When you just don’t want to work (on hard stuff)

December 4, 2022

Which is closer to your belief?

A. You should do your most important work regardless of how you feel.
B. You should do whatever work you feel like doing in the moment.

I lean towards B.

Some days, I just don’t feel like doing difficult work. I don’t want to flesh out a video idea, I don’t want to work on an upcoming speech, and I definitely don’t want to record anything. I used to beat myself up on such days, telling myself that I had to push through the resistance. But that just stressed me out.

These days I take a different approach. When I don’t feel like doing hard work, I simply don’t.

But there’s a catch.

I do lots of easy work instead.

In fact, I turn it into a challenge: how many small tasks can I check off today? Bonus points for completing tasks that have sat in my task manager for a long time. Days like these often feel very restful to me. Yes, I’m doing stuff all day, but it’s not mentally taxing work, so my brain gets a break. I am effectively resting while paving the way for focusing on important work in the coming days and weeks.

(Of course this approach only works if you do feel like doing your most important work at least some of the time. If you never feel like doing the difficult work then, well, you need a different line of work.)

This week, I find myself forced to have easy-work days. Two days ago, I tested positive for covid. It’s my first time getting covid and fortunately it’s a mild case: I have a runny nose, I cough from time to time, and I feel a bit tired. It has me feeling grateful for being young and for having recently received my fourth shot of an mRNA vaccine. But while it’s a mild case, I definitely don’t feel up to recording any videos.

So I asked myself: how can I make these 5–10 days of home isolation productive, even if I can’t do the most valuable work? The answer is to do lots of easy work.

More specifically, my girlfriend and I will start traveling indefinitely at the start of the new year. We’ll become digital nomads, if you like that phrase. (I find it a bit cringe.) As you might imagine, there is lots of administrative and logistical work involved in preparing for this new phase of our lives, not least in emptying our apartment and getting our stuff into storage. I decided that my forced home isolation due to covid is a wonderful opportunity for finally deciding what to bring on my travels, for signing up for travel insurance, for canceling subscriptions I won’t be using, and so on.

My goal is to come out of home quarantine with dozens of such little to-dos taken care of, so that my calendar and my task manager are nice and clean, and so I can spend my remaining weeks in Amsterdam doing that hard work: fleshing out video ideas, recording videos, editing them, and so on.

If you’re more the “do the hard work regardless” type and you feel like that doesn’t always work for you, why not give “do what you feel like” a go? I know that’s easier to do when you run your own business than when you have a job. But even in many jobs there is flexibility.

Say you’re a software developer and you should be working on a particular new feature today. But you just don’t feel like doing it and you’ve already procrastinated all morning. Why not give yourself permission to forget about this task for the rest of the day? Instead, you can do a bunch of smaller tasks.

Again, you can’t only work on small tasks. And if all your small tasks are about reorganizing your task manager or buying a nicer desk or installing a second or third screen, this doesn’t apply to you.

But go ahead and wash those shoes, refactor that code, create that template, cancel those subscriptions, and get that new photo for your social media profiles taken. Those things are important too. The more such to-dos you check off, the more you can focus on what’s important later.

So next time you just don’t feel like doing the hard thing, see how many small tasks you can complete. It’ll leave you feeling that you were productive and it’ll set you up for more success afterwards.

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