Have you ever had a large project to do and found yourself saying something like, “I’ll feel more like doing that tomorrow,” or “I’m going to wait until later in the week when I have more time to dedicate to that”? If you think honestly about how you are feeling about the project at that point, you will probably find that you are pretty stressed. If we think a task will be difficult or unpleasant, our natural impulse is to avoid feeling uncomfortable, so we procrastinate.
However, somewhere in our mind we know we should be getting started. Since we are not meeting this expectation, we rationalize our behavior with statements like the ones made above in an effort to make ourselves feel better about our choices. However, we don’t feel better, we just prolong our misery because the worst part is getting started.
This common experience is substantiated by research. Timothy Pychyl and his colleagues at Carleton University did a research study where they had students wear pagers to collect data. They would page students randomly throughout the day for a week or two to find out what they were doing and how they were feeling. They found that when we actively put off a task that we know we should be doing it makes us feel worse.
Conversely, once we begin we often find that the task is not as bad as we thought. If we waited to start until the project was almost due, we usually wish at that point that we had more time, because once we are involved in the task, we find something to be interested in. So what should you do if you have a big project to complete and find yourself wanting to put it off?
Just Get Started
Once we begin a task, the way we feel about a task often changes. We usually feel better about the task and ourselves once we begin.
Break the Project into Small Chunks
In order to get started, think about how the project can be broken down into small, manageable chunks. Look at when the project needs to be completed and work backwards writing each subtask down on the calendar. It will be much easier to tackle a small task than to think about how to begin a big overwhelming project. Even if you have not completed the project, you will feel better about it and will be more motivated once you have started. Breaking the project into small tasks is a way to start.
Do One Small Task Each Day
It is much easier to work on something for a small amount of time each day. Continued small efforts will lead to a better-finished product over time than will a large effort at the last minute. For example, practicing for 15 minutes each day by doing one problem or completing one-timed passage is a lot easier to get started on than the larger and less clear task of raising my SAT score.
So, do you have a large undertaking you have been meaning to get around to or a goal or resolution that you will work on “one day”? Do you have a big paper to write or school project to complete? Just get started. You will feel better once you do.
Want to get more done? Start with the most difficult or important task first.
Why is it Difficult to Start This Way?
It seems easy in theory, but if you’ve ever tried starting with the most difficult task, you know that it can be hard to stick to. You get in a groove where you are starting with the most difficult or important task each day, but then after a few days you are back to starting with busy work or what feels quick and easy. Our brains seem to be wired this way, especially if it allows us to check something off of our “to do” list. So, it can be tough to motivate ourselves to start with the hardest or most important task.
So Why Should We Even Try?
If we go with our natural tendencies and start with easier or more enjoyable tasks, it becomes even more challenging to motivate ourselves to tackle the big difficult task later. You may feel more productive this way in the short-term but accomplishing only quick and easy tasks is damaging to long-term, high impact productivity.
Conversely, if you start with the hardest task, you will get a boost from finishing it and gain momentum as each subsequent task gets easier to complete. Progress on our goals makes us happier. When we are feeling happy and positive, we are more likely to keep working hard and make continued progress on our goals. By starting with the hardest task we can build momentum instead of losing it. We are also doing what will require the most energy when we are at our best instead of saving it until the end when we are exhausted.
Who Does This Strategy Work For?
The strategy of starting with the most difficult or important task first is as effective for an employee or manager who is working on a list of tasks or projects as it is for a student who is completing assignments. You can apply the strategy to your task list as a whole, and you can also apply it to each individual task. Say you are a student who has multiple homework assignments, but chemistry is the most difficult for you. Start with the chemistry homework. For chemistry, let’s say that you have to study for a test and you have a few days to prepare. If the most difficult parts of the material for chemistry are the equations, start with those and leave the terms and definitions to work on once you’ve mastered the math portion.
What if You Have Trouble Getting Started?
If you have trouble getting started, it helps to break a difficult task into subtasks. For a big project, think about the smaller tasks that need to be completed. If you are studying, for example, what concepts do you need to understand; what do you need to be able to do; and what type of practice should you complete in order to be prepared? Thinking through a task and breaking it into manageable parts not only makes it easier to get started, it makes that task meaningful to you. We all know that meaningful work is easier to stick with when inevitably, at some point, you run into some sort of snag or difficulty.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC
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