How to Do Those Difficult Tasks That You Avoid or Put Off Doing

We all have tasks that we ought to do, or want to do, but that we avoid or put off because they are difficult or challenging. Sometimes our negative self-stories get in the road, other times we may have developed the habit of procrastinating without knowing why. We find ways to distract ourselves from the task or take on other tasks that are not important or time-sensitive. We may have difficulty building up the energy to tackle the task in addition to overcoming the personal barriers we create that prevent us from completing the task.

Leo Babauta, creator of the Zen Habits blog, offers a comprehensive strategy to address this problem of avoiding or putting off tasks. In his article, How to Do Your Scariest Tasks of the Day – with Joy, he introduces an approach that he describes as creating a “training container”. He discusses how to develop the training container and offers a number of steps to encourage you to undertake the associated training in a spirit of joy.

Creating a training container to develop the habit of tackling a difficult task

Leo is an internationally recognised expert on developing habits – he has 2 million readers who seek out his wisdom in this area. The training container (or dedicated block of time) acts as a routine (for a new habit) that can be developed to suit your own personal and work style and that, with persistence, becomes an integral part of your day (just like any other training or gym regimen).

The key elements for creating a training container are:

  1. Set aside a time of the day when you train yourself to do the task. It’s important to allocate a set time that suits your lifestyle and/or work pattern that you can dedicate to the training. I’m a morning person, so I find that mornings are best for training myself to complete a difficult task. You can let others know about your dedicated time and even set up a reminder through the alarm on your mobile phone. The time set aside may change as your circumstances change, e.g. when I was writing my PhD, I used to write at 4am for two hours before our baby woke up and before the phones started to ring.
  2. Set aside a place for this training. You can find a space that is different to your normal place of working so that you break free of environmental blockages associated with your procrastination. If I have a difficult task to work on, I go away from my office and work at the kitchen table (with a view) or go to a tolerant, coffee shop. If you have a recurrent difficult task, you can go to an alternative space daily and treat it as your training space.
  3. Set up a ritual for starting your scary/difficult task. Leo, who happens to be a mindfulness expert among other things, encourages you to develop a ritual at the start to focus on your intention and commitment to dedicate your attention fully to your task. This helps you to undertake your task mindfully, fully utilising the opportunity that the training container provides.
  4. Focus on a single task during your training session, do not multi-task. I learnt early on that if I start the morning with reading emails, I get side-tracked very easily and hours can pass before I get back to my difficult task or have to put it off to another day. If you find that you feast on the news, you will have to develop the discipline to put off chasing the news until you have finished your training session. This discipline of undertaking a single task during your training session, not only builds your capacity to focus but also enhances your productivity.
  5. Revisit your “why”. You need to get in touch with the fundamental reason you want to do the difficult task – Who are you doing it for?, Who will benefit from it? In my case, I try to keep my focus on my readers who come from all walks of life but who share many common personal difficulties that impact negatively on their lives. Richardo Semler suggests that you ask yourself three “why’s” to get to your deeper purpose. Focusing on purpose builds motivation.
  6. Express gratitude at the completion of your training session. Leo suggests that initially you set a timer for your training session. He urges you not to rush off to something else when the session is completed, but to take the time for a brief gratitude meditation. As he puts it, “Bow to the practice, and to yourself, out of gratitude.” In the long run, you will certainly be grateful for having set aside the time, place and focus for your training container.

I have found these tactics very useful in creating the discipline and focus to write this blog. Yesterday, I completed my 300th post. I now have a set time and place every second day when I write my blog and maintain a single focus throughout the research and writing involved. I have found, too, that some preparatory work in the form of thinking or research before my writing day also helps me to start writing because I am not starting from a blank sheet. So, jotting down some notes during the day may be helpful when you come to tackle your task within the training container.

Training with joy

Leo provides a number of ideas to help you bring joy to the challenge of completing your training session. Two of these steps – dropping into your body & staying with your sensations – are consistent with my previous discussion on managing anxiety with mindfulness.

Leo also suggests that playing some music can help to achieve the mindset and focus necessary to realise joy in undertaking your difficult task. I play classical music when I write this blog. I find that Mozart’s music strengthens my concentration and increases my relaxation. I have yet to follow Leo’s final step, “Dance with the chaos- let your body move to the music”. He also suggests that the dance can be figurative in the sense of having fun while you are encountering uncertainty and venturing into an aspect of your life that you used to avoid or put off.

