This article is an expanded version from my weekly newsletter.
There are so many things to take up our time, so it can be very tempting to do the tasks that are easier. More well known. Things that keep us busy, but do not directly get us closer to meeting our goals.
Why do we default to this kind of activity? Simply because doing the hard work is hard.
Doing something difficult requires us to hit the wall that feels uncomfortable, causes uncertainty, and makes the sweat pop out on our forehead. Sometimes the hard work requires us to do something we haven’t done before. Other times we’re using skills we already have, but the nature of the work requires decisions to be made as you build, and decisions are hard (what if I make the wrong one!). Having to make many decisions even harder.
Whatever it involves, a part of our brain kicks in and tries to distract, tempts us to do busy work. “I don’t have enough time to dig in to this, so let’s answer those emails instead.” Suddenly, a couple of weeks have gone by and you have made no progress. Discipline is required to get past those moments.
It can be hard to accurately recognize these habits we form, or to articulate them to ourselves and others. Oliver Reichenstein does as an admirable job:
Life and work would be so easy if a lack of quality could be explained in a sentence, and fixed with a better technique.
When asking the question, why do web projects fail, he rhetorically states the answer:
Or is it because we have 22 drawers full of of comfortable tools, fantasies and excuses to avoid the pain of sitting down and thinking?
Add the Internet, with the new things for you to think about every .027 seconds, and his list is complete. This is it — the thinking is hard.
Over time, we can learn to enjoy the process of fighting through that discomfort and coming out with something worthwhile on the other side. When you are able to see those results, you can even come to embrace the hard stuff … because the results are so very satisfying. But that is something to be learned.
I’m reminded of this every week with our homeschooled children. As young people, they face much more often than us adults. It might be learning to read, doing algebra for the first time, or finally riding without training wheels. But each skill is essentially learning to solve a specific problem. And once they have that experience, the next challenge is a little easier because they know they’ve come through before.
It should be the same for us adults. Sadly, we have built up these habits around busy work that we allow to distract us from the important things. Guilty as charged, right here. But I’m learning.
As I’ve spent time learning my tendencies and how to deal with them, several practices have stood out. Friction is involved. The less friction between myself and my work, the better. The easier it is to get up and running (whether it’s reading, writing, designing, or developing), the more I’ll complete in the limited time I have available. And the more friction I add to the distractions, the less likely I am to waste time on the activities that do not get me closer to my goal.
Purposeful friction can sound like a lame crutch, but I’ve learned the results show the worth. Sometimes the crutch is needed first, then the healing can take place.
Desires is another. Truthfully, it goes hand in hand with the friction. If I focus enough on my goals, entertainment loses it’s flavour.
Watching a movie or show at the end of the day is too easy when you have a Netflix account, a huge collection of DVDs, and a cable TV subscription. So I removed those options from my life. Over time, my wife and I have both come to highly value our evening time for reading (together and apart). Our desire to learn is great than our desire to be entertained.
Habits, whether removing bad ones or adding good ones, come from small decisions, consistently made.