   can break down this task into easily accomplished tasks that can be done quickly. First take a piece of paper or electronic document and one the top of the page write down the short description of the task, “REDECORATE THE LIVING ROOM”. Under that write down all the small tasks that you can think of that need to get done to accomplish this task.

Buy paint and supplies
Order new furniture
Donate existing furniture
Take everything off walls
Buy decorations

2. Start small

What portion or subtask about the main task can you easily accomplish in a short period of time? Figure out what that is and just focus on doing that for now. If even the smallest subtask appears to be overwhelming break it down even further. The key is to get started and just do something, anything related to the main task. Once you get rolling and start chipping away at it you may find that it was not as overwhelming as you first thought.

3. Ask for help

Here’s a trick I employ often and with great results. When I get stuck on a problem and I can’t seem to make headway I will reach out and find someone to help me. It’s best to find someone who has the knowledge or skill you need but even just asking anyone can also be helpful. You may find that after explaining your problem to them, their questions and feedback can help trigger some insight in yourself to get you past the sticking point.

I have a close friend that I often turn to for difficult programming problems. He’s been programming for only a year so the first time I approached him he said, “Why are you asking me? You’re the expert and know more than I do.”. I told him to humor me and just to try his best. At first he would ask questions and then propose wild guesses about how to solve the problem. We would go back and forth a bit but eventually something he would say would trigger a train of thought. At the point it would become clear to me what the solution is.

4. Work backwards

Think about what you are trying to accomplish and imagine it done. Then figure out the thing you needed to do just before you completed the task. With that dependent task in mind think about what you need to do before you could do that. Keep doing that until you get to a dependent task that can be done right away and get to work on that task.

I’ll try to illustrate this with a story:

He decided he wanted to own his own home. His savings are meager and since his parents were renters his whole life he doesn’t know where to begin. The thought of cutting back on his already frugal lifestyle and taking steps to improve his income just seemed so overwhelming to him. So much so, that every time he tries to make plans he is racked with self doubt and fear. These negative feelings cause him to procrastinate and avoid working on his goal.

One day he imagines himself living in his new home. He sees himself entertaining friends and having a good time. He realizes that before that could happen he would have to buy furniture, decorations, appliances, a welcome mat for the front door and other items. He become sullens thinking about how out of reach all that was right now.

The next day, he is out shopping for miscellaneous items at a department store. It is one of those super department stores that sells everything. He is dreading going back to his small apartment so he wanders the store aimlessly. He ends up looking at welcome mats and this stirs his emotions. “If I had a house which welcome mat would I buy?” he asked himself.

He finds one that appeals to him and picks it up. Holding it in his hands he is suddenly struck by a thought, what’s stopping me from buying it now? He looks at the price, $15.95, and despite his limited finances he decides to get it. He makes his purchase and leaves the store.

When he gets home he puts the welcome mat in his bedroom in front of the dresser. As a bedroom decoration it doesn’t work and looks out of place but seeing it there fills him with the belief and determination that he will have a home to go with it.

One year later, he is putting that welcome mat at the front door of his new home.

That story may seem a little far fetched but its a true story. When my wife and I moved into our new home it was an amazing time in our lives. Neither of us had ever believe it could happen so quickly. One day we were just dreaming about buying a home and less than a year later we were moving in. Once we got the idea in our heads to do it, we just kept moving towards that goal. We had doubts – great, big, ugly, scary doubts – but we just kept following the plan. We had to – we already bought the welcome mat.

5. Do it poorly (at first)

Sometimes we try too hard to do things perfectly. Our egos may not let us start unless we are ready to do grade-A work. To get around this, make it a side goal to first make a poor and lazy attempt at getting it done. Turn off your inner critic and just hammer away at the task with no judgement. If you see something you did (or plan to do) that looks stupid, just laugh at yourself and move on, don’t fix it or try to correct your mistake.

Successful writers all know how to do this and it is common practice to write a lousy first draft. Once the first draft is done, then they go back and mine for gems, picking out the best and discarding the rest. Then they repeat the process over and over until they feel it is time to let go.

The key is to go over your work later and fix or discard what’s broken. Be careful not to get too caught in the process of rework in a attempt at perfection. It is important that you are prepared to call it “good enough” and consider the task done.

Of course you can’t directly apply this technique for all tasks. Surgeons don’t have the luxury of doing a poor first try on a patient. But there are ways to go through the motions by using representative models and simulating the task. Pilots learn on flight simulators. Boxers have sparring partners.

There are masterpiece paintings that have been found to have been painted over other works. Apparently famous artists also created first drafts.

6. Have Fun

Try to think of the challenge as a game. You could imagine a game show host giving you the challenge of doing 1 thing that would move your towards your goal. You can give yourself prizes or do a little dance. Do whatever you can think of to make it fun. I knew this programmer who would shout out the words “clap! clap! clap!” as if he was verballing applauding himself whenever he would finish as difficult piece of code. Truly weird, but if it worked for him who am I to judge. In my early years, before I got too haughty to do such things,  I would get up and dance a little jig – computer programmers are weird.

It is important to celebrate and congratulate yourself whenever you complete a difficult task. Have lunch with others involved or get yourself a little gift. If you do this often enough it will provide motivation for the next time you have to work on something difficult. Don’t ever downplay your accomplishments.

7. Consider why you want to accomplish the task

If you have taken on a difficult task willingly there must be a strong reason that is deeply important to you. Sometimes the real reason is not obvious so you have to think hard to find it.

If the task is related to your employment it is not enough to say:

Because it’s my job.

Even if that is the basic truth you can expand on that idea and come up with something more meaningful to you. Go deeper and think about why your job important to you. The more meaningful version could be:

Because it’s my job and I need my job to support my family. My wife and children deserve a better life and if that means I have to do this task then consider it done!

Often the job itself can have its own meaningful purpose. A bank teller may find meaning in helping people with their transactions with a friendly attitude so that they have a sense that their needs are important to the bank and that they are treated with respect.

Bill Gates, former CEO and founder of Microsoft, drove himself to build a multi-billion dollar company and making himself one of the richest men in the world. Most would believe it was greed that drove him and for most of the years he spent building the company, Bill, himself would not have disagreed with that assumption. It was only after his almost unlimited financial success that Bill asked himself why he was doing what he was doing. It was then that he realized it was to make the world a better place and to continue his parents charitable tradition. The accumulation of wealth was just a means to an end and Bill Gates almost lost sight of that. Once he realized this he and his wife started one the most giving charities in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Can every task can be traced back to such profound and philosophical reasons? If you dig deep enough, yes it can. Whether it is as simple as taking out the garbage or picking up groceries or as complex as expanding your business overseas, everything you do is connected in some way to your deep-seated vision of what you truly want to accomplish in your life.

Finding meaning in what you do can be a profoundly powerful motivator. Nothing can stand in the way of person who is working towards a deep and meaningful purpose.

Find your purpose and start conquering your goals.

Written by Tim ThinkAuthor

May 1, 2011 at 2:04 am

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