As we grow in mindfulness – by bringing a disciplined, mindful, focused, curious, grateful and joyful attention to a difficult task – we can experience greater productivity, energy and sense of achievement. Overcoming procrastination takes time and persistence but having a plan like the “training container” can help us to remove the blockages that get in the road of achieving our tasks and associated, meaningful endeavours.

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Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Reprioritising Your Mindfulness Practice

In my previous post, I identified five strategies I could use to establish and maintain a daily practice of Tai Chi. The strategies can be applied to any form of mindfulness practice, whether some form of meditation or a practice such as mindful walking, mindful eating or open awareness. In reflecting on these strategies, I realised that underpinning them was the need to reprioritise my mindfulness practice according to its level of importance to various aspects of my life. Reprioritising means
to arrange things in a new order of importance.

Identifying the importance of your mindfulness practice

A starting point for reprioritising your mindfulness practice is to identify what it brings to your life, how it improves your life in its various aspects and what its importance is to your overall quality of life.

You can ask yourself a series of questions that will serve to highlight the importance of your mindfulness practice:

  • does it give you clarity, confidence and creativity in your daily work?
  • how does it help you to manage your stress at work and home?
  • in what way does it improve your significant relationships, e.g. with your partner, your children or your work colleagues?
  • what does it bring to your favourite sporting activity? (e.g. my practice of Tai Chi develops balance, coordination, timing and control in my tennis game)
  • does it help you to appreciate your life more and build a positive outlook?
  • what does it do for your physical health?
  • how does it improve your mental health and sense of equanimity?

If you can truly and comprehensively identify the ways in which your mindfulness practice contributes to your quality of life, you will build the motivation to reprioritise your mindfulness practice so that it assumes a regularity and consistency that reflects its importance to you.

Reprioritising your mindfulness practice

If you want to reprioritise your mindfulness practice, it means that you have to create space in your life to enable this to happen. This means that you have to give up something else if you have a life characterised by busyness. Again, you can ask yourself a series of questions and be honest with yourself:

  • do you really need to spend the time getting and drinking the extra cup(s) of coffee or tea?
  • do you feast on the news, forever checking what is happening in the world around you and beyond?
  • how often do you access email and divert your attention from your task at hand?
  • are you wasting time by multitasking?
  • how much time do you devote to watching television shows, movies or sports events?
  • how much time do you spend on social media and what does this activity add to your quality of life?

If you review how you spend your time, you can invariably find a way to reprioritise your mindfulness activity so that it assumes a priority that reflects its importance to your quality of life.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the importance of our mindfulness practice for our quality of life, identify how we spend our time and learn to accord our mindfulness practice the priority it deserves. This is, undoubtedly, an ongoing learning process.

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Image source: courtesy of Alexandra_Koch on Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Overcoming the Tyranny of Email

Every time I facilitate a manager development course, the topic of email arises along with an expression of hopelessness – people are suffering from the tyranny of email. They often feel out of control, overwhelmed by the volume of email and stressed by the “implied” deadlines involved. People sometimes perceive their inbox as a “ticking timebomb” if they don’t immediately process email as it arrives.

The emotional burden of email

Our communication patterns and related expectations have accelerated since the days of “slow mail” – the hand-written letter. The expectations of a timely response have grown with the increased speed of communication – how often are you asked, “I just sent you an email (or text message), didn’t you receive it?” The expectation of a speedy response is implied along with the underlying assumption that their communication is the only thing you have to deal with during the day.

Leo Babauta, author of the Zen Habits blog and related eBooks, found that reading his email before he got out of bed was actually a procrastination habit – putting off getting out of bed and also delaying doing something productive like researching, writing or planning his day. I have found that if I focus on writing a blog post before I read my email, I am much more productive and less distracted. I can relegate email to the role of a secondary, rather than primary, priority.

Recent research has shown that if you access your phone first thing in the morning (to check emails, texts and Instagram notifications), you are limiting your productivity and capacity for creative problem solving, adding stress to your life and making yourself unhappy.

The tyranny of email – capturing your attention

Besides adding to your stress, the volume of email and its implied deadlines serve to capture your attention and distract you from more important things that you are doing or have to do. Email is a form of disruptive technology more often driven by people who are actively trying to gain your attention to pursue their own ends. If you let it, email takes over your life, determines your priorities and undermines your capacity to focus.

