It’s taken some time to get myself to realize this, but I have a rather unusual motivation problem. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I work too hard, or don’t take time to relax, or other traits that sound suspiciously like a workaholic in need of an intervention.
They don’t know me all that well. I do indeed goof off on a regular basis -- just not when they’re looking. What other people see is me cranked up to 11, doing something ludicrous and physically taxing like loading broken concrete into a truck or scrabbling around the garage roof, cleaning leaves out of the gutters with a scoop.
What they’re seeing is not me but my to-do list, an entity so implacably evil that it ensnares me and forces it to do its bidding until I’m dragging my feet up the staircase in 30°C heat, destined to collapse in a sweaty heap on an unmade (but still very cozy) bed.
You see, I have no problem writing down a list of things that need to be done. I have an insurmountable problem when it’s necessary to unwrite them, take them off the list because they’re physically undoable (too late in the day, too late in the season) or because I just plain lost interest in them. I also get into a weird frame of mind when I set myself five tasks to do but only manage to execute four of them. There’s pathological perfectionism lurking in the background, preparing to beat me up emotionally and steal my lunch money because I decided not to start project #5 at 11:30 p.m. on a Sunday night.
Well, I think I have the beginnings of a cure for this malady: Shorter, more focused to-do lists, mostly easy wins with maybe one high-priority difficult task carefully phrased as one specific part of the task, such as “Bring another piece of plywood underlay in from garage” (as opposed to the vague and epic “Finish the hallway floor”).
On the day I started drafting this post, one of the easy tasks was “Go to the Art Gallery to see the Picasso exhibit.” The hardest part was deciding where to park. I also dusted off some books and put them away, relocated a bunch of certificates to my filing system, and for bonus points did some tidying-up of the cookbooks in the kitchen. The 3-ring binder that used to house the certificates has been repurposed as a recipe binder, and I had to change the shelf spacing to make room for taller books. While I was at it, I also evicted two books we never use and put them into my giveaway box. The tough task for the day involved going out in the garden to do some weeding, and the second-hardest was the continuation of a sewing project -- which got considerably further than I expected to get with it.
The number of things on the list is not fixed, but I’ve been trying to keep it low -- generally at least two things, but rarely more than five. There’s an inverse relationship between the number of items and the average complexity and effort required. When there are lots of items, chances are that all but one of them will take less than 10 minutes to finish.
Since implementing this system a couple of months ago, I’ve gotten a lot of things done. Today I had only two items -- finish and e-mail some paperwork (high concentration, moderate time demand, low physical effort) and move some network wiring. The wiring job was the big task of the day: Average concentration, moderate physical demands due to ladder work and multiple trips up and down two flights of stairs, high time sensitivity (minimize Internet downtime) and low margin of error (danger of damaging the wire, which would require an emergency trip to purchase 100 feet of Cat5e cable, a couple of RJ-45 connectors, and a crimping tool because I have no idea where mine is hiding).
Both items are done, which is why I’m writing this from a lovely patch of sunlight in a corner of a Winnipeg coffee shop rather than fussing with an Excel print preview or balancing on a stepstool in a dusty corner of the basement.
Someday soon (but not tomorrow!), I need to write an item on my new-and-improved to-do list: Inventory the toolboxes. I have four of them. I probably don’t need that many, and I probably don’t need most of the stuff inside the toolboxes, either.
But I’m sure that my network cable crimper is in there somewhere...