I was staring at my desk late one Friday night, shaking my head. I had six yellow legal pads full of notes stacked up, a pile of papers begging to be filed, and a neglected assortment of unread journals teetering precariously at the other end of my desk. Somewhere under the mess, was my to-do list.
Anyone who knows me well knows this is not characteristic for me. I typically despise disorganization and ordinarily have the discipline to stay on top of organization related tasks. And yet, here I was. Ugh.
It had been a rough couple of weeks in every way. I felt like I was getting it from every direction and was barely staying above water. Finding myself just completely depleted at the end of the day, instead of following my usual routine of cleaning and organizing, I just turned out the lamp, signed off my laptop, pushed the chair under the desk and walked away.
I repeated this pattern for a few days. Days turned into weeks. Each day I noticed my piles getting worse and yet I was too “tired” to do anything about it. The more I looked at the mess I allowed to perpetuate, the worse I felt.
One could say I was burned out, and as I write it, I hate the very words. Yet, I had to admit that something was just off, and I needed a break. I took a few days away, getting some family, friends and beach time in. A few days away from these four walls was just what the doctor ordered.
When I returned, my mess was waiting patiently for me. The one that I just couldn’t deal with before I left. I stood there staring at my desk and had a thought:
It really wasn’t as bad as I had made it seem before my time away.
I had made a mountain out of a molehill. By procrastinating and leaving it for the next day, day after day, instead of taking the 15 minutes I needed to leave everything in an orderly state, I had created this mountain.
As I started cleaning this chaos up, I thought about a conversation I had with a client recently. They lamented their own issues with leaving high-stakes work products until the last minute. This created enormous stress for them. When exploring why this pattern kept occurring, they found it was usually related to not being clear about what to do, feeling insecure about their ability to complete the task, or feeling like the task was just too big to tackle. I shared the observation that when we allow the task to linger, we give it power, and it becomes bigger than it really is. The longer we allow that to continue, the bigger (and scarier) we allow the task to become, when really, it isn’t all that bad. When we ruminate on how big and scary it is, we put up obstacles that may not be there, and may hold us back.
Hmmm. Maybe the coach should reflect on her own observations.
When I have found myself stuck in a similar pattern, here are 3 tips that help me get unstuck:
- If you are confused or need clarity, ask for help right away. There is so much power and freedom in saying, “no, I don’t understand,” or “I need you to explain this to me again, please, I’m not clear.”
- If a task seems big and scary, break it down into the smallest parts. Pick up one of those smallest parts and do it right away. Example: Your assignment is to draft a new strategic plan for your area. You don’t know where to start. Open a word document, put a placeholder title on it, save it. Boom! You just started that big, scary task. For my story, I should have started with filing just one document. Then moved to another. Then another. Starting is always the hardest part.
- If a task is unpleasant, put it at the top of your to-do list for the day. Assign yourself the time of day you are going to do it (e.g. at 9:30am I’m going to input draft numbers for my budget). Hold yourself accountable for doing it. Tell someone you are going to do it, and ask them to check in with you to make sure it’s done. Having support from an accountability buddy makes tasks seem less onerous.
The most critical next step? Reward yourself when you practice one of those tips—even if it isn’t 100% successful. The victory is in the effort toward a new behavior pattern, and you might find the next attempt easier and more successful.
What tips work for you when you find yourself in this situation? I look forward to hearing from you.
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