How can I get a balance of interesting and important things done?
July 4, 2011 1:58 PM   Subscribe

My job has a lot of responsibilities and some of them are more interesting and appealing than others. Sometimes I find myself blocked on some of the ones I like less, especially when they have stressful consequences. For example, I often need to write detailed reports for higher-ups (stressful and not enjoyable!), but I'd rather be designing new CSS stylesheets. Sometimes I just stress out about writing for a whole day and don't get anything done. I've thought of doing something more enjoyable and lower priority but I'm worried that when I'm done with that, the high-priority tasks will still be there, and they won't be any easier, appealing, or less stressful. Has anyone had any success breaking up their work like this? Have any strategies for success? How do I know how much time I can afford to spend on the low-priority stuff? How can I avoid just procrastinating on the important stuff while doing the things that make me love my job?
posted by rwatson to Work & Money (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Use a timer. Work for 15 minutes on the stuff you dislike, then 15 on the enjoyable tasks. Sometimes just STARTING is the difficult part, and you won't need to stop after 15 minutes.
posted by raisingsand at 2:19 PM on July 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here are some tools that have helped me:

1. Put a handle on it before you put it down

When the project is first assigned to you, verbally walk through the steps of getting it done, and tell your work advisor "this helps me." Try to, right there on the spot, break it down so it seems insignificant. Once you're done with that, write down the next, most simple step toward finishing it that takes less than 2 minutes to accomplish, no matter how easy it sounds.

Then you can file it away and work on other stuff, if you have other schedule demands. You've just put a handle on it that will help you pick it up later.

This tool works well with:

2. Document your most stressful work tasks in one place

If you're preparing a report, and you've just got past the procrastination hump, start writing down every step you're doing. Or turn on an audio recorder and announce what you're doing as you do it.

"I am saving my Word template in Boss's network folder called "Report-in-progress.doc."
"I am opening the Word template."
"I am typing in the current year."
"I am opening a web browser window."
"I am going to the intranet and clicking on 'data downloads'"

Over time you'll build up a fantastically low-impact ramp that will take you up to where you want to be.

3. Break all tasks down into less-than-2-minute steps; write time guesstimate next to each task

In your task list:

"1. TOP PRIORITY Finish report BY TOMORROW" ---> Awful

"1. Open word document and start report" ---> Better

"Navigate to Boss's network folder. Double-click template file. Write today's date on top of document. (30 seconds)"

Very soon you will have an incredibly easy task list. Cross them out as you do them. Repeat. Yay!

4. Do not prioritize

Prioritization is a great way to build up gigantic mountains of stress in your head. Conversely, if you want to build up working task momentum, don't do it.

Your brain is smart enough to know what's a priority. Keep that in your head and just work on any task that strikes your fancy.

...and good luck! This stuff can be worse at some times than others, but I've found that it's best to slowly build up a set of tools that work for you over time.

Please consider seeing a consultant, coach, or therapist with the goal of helping you put your blocker-concerns in their place. Those people have HUGE toolsets from which you can borrow.
posted by circular at 2:21 PM on July 4, 2011 [5 favorites]

Oops, that should be "(30 seconds)' ---> Best" ha ha
posted by circular at 2:22 PM on July 4, 2011

I totally know what you're talking about. I've been working at a growing start-up company for a few years now, and there's lots of less than thrilling stuff that has needed to be done. A big +1 on the previous answers here, and also:

It's not only about the work. It's also about you. If you're relaxed and well balanced mentally, then the "hard to get going at" tasks become much much much easier.

Exercise! Meditation!
posted by krilli at 2:58 PM on July 4, 2011

I've found the Autofocus system for keeping a to-do list to be helpful for the not-so-fun tasks.

There are several different flavors (described in the link above) but they all have a "backlog" and the idea of clearing your backlog (without being rigidly confined to a specific order.) I find clearing the backlog to be absurdly rewarding for some reason. Maybe it'll work for you, too.

The critical thing is you don't have to complete a task to get your reward; you get to move it forward on the list as long as you've done anything that advances the project. I also try to do as circular says and record to-do items that are as specific and small as possible—Next Actions, a la Getting Things Done—which makes it easy. You quickly complete the task, cross it off the backlog, record the next Next Action for the project, and feel like a boss.
posted by BrashTech at 3:20 PM on July 4, 2011

If the tasks you dislike are similar to writing reports, some of the techniques described in NaNoWriMo might help. They basically advocate keeping lots of snacks and drinks on hand and rewarding yourself often. Did you finish a paragraph? Have a mini-snickers! (or carrot stick, or pretzel, or whatever floats your boat)

I create eLearning modules as a large part of my job, and I like the brainstorming and finding-an-approach parts of that more than the slog through actually creating all the screens. I usually lay in some good snacks and turn my MP3 player up to ear-splitting levels and power through it.
posted by jeoc at 3:46 PM on July 4, 2011

« Older How can I enjoy my "staycation" in Edmonton?   |   Help me create my own house menu. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.