You want to write that memoir, or learn that instrument, or finally use those cans of paint that are growing dusty in your garage. You’ll start someday — when you wake up with no errands to run, no emails to return, no news cycle to stay on top of.
Beginning a project you care about is daunting. Finishing one can feel like winning the lottery, impeaching the president, or some other distant fantasy. From the false starts to the avoidance closet cleanings, few things can feel as unpleasant as trying to do something you love. This is not because we hate the things we are passionate about. Rather, our brains are not wired for the big picture, according to science.
A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research says we are far more likely to complete meaningless tasks that have some urgency to them than important ones that have a soft deadline. So you want to hike the Appalachian Trail “someday,” but that goal will naturally take a back seat to your need to pick up your dry cleaning before the place closes for the weekend. Just because we have this tendency however, does not mean we’re doomed to a life of dental appointments and deleting emails. Here are a few ways to train yourself to work toward what’s important, not just what’s urgent.
Break Your Big Goal Into Smaller Ones
One day, set aside time to write down your large goal. What, specifically, is the project that you want to finish? Once you have articulated that, work backwards to figure out what each individual step you need to complete is, and write them all down individually. If, for example, your goal is to write a kid’s book, break this into “outline,” “second draft outline,” “reach out to three illustrators,” etc. Make sure each step can be realistically completed in one work session. In a calendar, write down on which day you will complete each of these tasks.
Use Timers To Take Your Own Deadlines Seriously
When the time comes to work on the tasks that you have scheduled for yourself, work with the fact that your brain prefers deadlines. Set an alarm for the end of your “work period.” Challenge yourself to see if you can complete everything planned before it goes off.
Use different timers to set aside hour-long periods where you promise yourself to cultivate focus and work only at the task at hand. During these time periods, do not check social media, or reply to emails or texts. Give yourself a 5 minute break after each hour to return any important messages.
Try to avoid using breaks to mindlessly surf the web, as this can be a spiral that snaps you out of focus. If your brain needs a break, step outside or leaf through a book. This will stimulate you rather than tempt you to abandon your task. Continue this process through the end of the day.
Fidgeting Means It’s Time To Slow Down
If you find yourself getting restless and distracted, do not try to force yourself to keep working. Rather, recognize this physical fidgeting as a sign that the mind is also antsy. Stop what you’re doing, and do what you need to ground yourself. Meditate for five minutes. Use a mantra as you might during a long swim or run. Tell yourself: “I am focused. I am grounded,” or whatever resonates with you.
As you observe your mind, decide what you will need to feel focused again. Do you need caffeine to become more alert? Cannabis to get out of your “thinking mind?” If you choose to use a little caffeine or cannabis, do so in moderation, as overdoing it can be counterproductive.
Remind Yourself Often Of Past Successes
Sticking with a big goal almost always takes longer than anticipated. And if it’s worth doing, it's probably challenging. Weather the tough stretches and stay motivated by looking at old photos of days in your past where you accomplished something major: your college graduation or with the car you first saved up to buy. This will help you remember why you are working towards your current goal, and boost your confidence when you need it. You’ve surprised yourself before, and you’ll do it again.
In his book 'The War of Art,' Steven Pressfield writes “Are you a born writer? Were you put on earth to be a painter, a scientist, an apostle of peace? In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don't do it.”
You know what you are here to do. Now get off the Internet and do it.