How to tackle big tasks
Published 6 July 2022. Written by Chris Worfolk.
Whether it is a major work project, moving house, changing career, preparing for a holiday or any number of other big projects, it can often be very difficult to get started. Why is this and what do we do about it?
Avoiding getting started
A common issue with starting a big task is that we avoid getting started. It sits on our to-do list for days, weeks, or even months with us thinking "I'll get started on that tomorrow".
Why is avoidance so common? There are several possible reasons:
- The task may feel overwhelming or too difficult
- It may sound boring
- We may not know where to start
- It may feel pointless because we do not feel like we will make any progress
- It may represent making a big change in our lives and we may be anxious about the consequences
- It may be difficult and we may fear we cannot do it
Exploring difficult feelings
Let's unpick some of these feelings in more detail.
As humans, we are often cautious when it comes to the unknown. Big tasks often have lots of unknowns in them: what is involved? How long will it take? Will we be able to do it all? That is a lot of unknowns to worry about.
If the task represents a big change in our life: for example moving house or changing career, there may be additional unknowns. What will the new area be like? How will it change my schedule? Will I like the new job? The people?
Other tasks may not be so life-changing but may not sound appealing. For example, a project at work that involves lots of reports and paperwork. Here we are assuming that the task will be boring (which may well be an accurate prediction) and we tend to dwell on how unpleasant it will be to do it. We are predicting the future and it does not sound good.
We also like to see progress. If we have five rooms to clean, every room we cleaned would represent 20% progress. But if we lived in a house with one hundred rooms (or maybe even a mystery number of rooms), each room would feel a lot less motivating.
Finally, there can be concerns about what it may say about us. Let's say we want to start a new fitness routine. Starting it can be scary because what if we fail? What if we are not as good as we hope? We may hold an image of ourselves in our mind of "I am someone who could be very fit if I tried" or "I always stick to my goals" and starting a new fitness routine may challenge that ideal we have in our head.
Breaking tasks down
Now we have explored some of the barriers that may arise, what can we do about them? We are going to look at two strategies: breaking tasks down and cognitive challenges.
The first is to break a task down into smaller chunks. Write a list or spreadsheet of each task that needs to be done. Give yourself permission that that is all you need to do: once you have written your list you can go off and do something else.
Breaking a big task down is useful because:
- It reduces uncertainty because we have a better understanding of what needs to be done
- It makes the task feel less overwhelming because there are smaller steps
- It allows us to see progress as we can cross off each sub-task as we complete them
The list may change as you work through the task but it will make a big difference in getting started.
The second strategy we will look at is using cognitive challenges to some of the negative thoughts we have.
The first step is to explore the thoughts you are encountering and monitor them. This takes practice we often begin with just a feeling, and it is only when we start asking ourselves "why am I feeling this way?" that we identify some connected thoughts.
Below are some of the common ones and ways in which we can challenge and re-write these thoughts.
Note that we do not ignore the concern. For example, if the thought is "the task will be boring", we do not simply say "no, it will be exciting". It is okay to acknowledge that our prediction may be correct, while still re-writing the thought to a more engaging one.
The task is too big
I don't know how big the task will be until I identify everything that needs to be done. All big tasks start somewhere. All big tasks feel overwhelming at first but get better as they go on.
I don't know where to start
The first thing I need to do is break down the task so that I know what sub-tasks need to be completed. Then I will have a better idea of which sub-task to complete first.
I don't feel motivated right now
There is no reason to believe I will feel more motivated tomorrow. Motivation often arrives after I start the task so it would be better to start and see if my feelings change.
I don't want to fail
Trying something, even if I don't achieve my original goal, is not a failure. It is better to try something and see what happens than to not try at all. One task does not say anything about me as a person except perhaps that I am willing to be brave and try things.
It will be boring
It feels boring before I have started but maybe I will feel differently after I start. My prediction may well be right, of course, but if it is, I am still going to complete the task because it is important to me.
Big tasks are often difficult to start because they feel overwhelming and are filled with unknowns. The best way to get started is to break the task down. When we feel some emotional resistance to getting started, we can use cognitive challenges to re-write unhelpful thoughts.