Frequent checking of email takes you off-task and reduces your productivity because you have to take time to reset your brain when you return to your task at hand. Research has found that people who check their email only three times a day (instead of the average of 15 times per day) experience less stress, are more productive and achieve a greater sense of satisfaction during the day because they are better able to accomplish desired results.

How often do you find yourself following a “link-chain” in an email and going completely off-task to explore the latest news, social media post or “lifestyle” comment? Some people are driven by the desire for the latest news and pursuit of this desire consumes time and energy. If you find that you have no surplus in your life, you might find that your email-reading habits consume much of the space in your life.

A mindful way to handle email

Leo Babauta provides an approach to handling email which he calls, A Mindful Guide to Email in 20 Minutes a Day. The essence of his approach is to avoid starting the day reading email, allocate 20 minutes for reading email, have a system for sorting through your daily inbox, take action appropriately and reduce your inbox flow by unsubscribing from electronic newsletters, notifications, etc.

His system identifies three kinds of action that you can take:

  1. delete (or store in a folder for future reference if you are going to use it later)
  2. action in two minutes (brief responses where required)
  3. add to your to-do list (if you need to take action that will be longer than 2 minutes).

One of the problems with email is that we become indecisive and put off action on individual items, only to return later and repeat the process – this is a waste of time and a major source of distraction. Having a clear system enables you to regain control from the tyranny of email, so that you are in the “driver’s seat”.

Leo’s final piece of advice is to treat the process of email as a mindful endeavour – undertaken consciously, thoughtfully, with compassion and kindness. It is important to realise that email amplifies the message because of the proximity of the screen – so, for instance, writing in all capitals is effectively experienced as shouting. Mindfulness, too, is developed if we express gratitude for the opportunity that email provides, especially being able to connect with others and maintain valuable relationships.

As we grow in mindfulness by treating email as a conscious, mindful endeavour undertaken in a systematic (rather than chaotic) way, we learn to overcome the tyranny of email, regain control over our priorities and improve our productivity.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of geralt on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Do You Feast on the News?

We can become so obsessed with the news that we continually seek out the latest information.  We might access the news through social media such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube or through newspapers both offline and online or via text messaging through RSS feeds.

Whatever the source, we justify the continual access to the news via our smartphones or tablets because we need to keep up to date, our work requires it, we don’t want to be left out of conversations, we don’t want to appear ignorant or a multitude of other reasons.

However, if we are following a news trail, we may go from one report to another, particularly if we are online.  We spend hours collectively feasting on news reports and end up with no surplus in our lives that would enable us to contribute to something larger than ourselves – an activity that is foundational to happiness.  We become time-poor, a condition that leads to frustration and unhappiness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn reminds us that when we are continually accessing the news, we are often digesting distorted information:

We are perpetually bombarded with information, mis-information, partial information, slanted information, conflicting information, and endless opinions and opining on all sides of all issues. (Coming To Our Senses, p.515)

Continuous access to the news is inviting distraction and emotional disturbance into our lives.  Distraction involves the inability to concentrate or the loss of focus, which in turn affects our productivity, insight and creativity.  Emotional disturbance results because we become upset by a tragic event, angry at unfair treatment, disoriented by endless opposing views, upset through generated “flashbacks”, annoyed at biased reporting, or any other negative emotions occasioned by news events.  Continuous access to negative news can generate a sense of powerlessness and, ultimately, depression.

It is true that what happens on the other side of the world can impact our daily lives.  However, there is very little we can do about much of what we read or hear in the news.

What we can do is concentrate on developing peace and calm in our own lives and sharing that with others.  As we grow in mindfulness through mindful practice we can create positive energy for those around us. Our energy field impacts others and is amplified through interaction with others, both virtually and face-to-face.

We can lessen the negative impact of news on our lives by reducing the frequency with which we access news and/or by offsetting the negative news with a daily feed of positive and inspirational news such as that provided by sites like KindSpring or DailyGood.

KindSpring, for example, describes its purpose as follows:

KindSpring is a place to practice small acts of kindness. For over a decade the KindSpring user community has focused on inner transformation, while collectively changing the world with generosity, gratitude, and trust. The site is 100% volunteer-run and totally non-commercial. It is a shared labor of love.  (Emphasis eadded)

We have a choice about how we spend our time daily – we can intensify our distractions and emotional disturbance through feasting on the news or grow mindfulness through mindful practice and impact the world around us in positive ways while achieving happiness in our own lives.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of geralt on Pixabay