Friday, January 18

Priorities and the Sense of Accomplishment

We all have times when some aspect of our lives gets us down. At this time of year, it's common to be a little more prone to depression. Winter brings great beauty at times, but at other times the season seems a bit grim.

One thing that I think is an important cure for depression is the feeling of accomplishment. You know that point where you're starting to feel better, but then you look around and think about everything that needs to be done, and you go right back to feeling depressed again? That's where accomplishment is needed! So, what to do?

The first answer is, do whatever makes you feel good. If you are not sure what that might be, try the following guidelines:

Do something which is a high priority. After watching Dr. Pausch's last lecture, I browsed some related links, and ended up watching a lecture on productivity that he gave years ago. He refers to an idea that is from "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People": If you have both high priority and low priority tasks that are due tomorrow, and both high priority and low priority tasks that are due next week, what do you do? Do the high priority tasks that are due tomorrow, and then do the high priority tasks that are due next week. That's right--just don't do the low priority tasks. It was a relief to me to think that even efficient people don't do absolutely everything.

I have my to do list on vitalist. As soon as I sign in, it shows me my ten highest-priority tasks. Occasionally I go through it and correct the priorities I've assigned, if my priorities have changed. So I know what I really want to get done. This way I don't have to figure it out anew every time--I just go to my to do list and check the top priorities.

Among roughly equal priorities, do something that will take the least amount of time and/or effort. This one is very useful. If you have two high priorities, and one takes 15 minutes while the other takes 2 hours, do the short one. That way you've got one full task done, instead of zero or half a task. You'll have the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing a full task. And you'll have made it easier to do the long task, because you'll be feeling better and your to do list is shorter. If energy is more precious to you than time, then use that as a determining factor instead.

Choose a one-time-only task. Sometimes cleaning up or cooking a delicious meal is perfect for clearing away the blues. If it feels good, then it's perfect! At other times, there's that sense that as soon as you're done cleaning the place will get dirty again; as soon as you're done eating it'll be time to cook another meal. If that's the case, keep coasting on the cleaning and cooking for awhile longer. Choose a finite task. You do it once, and it's done. Viola, you've moved forward--you'll never need to do that again!

Those are the primary guidelines I'm following right now. Here are a couple of postscript guidelines:

Describe your tasks in an "actionable" way. I have the tendency to write my to dos like this: "deal with car" or "deal with papers". That leaves unnecessary work; I glance at the paper pile and think "What do I need to do again?" Even if I technically know, overwhelm quickly creeps in and the little job of figuring out my next step becomes more work than it needs to be. Instead, it's better to be more specific: "call car repair re: sound, number: 333-4444" or "sort through paper pile on desk". If a task involves several steps and it's not getting done easily, I might break it down into individual steps and add those all as separate tasks; or I might just do that with the first few steps, to get movement going.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Some tasks bring up a strong impulse towards avoidance. Personally, I trust these feelings; if I feel like avoiding something I do avoid it, usually, and focus on something that feels better. However sometimes there are tasks that I know if I just get started, I'll immediately feel fine and keep working. Flylady has a saying: "You can do anything for fifteen minutes!" so when a task seems arduous I'll sometimes set the timer for 15 minutes (or less!) and get started. When the timer goes off I can either stop and put it away, or keep working.

Thanks to all the above guidelines, I'm in the process of setting up my health coverage. It's fairly easy, it's a high priority, and when it's done I won't need to do it again later. Another thing I've done is to schedule a haircut, which is also a high priority because I love good haircuts, it's very easy, and I know I'll feel more put together and accomplished when it's done--which will help me to be more productive with the rest of my tasks. The final guideline is always: Don't forget to have fun--fun is a high priority too!

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