Paint can, tape, roller, brushes. No one ever uses the living room: the formal cocktail party is a thing of the past, so who needs the modern version of the Victorian parlor?
The furniture is out of there, sold off or in the garage for repurposing: I even had a plumber through to rough in a wet bar for the new game room and an electrician to rough in for the mini-fridge for the kids' drinks. Now it’s time to prep the walls for painting, get that carpeting out of there, and prep the subfloor for the new wood flooring. And maybe get the ceiling fan in? It would be useful for airing the room out while the paint dries.
In the garage, I grab the tarp, paint, rollers: it’s all too much to carry. Back and forth, at least I remembered to first lay the tarp down in the hallway and then drop all the tools and such. Oh, and the box with the ceiling fan. It’s all in a huge pile, and I want coffee. Also, wait, does that ceiling fan need electrical work, or can I just slide it in where the overhead light is now? It’s too much, too many little moving parts to keep track of. And the hallway is full, just as my brain is full. It’s too much to keep track of. The ceiling fan can wait: I carry it back to the garage. And I’m so, so tempted to hop in the car and go get Starbucks, even if the cat is currently perched on top of the closed paint can. And the empty living room looks daunting, in part because it’s empty and tidy.
There’s an inertia to a space that looks tidy, like an empty living room. It’s just like staring at a blank piece of paper before starting a written project. It’s hard to just make a mess: to break that inertia. So motivational gurus give advice to break that inertia, and much of it comes down to “make a mess”. Whether it’s making a mind-map for a document, or creating to-do lists, the goal is to break the inertia of a tidy space. And that advice is good, as far as it goes, because it does break the inertia, that sense that you don’t want to mess something up.
But breaking inertia doesn’t create momentum: the energy to keep going. It’s awfully tempting to pile up those tools, go to get more coffee, and never get back to actually working on the living room. Similarly, it’s awfully tempting to create a mind-map, but to leave the write up for another day. But that pile of tools or that mind-map is mostly just a mess made to break the inertia: the work hasn’t really gotten started.
So then that “other day” comes along, the day that’s been set aside to finally actually do the work, and what you have is now both a mess to sort through and a still pristine living room or a still blank piece of paper. The inertia was broken, but there was no follow-through, and now things are actually more daunting. Breaking the inertia must work hand-in-hand with also creating momentum, energy to keep on doing what needs to be done.
To break that inertia and create some momentum, we actually need to do some of the nitpicking little tasks needed for the main task as we organize ourselves to do the task. For instance, I can organize the tools on the tarp so that what I need first is closest to the living room, and what I need later is further away. I can also open the paint, mix it again, pour it out into the roller pan, pull the plastic off of the roller, set it into the pan, and do all those little things that say “this is ready, now”. I can do the same for pulling the rug: here’s where the claw hammer is, there are the thick gloves. By taking the time to organize and prepare the workspace to do two things at once, I’m generating momentum to do both tasks now. Leaving to get coffee, and maybe not return that day, is an uncomfortable thought if there’s paint in the roller pan, getting dry (and tempting the cat to walk through it).
The same goes for our to-do lists: just piling everything into a to-do list is a great way to break the initial inertia. And it’s a fantastic way to make sure inertia creeps right back in: all we’ve done is create a mess that needs to be cleaned up, instead of getting the task partially started so it’s easy to move it along.
Getting the tasks on the to-do lists done requires claiming the time, and that’s been discussed elsewhere: my cat’s highlight of her day is still her breakfast. But just chunking off the time to do a task doesn’t get the task done, it doesn’t even get it started. Heck, it’s awfully tempting to play hooky during that nice large chunk of time that hasn’t been claimed by some meeting or another, especially when the to-do list has no momentum and is instead just a big old mess.
So I’ve chunked off time in my day, great. And I’ve tasks to do, great. Now, about getting something done: which one? And can’t I get more than one thing done? Mostly, no. We tell ourselves we can multitask, but the lag and disruption from context switching is real. Mostly, we can do one main task and have a simple secondary task going on in the background (like pulling the carpeting while the paint dries).
But what task to do? Look through that to-do list you’ve got. And pick the task that has the highest priority that can be reasonably done in the time you’ve set aside for it. Once you have that main task, look through the to-do list again: what one other task can be done during the “down time” for when you are working on the first. Grab that task too. The rest of the to-do list can slide: that’s the stuff being left in the garage for the living room reno.
Take the two tasks, and for the primary task, grab your tools: everything from opening the apps you may need to scribbling down a quick outline / list of “must includes” on the task. Then, like mise-en-place cooking, set up your workspace so that what you need is easy to grab while you work and all the little things you can do while getting organized are already done.
For instance, for a document, pull up the template and fill in the easy stuff, and set that into the part of your monitor / monitors’ windows that is where you prefer to look when working (I like my second monitor, and towards the left, for my main workspace). Then set up the tabs for everything else in the order that you’ll need them on another window / monitor, again, doing any pre-work as you set up the tabs. And for the secondary task, have it somewhere “in the back”: someplace where you can reach it but is barely in sight. For all other tasks, minimize those windows so that they are effectively “in the garage”. As you set things up, do anything you can before you “really get started”. So now the space is organized to make doing the task easier, and the initial inertia is broken: the space isn’t “tidy” even though it’s organized. More importantly, by already doing all the nitpicking little sub-tasks while you organized, you’ve created momentum: you’ve already partially done the work and it’s just now a matter of getting it done (and your coffee is going cold, you know that, right?).
Also, with my living room reno, by fully preparing my tools in the hallway, I’ve created yet another pressure to get the task done: that open paint means I need to use it before the cat walks through it. And those minimized windows means I need to get the task done because I can’t watch my emails / messages to see if my boss or my colleagues need me for something. There’s a pressure to not be blind to the contingencies of the day, and hiding the app my boss and colleagues use to contact me pressures me to “get this done” so I can check to see if I “missed anything important”--like finding paw prints going from the paint in the roller pan and heading up the stairs.
To control to-do lists, remember the living room and the dangers of both trying to do too much and of not doing enough. That ceiling fan really did need to stay in the garage: it can be put in when the buffet is built (thanks IKEA). But also, don’t skimp out on not doing enough: by doing all the nitpicking little things while getting organized, we create momentum to complete the task at hand, especially if we’re aware that the cat, or our boss, may need our attention sooner rather than later.