Chasing the Cheetah

With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow I felt like sharing some suggestions for prioritising on a task when you do not have weeks to build up to it. To fit with the continuing animal theme I have called upon Cheetah for his ability to sprint. As fits the need to quickly meet a goal, each suggestion is a potential boost and not a step in a plan. Despite being inspired by finding time to write, they could be applied to packing boxes when moving house, revising for exams, and other finite tasks that we want to complete but do not always enjoy.

  1. Review Your Loans. Everyone who reads, watches films, listens to music knows both the joy of spending time on the pursuit and the ease with which time passes while doing it. Stronger are the joys of starting a work for the first time and finding out what comes next. So, all the books and films you have borrowed cry out to be experienced.
    Reduce the temptation to read/watch/listen for just a while by returning all your loaned works to the library or to friends until after you have finished, or less drastically, exchanging new works for those you know to avoid the lure of the new.
  2. Last Impressions Count. While we can consciously judge an activity on the whole, we unconsciously judge based on how we felt at the end. Not just the obvious feelings but also the fleeting whims, with no scaling or weighting. So, every task you finish because you have done more than you expected so you do not need to do any more is stored in the unconscious with the label “do not need to do any more”; it might not be enough to overcome the knowledge you have to do it, but it can make restarting slightly slower and more tentative.
    Overcome this by breaking starting each session with a task that is much smaller than the target: write 200 words; clean the sink; unpack the pieces. Then when you have completed it stop and decide if you want to do more: write another 200 words; clean the work surface; assemble the base. You still have the freedom to do more but stopping is now because you have finished part of it, so does not have the negative label to drag at starting again.
  3. Substance Over Style. We all have something where we have multiple tools; I have a fistful of paintbrushes of slightly different sizes and shapes. Although some of these tools are necessary, some of them are there for less critical reasons; they are better looking, or were a present from a loved one. We do not always see the difference and put off doing a task until we have found the screwdriver with the blue handle, or the pen we were given when we graduated.
    Unless you are re-enacting the Olympic poetry-writing event there are no extra points for using the right shade of off-white paper, so try to undertake the task with only the tools you to hand. Put off finding your lucky socks until after you have done a session, and – if you still think you need them – put them somewhere sensible then.
  4. Make a Date. Even if you live and work alone you probably have a calendar. If you do share your time with anyone it is probably liberally spattered with meetings and appointments. Some of these will be for information and some for action. Some of you might even have several calendars (per child, work/family/other).
    Treat your task as an important person you are scheduled to meet and put it in wherever the things for action go. Make completing that session as important as your daughter’s dental appointment or your husband’s ballet recital. If you start to let work or family intrude imagine it is a first date; how hard and how smart would you fight if you knew the girl of your dreams was going to slip away?
  5. Learn From But Do Not Live in the Past. Even if we avoid drag from our unconscious, we sometimes choose to put it in consciously by dwelling on how we failed. Time spent identifying why we failed can make us better prepared in the future, but all the time spent feeling bad about it is either stealing time from our productivity directly or from the relaxation we need to be productive. Even what started as a genuine effort to find the issue can swell into a mental witch-hunt if pursued to extremes.
    If you did not complete the task then try spending a few minutes thinking about why and writing down some points on what might avoid it; if nothing comes in five minutes then it might well not come in five hours so do not wait for answers. Put that note in your desk or save to a file, or otherwise somewhere away from your sight, and do not go back to it until after you have next tried to complete a session. The physical act of putting the issue away will act as a mental trigger to put the issue aside, leaving your mind free to move forward without your inner critic complaining you are ignoring a problem.

Have any of these worked (or failed) for you? How do you fit a temporary task into your life?

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