Monday, February 7, 2011

something is better than nothing

What's a college student to do when she realizes she has three midterms, a job interview, and class registration all in one week?

Well if you haven't already realized, the "she" is me, and I usually start by running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Then I sit down, make a to-do list, get overwhelmed by the to-do list, then tuck myself into bed and whimper.

After that, I snap out of it, prioritize my list, and start my tasks using the Snowball effect. And all would be nice and dandy if life worked just like that and I accomplished all my goals. However, let's be realistic. We have time constraints that prevent us from accomplishing all that we would like to do, even if we're still feeling motivated. The fact is, sometimes at 2 AM, I'm feeling productive and ready to get a bunch of stuff done, but it would be unwise to stay up another 2 hours, because I would be tired the next day and unable to focus on my work.

So when I have a task that will take many hours to complete but only have a fraction of the time to do it in, I find it extremely easy to procrastinate, saying that I'll do it "later," when I "have more time." As we know, later never comes with more time, so I have to figure something else out to maintain productivity even when the satisfaction of achievement isn't involved.

To get around the time constraint and to compensate for the lack of euphoria of completing a task, just work on your task for however long you have.

For instance, at work, I'm supposed to be overhauling our website. There are many revisions on each of the say, 50 pages or so, that will take me hours to complete. While yes, all 50 pages must be revised, I do not have hours and hours of time, energy and resources to just sit at the computer and edit web pages in one sitting. No, for a big project like this, I'll choose three web pages that require major revisions, and I'll get to work emailing the people I need updated information from, etc. This is what I call the "something is better than nothing" approach.

I realize that this seems like a fairly obvious tip, but let's unload this a little more. People know that it's best to break up big projects into smaller, bite-sized pieces to accomplish tasks. Yet so few people do it. I know this, and I still don't do it as often as I should. This is called cognitive dissonance.

What is preventing me from putting this into practice? I hate feeling like I spent a bunch of time on a zillion different things without accomplishing anything. This makes me not want to work on starting a new chapter on a tedious subject (ahem, economics) if I only have 15 minutes, because I won't have enough time to finish it.

The magic of this tip comes from a mindset change. Fifteen minutes of reading a chapter is better than nothing at all. Likewise, $10 of savings/week is better than $0/week. I think a lot of times we feel like our contributions are just a drop in the bucket. We feel like they're so small, they don't matter at all.

This is why we're so surprised at the end of the month when we look at our bank accounts and see that our $5 daily coffees added up to over $100. The little things DO matter. We can harness this for our benefit by eliminating the useless little things while progressively chipping away at our goals/tasks.

The other part of this mindset shift is that we have to set our own goals customized to our life/schedule/finances, etc. And we have to allow ourselves to be satisfied with our progress.

I constantly have to remind myself to be pleased with myself after I accomplish even a little something. Today, I spent 30 minutes working on the website overhaul, and I told myself I accomplished something today that I should feel proud of. I also spent 1.5 hours wading through my economics book. This is also something I should be proud of. Even though I didn't finish my website task and even though I didn't finish my chapter, I finished 3 web pages and I got to the halfway point of my chapter. Now I need to allow myself to feel pleased. When I don't, it's because I'm letting my perfectionism get the best of me, or because I am comparing my progress to what I think it should be. This is dangerous, but can be twisted into a very useful lifestyle hack. I'll be exploring this concept more in a later post.

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