We all have projects or tasks at our jobs that we avoid doing. Typically, we put off getting started on projects that have a lot of pieces to organize because we don’t know where to begin. Dull tasks are easily put off; boring stuff doesn’t engage our attention. Projects that are out of our comfort zone are easy to avoid.
Alexia, an events coordinator who does membership relations for a professional lobbying organization, came to me worn out from too many all-nighters. “It wasn’t such a problem in my 20s and 30s,” she said, “but I just can’t keep doing this now that I’m in my 40s.”
Alexia’s duties are varied and time-sensitive, so when she puts off starting something that is “scary” or boring, she has to rush around at the last minute to pull an event together. Here are some options we developed to smooth out her tasks at the office:
>?“One thing on the desk at a time” became Alexia’s first rule. Starting too many tasks without finishing any of them stressed her. And when she felt stressed, she had a hard time making decisions, and avoided difficult or unpleasant tasks. Paperwork was placed in a riser file on her desk, so she could grab only one folder at a time, discouraging her from hopping from project to project. We streamlined her computer screen as well: She had only three folders on her desktop: “Event To-Dos,” “Membership To-Dos,” and “Tasks I Hate to Do.”
>?We started prioritizing tasks on the to-do lists and implemented daily strategies that helped her do them. Alexia chose three things to do in the morning and three things to do in the afternoon. We decided that every morning one of the three tasks had to come from the “Tasks I Hate to Do” folder. She tackled that one first, followed by a task she liked to do, to give her incentive to finish the first one quickly.
>?We used meditation to get her through doing the tasks she hates. The strategy of doing a task she hated each morning didn’t work for Alexia. Two minutes into the onerous task, she switched gears and picked another task from one of the other two folders. Although to-dos in the membership and event categories were getting done more quickly, the list of tasks she hated to do continued to grow. We decided she needed an additional strategy to help her overcome her resistance. We tried background music, noise-blocking headphones, checking in with me by phone for a quick pep talk, and breaking down the task into the smallest pieces possible. Nothing worked.
When I asked Alexia what happened when she opened up the hate-to-do folder, she said, “I tense up!” When I suggested that she meditate before opening up the folder, she shrieked, “I don’t have time to do that at work!” I told her that this was everyone’s response to that suggestion. Those who have given meditation a try, though, find it beneficial.
Together we searched for YouTube videos and meditation apps that Alexia found soothing. It took a while: She didn’t like some of the hosts’ voices or found the music too new age-y. The meditation she settled on had a candle on the screen as a gentle female voice guided her to focus on her breathing and relax her muscles. The link to the video became the fourth thing that she kept on her desktop.
Now Alexia meditates before she starts work to fend off tension, and meditates before tackling any task that stresses her out. After a week of starting her day with meditation, Alexia procrastinated less, and was better able to decide which tasks she would tackle first.
“Instead of feeling like I have to hit the road running every morning, I ease into my day,” says Alexia. “When that feeling of calm starts to dissipate, I pause, close my eyes, imagine a candle in front of me, and take a few slow, deep breaths before I continue with what I am doing. It’s my mini-break.”
>?We agreed on three additional strategies to counteract her avoidance behaviors. 1) She got software that blocked her access to the Internet when her tasks didn’t require being online. 2) She instituted an end-of-week check-in with her boss to inform him of the progress she was making on current projects. This accountability prompted her to stay on track and start early enough to meet deadlines. 3) The third was establishing the habit of checking her to-do list and calendar throughout the day to avoid having things slip through the cracks. When the thought of looking at her calendar or lists started to make her stressed, Alexia pulled up her meditation video, so she could ease herself into a new project early, instead of putting it off.
It is easy to put off starting a task that feels overwhelming or stressful, but taking the time to meditate or focus on our breathing will provide us with motivation. It’s the best way I know to ease into the tasks that I either don’t like or find scary to do.