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Three Habits to Avoid if You Want To Achieve Your Dreams

Learn how to stop spinning your wheels and work smarter

We all want to feel like we’re being productive and getting things done. But many of us motivate ourselves in ineffective ways or make less than optimal choices about what we take on. The anxiety of having too much to do can make us rush mindlessly ahead, without really thinking through our choices and strategies. The three habits below are some of the most common barriers to success among clients in my Life Coaching practice. They all feel like good things to do, but actually end up being ineffective strategies to meet your most important life goals. If you recognize yourself in the scenarios below, read on to learn the secrets of working smarter.

1. Checking Things Off Your To Do List

We all like to get lots of things done so we can feel we’re being productive. But working hard is not the same as working smart. You probably face a plethora of mundane daily tasks to keep our households running as well as more complex demands to learn new skills, absorb new knowledge, come up with new ideas, bring in new customers and service existing ones, or meet production goals. You may receive hundreds of e-mails daily, so that every day when you wake up, you are already behind. In this atmosphere of time scarcity, it’s tempting to just begin with the first task that’s in front of your face and not take a breath until the end of the day. The sight of a clean Inbox and checking 200 e-mails and 20 phone calls off your To Do List can be really satisfying, but are you fooling yourself?

Experts suggest that mindlessly getting the easier tasks done can actually be a way of procrastinating - putting off the tasks that are most challenging and ambiguous, but also the most important for your long-term success. Are you one of those people who ends the day with a tidy desk and a pile of clean laundry, but no words written on the page for your end of semester assignment or work project? The punishment for not doing laundry is immediate - having to see the next day through in dirty clothes or underwear is pretty gross! On the other hand, if you don’t get your writing, job-seeking, or business-building done today, you can rationalize that there is always tomorrow. The problem is that if you keep doing this day after day, you end up sabotaging your long-term success. It’s the time equivalent of borrowing from your pension to pay today’s bills. You are relieving short-term anxiety at the cost of creating a crisis down the road.

What To Do Instead

Allocate 20 minutes eah morning and evening to longer-term planning. Make separate lists for daily organizing or immediate deadline tasks and longer-term goals. Break your longer-term goals up into a series of small tasks (e.g., researching job opportunities online, networking with three key people, writing 5 pages, etc.). Make a daily To Do List, putting the most important activity at the top. Then add in everything that has to be done by deadline and leave a bit of time for end of day organizing, laundry, e-mails etc). If you do the most important and complex task first thing, your brain will be fresh, and you will feel a true sense of completion and taking care of yourself. Follow it with a well-deserved lunch or walking break.

2. Being Too Harsh On Yourself

Many of us motivate ourselves with self-criticism. We tell ourselves that we are lazy, disorganized, immature and walking train wrecks that are headed for disaster if we don’t get our acts together. While these tactics might work in the short-term, they have long-term emotional costs. They create anxiety and panic that lead us to act impulsively, without taking time to properly consider alternative choices and consequences. They also may lead us to work too hard and exhaust ourselves, not leaving energy for smart thinking or longer-term tasks. They tempt tus o choose short-term strategies that harm our health in the long-term. Many students take stimulants like Adderol to stay up and get things done or they stay up all night and disrupt their mood and health.

Another hidden cost of our inner critics is that they make us feel angry and rebellious. Now our work becomes a joyless chore and burden, rather than something we have chosen for interest or opportunity. Eventually we can’t take the inner critic and feelings of inadequacy anymore! We start mindlessly numbing out with television, computer games, food, alcohol or drugs. Or we just procrastinate to avoid the feeling of not knowing where to begin, combined with the inner critic criticizing us for feeling this way. Either way, there’s a heavy price to pay in terms of our health, life satisfaction, or productivity!

What To Do Instead

Give yourself a hefty dose of self-compassion. Self-compassion doesn’t mean making excuses for unhealthy behavior and unmet goals. Rather, it means kindly, gently, guiding yourself back on the path. You are only human and don’t have to do everything perfectly. When you take the self-judgment away, you can really start figuring out what’s getting in your way and deal with the core issues. Maybe your goals aren’t realistic or you are having doubts about them. Maybe you have difficulty tolerating the anxiety of not knowing exactly what to do. Or maybe you don’t want to face failure or rejection. There may be more barriers than you thought and you haven’t adjusted your plan to take them into account. You may be tired from an accumulation of stressors and need to take a break or work in a modulated way to recoup your energy. You may not be setting your environment up to be successful or you may need to ask for help. Whatever the barrier or unmet need is, self-compassion can help you lift the veil of shame so you can look at it more honestly.

3. Taking on Too Much

Taking on too much is a common mistake that most of us have made at some point. Women, in particular, are more detail-oriented and socialized to take care of others. But are you taking care of others at the expense of yourself? And does every task really have to be done so perfectly? Why do we take on too much or try to do everything too well? We may begin these habits early on, because competition for top colleges is so tough. It’s not enough to get good grades, you also have to be a school leader, creative innovator, and sports All-Star. And have some solid volunteer or work experience on your resume. In adulthood, when we have more choices, we may not realize it. We may automatically volunteer to be team mom or the organizer of office morale-boosting activities. You may have roles you find meaningful and don’t want to give up. Indeed, research shows that being a committed member of your community, place of worship, or workplace has long-term rewards for health and happiness. But sometimes you may have to adjust your timing or expectations. Feeling chronically behind and facing the shame of not following through because you are too busy are not healthy for anyone. The lack of thinking and planning time may prevent you from getting a healthy lifestyle plan going or getting your most important projects completed. You may end up feeling overburdened and take it out on those closest to you.

What To Do Instead

One of my favorite quotes is this: “When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself.” Your commitments have long-term consequences, so it’s worth taking time to think things through before signing on. If you are the one who jumps in just because nobody else steps up, it’s time to stop. People may be standing back because they know you will pick up the slack If you don’t step in, you are teaching them the lesson of taking responsibility for themselves. This applies to household errands, work projects, and volunteer activities. The key here is to prioritize. Of all the opportunities, which ones are most meaningful to you or most likely to advance your goals? If you are volunteering because you enjoy the socializing, are you doing this efficiently and effectively? Are you neglecting less exciting stuff at home that still needs to get done? This will lead to anxiety or resentment from others down the road. Also, make sure to ask enough questions so you are clear about the time commitments involved. When the deadlines are further down the road, we tend to overvalue the pleasure of the opportunity and overestimate our capacity to get it all done. It’s ok to give up some opportunities just because you will be stretched too thin. There are always so unexpected snafus that happen in life like getting sick, demands from relatives, or fender benders, and so it makes sense to plan time for these as well.

Copyright: Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. , October, 2014

About the Author

Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Practicing Psychologist and LIfe Coach in the San Francisco Bay area and author of an upcoming book on stress and neuroscience.. In her previous role as a Psychology Professotr, she published more than 50 scholarly works and presented her research at national and international conferences. Dr. Greenberg is often quoted in national media on topics of motivation, positive psychology, mindfulness,dealing with your inner critic, and coping with stress at work and in relationships. She offers in-person psychotherapy and life coaching via distance technologies. Dr. Greenberg also offers workshops for organizations on the above topics.

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