Tackling the Too-Hard Tray

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We got ready for the new year by considering what my father used to call the ‘too-hard tray’ - that collection of things that we look at, think, ‘eek!’ and get very busy doing something else very useful in the hope that the sense of virtue will drown out the feeling of being daunted. Corralling our demons into a specified place is a good first step to facing them properly, but does not in itself do anything more than acknowledge that they are there.

Sooner or later, that is, you have to do something about the stuff in the too-hard tray.

You may think that my spending time writing this post is itself a displacement activity, and that I am addressing this question rather than getting on with those things which are currently intimidating me. It would be a fair conclusion to draw.

But, in fact, on this occasion I am actually allowing myself the indulgence of doing some writing (something I am not - currently - scared of) as a reward for having made some progress with the too-hard tray earlier this morning. Take that, Demons!

The strategies I have been using are learned from Mark Forster’s rather excellent How To Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. I have written about his ideas before (e.g. here and here), because I do like the way he combines considerable insight into the internal dynamics of procrastination with very practical exercises to actually get you going.

The two tactics I have been using this week use the insight that getting started sometimes seems impossible because the task as a whole looks impossible, but if you can actually get started, continuing is much less overwhelming. So the trick is make things look possible.

The first method for minimising overwhelm is to give yourself a rule that so long as you have done something, that counts, and then you are allowed to do something else. So you have a list of maybe half a dozen things that need your attention, and cycle through them in turn. One variant of this is to ration the time spent on each: 5 minutes in turn and then move on, maybe increasing time increments each cycle if you start to get traction.

My current variant is that I have listed five main projects, and I have to get a tick for each every day. I am using this variant because they don’t all need equal amounts of attention at any given point, but if I don’t touch one of them for a day, it starts to get scary again, so I need to touch each regularly to keep them from turning back into demons.

This brings me onto the second of Forster’s tactics I am currently finding useful: breaking things down to the smallest step. When the thing looks too big to tackle, you ask, ‘What’s the first thing I’d need to do to start this? Can I do that?’ That may be, for example, to send an email to someone with a question, or make a list of all the things you need to include in a plan. Either of those could be Too Hard (how do I word the question? what if I forget something important from the list?).

So then you ask, ‘What’s the very first step of doing that thing? Can I manage that much?’ That first step might be looking up someone’s email address or getting a piece of paper to write the list, and that usually is manageable. The trick is to find a stage you can do that will be complete before you get to the bit that’s tricky.

And then, when you face the harder thing, it’s no longer the first hurdle. You’ve already achieved something, so you feel braver about the next bit. Or at least you believe it is possible, because you are already doing it now.

The thing about this method is that it neatly side-steps all that self-flagellating about how stupid it is to be scared of doing whatever it is, and just gets on with it. Maybe it is stupid, but beating ourselves up about it doesn’t actually diminish the anxiety. It is a kind of procedural approach to Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.

When you need to be efficient or effective, you measure your progress in outputs. When you have Demons to face, charting the inputs is what keeps you on track. It may only look like a to-do list, but those of us battling our Too-Hard Trays know that each small tick represents an act of personal bravery that needs celebrating.

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