zen habits : breathe

The Things That Get in the Way of Doing

By Leo Babauta

After working on my procrastination, mindfulness and productivity habits for the last 9 years, I’ve gotten much better at doing and accomplishing.

Today I sent out the digital editions of my book to Kickstarter backers, for example, while working on a 13-person coaching program, a habits membership program that has several thousand readers, writing a guide on mindfulness, preparing for several webinars, and of course writing this post. One task at a time, but lots getting done.

And yet … I still have things that get in the way of my doing. Some of them I’m OK with, but nonetheless I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about the things that get in our way.

Doing Obstacles, & Some Solutions

This list isn’t complete, but just some ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Online distractions. This is a big one for me. I can go to my favorite online sites (just a quick check) and get lost for an hour or two. Or more if I hit on something that really fascinates me. What has worked for me: To overcome this, I try to remember to pause … and often get up and walk around, and realize that I’ve gotten lost again. Then I’ll clear my screen and just have one thing in front of me, and try to stick with that until I’m done. I don’t always succeed, but when I remember to do this it works very well.
  2. Being overwhelmed. If you have a crapton of things to do … it can make you feel helpless. How can you possibly get it all done? So you don’t even start. You can’t get it all done … at least, not right now. What has worked for me: Right now, you can do one thing. So when I’m overwhelmed, again, I’ll clear everything, and make a list of 1-3 things I need to do most right now. Yes, sometimes the list is just one thing, because that helps me focus and not feel overwhelmed.
  3. Email is piled up. When my email inbox has a lot of messages piled up, it can feel overwhelming. What has worked for me: I use Google Inbox or Mailbox, and just snooze a bunch of things I don’t need to worry about right now. Then I’ll deal with as many of the others as possible, and leave some to deal with later. Instead, I close email and get to work on a more important task.
  4. Feeling indecisive. What if you have so many things you can’t figure out what to do? Often, that leads to doing nothing. I remind myself that not deciding leads to stagnation, and while I don’t believe you need to move at a million miles an hour, I don’t like myself held stagnant by fear. What I’ve learned is that this is a fear of not knowing the perfect decision, because we don’t know what the future will hold. Is it better to take that new job or keep this one? Is it better to work on this project or that one? It’s impossible to know, because the future is uncertain. What has worked for me: I try to just pick one based on whatever information I have (usually a gut decision) and take some action. It’s better to work on something than to stop moving because of fear of uncertainty.
  5. No energy. This is a huge one, bigger than most people realize. When you have a lack of sleep, you are low on energy and you just don’t feel like working on anything hard. You can’t focus and you have a hard time pushing through. What has worked for me: Either I give myself a break but really focus on getting to bed earlier and getting some good sleep … or I push through and do the hard stuff. Just because we don’t feel like doing something hard doesn’t mean we should skip it.
  6. Lack of discipline. This is usually the result of low energy, or being in fast mode and not wanting to stop to focus on something. You tell yourself you’re going to do something, but then you don’t. What has worked for me: I forgive myself for messing up, and instead I try to be mindful about what’s going on. Am I tired? In fast mode? Not inspired by this project? Instead of the general “I lack discipline” diagnosis, I try to find a more specific problem, and then address it. And then get to work.
  7. Task switching. Again, being in fast mode means that you’re doing lots of little tasks, constantly switching between apps and tabs in your browser. You can’t stick to one because you’re constantly switching. What has worked for me: Again, I will take a break and then clear everything, and refocus myself. I try to stick to the one window mode (close everything else) and just focus on one thing for as long as I can. I’m not always successful.
  8. Getting little things done. We feel productive when we’re taking care of lots of little tasks (emails, calls, errands, small admin tasks, paperwork), but while those do need to get done, they aren’t the important things. We’re avoiding the important things but we feel productive because we’re busy. What has worked for me: I fall into this trap a lot, so when I catch myself doing it, I stop and ask myself what my big task is for the day. Sometimes I can’t choose between 2-3 big tasks, but it doesn’t matter … I just need to pick 1-3. Then I ask myself: “Am I working on it?” If the answer is no, I’m not really being productive — I just feel like it.
  9. Task seems too big. We all fall into this one, and we all know the answer. It’s too big, so we put it off. The answer, of course, is to break it into smaller tasks, but we rarely follow this advice. What has worked for me: I focus all of my energy into starting. All I have to do is write the first few words. Once I do that, I focus on the next few paragraph. One bite at a time.
  10. We’re afraid we’ll fail. We also all have this problem — we don’t feel competent at this task, it’s confusing, it feels like we’ll embarrass ourselves. And this is understandable when we’re doing something that’s not in our wheelhouse. What has worked for me: I remind myself that letting myself be controlled by fear is not the way I want to live. I remind myself that failure is actually not the worst outcome — not even trying is a much worse outcome. Why? Because if you try something and fail, you learned something, you got some practice, and next time you’ll be better. You’re further along than before. But if you don’t even try, out of fear, you don’t learn anything, and you’ll probably keep doing this because you’re creating a pattern of running from fear. Instead, push through and do it anyway, because the value of doing is so much greater than the value of being safe and doing nothing.

What obstacles get in your way? How can you get better at dealing with them? How can you get to doing?


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