- Negative feelings about a task can be a source of procrastination.
- Techniques such as reframing the task and cultivating gratitude can help people get started.
- To begin making progress, break tasks down into small, manageable parts.
During the pandemic of 2020, I fell in love with a book—the one I was writing. I started Silver Sparks in January 2020 and published it in November 2020. Writing the book provided me with a purpose, a meaningful routine, and a source of happiness during a difficult time.
There was just one problem...
When I looked up from my writing trance, there was a pile-up of tasks that I’d let slide. To get the book done, I'd had to ignore distractions and, boy, did I. I had a lengthy backlog of items on my to-do list, including doctor’s appointments, taxes, home upgrades, financial issues, technology to fix, and emails to answer, just to name a few.
But of all those tasks, my biggest problem was this: My house was literally falling down around me—and potentially even on me (see photo). I had to fix the roof tiles. I had to get the exterior repainted to avoid worse problems later—wood that could crack or rot and let in water. I had to get rid of the mold and moss that had accumulated on my foundation.
If there is one type of task that makes me feel overwhelmed, insecure, and anxious, it’s home repairs. Even after 40 years of home-owning, I don't really understand how a house works. Plus, I dread the whole process of getting bids, making a high-stakes choice, and living through the subsequent repairs.
After my initial panic, however, I realized, "I've got this!" I remembered that I'd dealt with far worse house catastrophes, survived them, and even thrived. Remembering my past successes gave me the confidence that I would find a way to cope again.
Besides, this repair would be an occasion to review my favorite productivity experts, check out the latest research, and share what I discovered with readers. Here's what I learned.
The Importance of Perspective
“Overwhelmed, insecure, anxious.” Negative feelings can themselves be a barrier to getting things done, according to procrastination expert Timothy Pychyl. His research indicates that people procrastinate not so much to avoid work but to avoid the negative feelings associated with a particular task. To overcome procrastination, find ways to accept and cope with those negative feelings, he suggests.
So, my first job was to transform my negative feelings into more positive, or at least more realistic, ones. In other words, I needed an "attitude adjustment."
5 Steps Toward Attitude Adjustment
The following techniques helped reduce my negative feelings and create a more flexible mindset. I hope they’ll be helpful to you if you need them for your own most hated tasks. (Note that in the rest of this blog post, when I address "you," I also mean "me.")
1. Remind yourself of WHY you want to get a task done. Knowing why you want to do something can be the root of motivation. Why was repairing my house a priority? Because my house is my "shelter from the storm." Because I desire comfort, safety, and "house pride." Moreover, a wise accountant once told me, “Your house and your pension are the biggest assets of a middle-class person. Take care of them.” I’ve never forgotten her wise words.
2. Focus on the good feelings you’ll have once you accomplish this task. Relief. A sense of accomplishment. A clearer mind. Knowing I would feel wonderful at the end of the house repair kept me going. (If you are more motivated by negativity, focus on the bad feelings you’ll have if you don’t get the job done.)
3. Reframe the dreaded task as a “challenge” or “opportunity.” I often tell friends that I “hate, hate, HATE” doing home repairs. Bad attitude! Thinking of a job as a creative challenge can make it easier to do.
4. Cultivate gratitude by changing “have to” to “get to.” I didn’t “have to” paint the house, I “got to” paint the house. These days, when many people face eviction or live in Nomadland, I’m lucky to have a house. I’m lucky that I "get to" hire skillful people to paint my house instead of getting on that ladder myself. These thoughts helped me go from grouchy to grateful in under 60 seconds.
5. Shrink the problem by watching your words. Words like "hate" or "dreadful" only added to my bad attitude. Even tweaking "I hate home repairs" to "I dislike home repairs" was helpful. Using calmer words made me feel calmer. After all, I wasn't going to war; I was just getting my house painted.
Working on attitude is not a “one and done” situation, but a mindset to reset from time to time. Still, once you’ve adjusted your attitude, actually doing the task becomes easier. (You’re feeling better about your task already, aren’t you?)
10 Steps for Getting Things Done
Now for a new creative challenge—how best to accomplish the task. What small steps would help you proceed smoothly toward your goal? Bear in mind that there is no perfect way to begin. As motivation expert James Clear says: "Whenever you are stuck searching for the optimal plan, remember: Getting started changes everything." To get started, try these tactics:
1. Make a master list of everything you “get to” do. According to David Allen, author of the classic book, Getting Things Done, downloading all your to-dos from your brain into a list will free your mind to focus on what’s most important. (My list was 35 items long.)
2. Set one to three priorities. The state of my house was an emergency that needed my immediate attention. What is your top priority? To find out, Allen suggests asking yourself this question: What situation or project is most on your mind right now?
3. Take a tiny step forward. I got a file folder and wrote “Exterior Paint Job” on it. Knowing I had a place for information, bids, and color ideas was reassuring.
4. Gather your resources. I asked my neighbors for suggestions and made a short list of painting companies that received rave reviews on my neighborhood NextDoor site. I then checked those companies with the Better Business Bureau site and chose three to contact.
5. Set a mini-goal. A “mini-goal” is a tiny goal that you are willing to set for yourself. My mini-goal was: “Call one painting company to set up a meeting.”
6. Be open to serendipity. The novelist Ann Patchett wrote, “Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.” Shortly after my decision to focus on the house-painting chore, I noticed a group of men painting the exterior of a neighbor’s house. I introduced myself and explained my dilemma to the leader. Later that day he came by to take a look. He was the one who noticed—and fixed—the falling tile and trimmed the tree that was upending it. On another day, he power-washed the mold off the house’s foundation and sidewalks. He charged a reasonable fee for each job. Best of all, I had the satisfaction of making progress on my goal.
7. Take “microbreaks.” According to two recent studies, microbreaks help you maintain your energy level at work. Watch a short video, do five minutes of exercise, chat with a colleague, do a brief meditation. Isn’t it wonderful when science supports what you would probably do anyway?
8. Celebrate! In his book Tiny Habits, habit-change expert B. J. Fogg, remarks that most people get things done by feeling good, not by feeling bad. To this end, he recommends that immediately after any accomplishment, however small, you celebrate with self-talk like this: “Yay, me! I did it!” or “You’re awesome!” or whatever works for you. “Celebration” activates the reward circuitry in your brain; you feel good and want to do more of what just made you feel good. Bursts of encouraging self-talk throughout the day will raise your spirits and your confidence.
9. Use the "big-steps" approach when necessary. Some tasks don't lend themselves to small steps. For example, another chore on my list is to clean and organize my basement. For this job, setting aside a chunk of time makes more sense.
10. Have the courage to be imperfect. Choosing from the three bids I received was not easy, but I remembered this motto: “Aim for excellence, not perfection.”
The End of the Beginning
I soon discovered that I was not the only person with home repairs issues. The paint company I chose could not schedule me until August. (The others had also been booked up far into the future.) I signed the contract and now I wait. On the bright side, I can now tackle the other 34 items on my list.
(c) Meg Selig, 2021.
LinkedIn and Facebook image: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock
Allen, D. (2001). Getting Things Done. NY: Penguin Group.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic Habits. NY: Penguin Random House.
Fogg, B.J. (2020). Tiny Habits. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Selig, M. (2009). Changepower: 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success. NY: Routledge.