How do you convince yourself to complete tasks?
Sometimes it’s tough to make a deadline. Sometimes it’s tough to face the day’s challenges. So what strategies can help us get everything — or at least something — done?
1. You know the expression “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”? A similar dynamic is at work with to-do lists: If you do something, you can stop thinking about having to do it. Isn’t that great?
2. Impending tasks have their own penalties, sort of like emotional versions of library fines. They accrue with interest over time. You know when you need to write a note and you put it off? You know how that simple little gesture can start to wake you up at night? The very prospect makes you grind your teeth and chew your cuticles even though it would take exactly four minutes to complete the whole enterprise. Yet that’s what happens with thank-you cards, get-well-soon messages and responses to birth announcements. By the time you get these in the mail, the recipients have already forgotten what gift they’ve given, recovered fully from their ailments, and their kids have entered the military. Realize that if you don’t do them immediately, you’re simply not going to do them.
3. How about when you need to organize your closets? At a certain point you begin to realize that the entities lurking within their unseen recesses are going to start to coalesce and form their own civilization, complete with educational and sewer systems. You know you need to deal with it. How about when you need to make a colonoscopy appointment for precisely the same reason, so that whatever lurks within your own unseen recesses doesn’t start to form its own civilization? There are things better dealt with than left in the dark. Time’s proverbial powers of healing won’t work with materials you can’t see, face or remember.
4. Avoiding unnecessary big deals is the best way to have a happy life. Try not to let things loom. Looming does nothing in terms of creating appeal: Even a looming kitten, bunny or Labradoodle puppy is terrifying. As soon as you permit tasks to tower over you, they’re entirely out of perspective. Think of it this way: A splinter can make you uncomfortable but if, with a certain amount of stoicism, you deal with the splinter swiftly, the episode is done. Ignore it, however, and it can fester and become infected. It can start to poison the otherwise healthy tissue (sorry if you’re eating) around it. More difficult and more complicated to extricate, what was once a tiny issue becomes a big deal.
5. You’ll always get more done if you’ve already done a lot. That’s why a lot of list-makers often write the easiest task at the beginning. If you really want to cheat, you can start with something you’ve already done, but that’s a bad habit, like chewing gum instead of brushing your teeth.
As my former student, Elizabeth Flannigan, puts it, “Organization of both time and space is basically just telling yourself, ‘You’ll thank me for this in the morning.’ I try to make things easier for future me, whether that means getting the closet cleaned so I can easily find my clothes for the day or making my lunch the night before so I don’t have to scramble when I’m still half-asleep and trying to get out the door.”
I first learned the importance of getting things done when I was in my early teens and my mother got sick. I came to literalize the phrase “you make your bed, and then you lie in it” when I realized that I was going to make my own bed from then on. I became skittish about unfinished business; I became wary of the incomplete. Making a list and taking care of myself made me feel at least slightly in control of a world that, as I was learning, was chaotic and unpredictable. I was taking care of my future self in the best way I knew how.
We might not know when or how we’ll finish, but we all have the chance to begin.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.