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Working in the Present: 3 Ways to Tackle Seemingly Endless Tasks

Flying Kick
Photo courtesy of Umberto Salvagnin

Have you ever been stuck in the middle of a task you couldn’t see the end of? A few months ago, I was involved in a project that required a huge amount of perseverance (not to mention several gallons of coffee) to see it through to the end. After the initial excitement of starting something shiny and new had worn off, I began to realize the enormity of the task I had set myself, and somewhere along the way, I lost all hope that the project would be completed at all.

An overreaction? Perhaps. But all too often this occurs with large-scale projects. After weeks of repeating the same tasks without respite, team members can become frustrated at the seeming lack of progress, and the whole project starts to crumble under the weight of its own ambition.

In these situations, we often convince ourselves that everything is far more difficult to complete than it actually is, simply because we can’t see the end. Instead of looking for the finish line, however, we should try to be more concerned with what is happening right in front of us, so as to better manage the task at hand. Here are a few tips for breaking down the monotony:

1. Take each day as it comes. Start each day by making a list of attainable goals to be completed before the end of that day; don’t think any further than that. By only concerning yourself with what needs to be done in the present, even the most gargantuan tasks can seem a lot more manageable.

2. Treat yourself. Reaching particular milestones in your project deserves rewarding. Allowing yourself some kind of treat – be it food, drink, or an entire day off (see below) – can be just what your body and mind need before hitting the work again.

3. Take time off. Seriously, taking 24 hours away from your project can work like a miracle cream for morale. Do whatever helps you to de-stress in that time, whether it’s taking a bike ride or killing zombies with peashooters, and see your productivity return stronger than ever on your return to work.

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How to Use One of the Seven Deadly Sins to Your Advantage


Photo courtesy of Ricardo Vacapinta

Several months ago, I spent an entire day in my bathrobe, doing absolutely nothing aside from playing computer games. I literally did not leave the sofa except for trips to the bathroom and trips to the fridge. This was very unusual for me, and occasionally I felt a pangs of guilt when I thought of all the things I “should” have been doing. Those feelings, however, were never quite strong enough to wrench me away from killing a few more zombies with peashooters.

The week following Robe-a-palooza was the most productive I’d had in recent memory, more than enough to make up for the time off, and yet I still felt guilty about “losing” that one particular day.

My point is not to assert that a day or two off from your regular schedule can lead to rejuvenation – you already know that. That’s the whole idea behind weekends, after all. However, I think we (me included) tend to downplay the value of using at least some of our time off as an opportunity to get disgustingly sloth-like and really shut down, at least for a few hours.

When people say they want to make the most of life, usually what they mean is they want to cut down on the number of things they do that don’t apply directly to their main life goals.  Even on their days off, they train themselves to feel bad if they’re not constantly accomplishing something “useful.” Weekends are seen as a time to get all the errands done that didn’t get done during the week, or to participate in a hobby that will make them a more educated or well-rounded person.

And that’s fine, errands and hobbies are great. But sometimes watching DVDs and eating ice cream can be just as worthwhile. That doesn’t mean you have to be a couch potato every weekend – for most of us, that would get pretty boring. It just means that you don’t have to have an “acceptable” justification for occasionally taking a complete day off and doing nothing at all.

Psychologically, this can be difficult to get used to, especially if you consider yourself an active, ambitious person. I’ve been making an effort to schedule a complete rest day at least twice a month, but it’s been hard to embrace the idea, even though physically I feel much better and overall I’ve been getting more done. When people phone me on one of my sloth days and ask me what I’m doing, my first impulse is to hide the fact that I’m watching trashy reality TV marathons in my underwear. I feel like I should say, “I’m catching up on my Italian lessons,” or “I’m just heading out the door to go rock climbing.” Over time, I’m hoping I will adjust to the frame of mind where I don’t feel slightly embarrassed at doing nothing, because I think in general it’s doing me a lot of good.

In a society where we’re constantly bombarded with the ideas of pushing forward and achieving, it’s more important than ever to make sure there’s some balance. Try scheduling in a sloth day or two next month and see what positive changes happen for you.

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