“I’m cursed with a reading list that I will never get to finish.” I wrote those words years ago about the books I want to read, but, those words, pretty much, sum up how I felt about all my future plans. Going over some documents saved to my computer, I noticed that over the years I created many to-do lists, covering books to read, material to study for my exams, long-term plans, you name it.
Here’s my problem: an ambitious person that never follows through with any of her plans or to-do lists. I wouldn’t call myself a chronic procrastinator, but I wasn’t as productive as I would like to be. In my defense, a day has only 24 hours, and my to-do lists were not tiny. What do you expect when you try to fit many tasks into one day? You end up with disappointment, and many items that will haunt you for as long as you shall live.
A chunky to-do list often leads to procrastination. A year or two ago, I watched an insightful Ted Talk about procrastination by Tim Urban. If you’ve not watched it yet, I totally recommend that you do. It is scary because it shows you that procrastination wastes not just a day here and a day there but actually wastes a whole lifetime. And don’t add it to your “watch later” list. This Ted Talk was not a wake-up call for me, but it was something. It was just a little warning.
Deep down, I knew that I delayed lots of things for the right time. I would say “later,” but that “later” never came. I’ve always wanted to read Tolstoy’s famous novel, War and Peace, but I’ve been discouraged by the number of pages. I woke up one day and said to myself: there is never a right time. If I don’t read it now, then when? And I started it, and I’m proud to say that I also finished it. War and Peace is finally on my “read list.” It took me two months and a half to finish. This is how I read it and what it taught me about productivity.
The technique is quite simple. It’s actually so simple it sounds intuitive: taking baby steps. I decided to read a few pages every day, not too many to feel overwhelmed, something that I can stick to. For some days, of course, I didn’t follow through, but the plan worked. I made progress. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t stick to your plan for a day or two as long as you keep going. Progress is progress. This approach taught me to let go of my “all or nothing” mentality.
War and Peace also introduced me to my all-time favorite quote: “The two most powerful warriors are patience and time.” This quote has become my life motto. If you think about it, it’s one of the best advice anyone could ever get. If you apply it to productivity, it leads to success as it teaches you patience. You will reach your goals if you move slowly but steadily. Give everything time. You can do this or that if you practice more. I’ve recently finished an 80+ hour course online. It took me 5 months to finish, but I eventually did it. If I went about it with my typical “all or nothing” mentality, I would have assigned a lot of hours per day to finish it in two weeks or in one month. And I would have definitely ended up frustrated.
Also, I’ve always been intimidated by this novel. I thought it was going to be so hard to read. I eventually found out that it was one of the loveliest and easiest books to read. The story was beautiful. Similar to this book and my misconceptions about it, some tasks may daunt you, but they are not as bad as they look. Sometimes, starting a task is so much easier than thinking about it.
Perfection and procrastination are two sides of the same coin. If I can’t do something perfectly, does that mean I shouldn’t? Perfection is your enemy. It is what stops you from being a better you. Perfection is seeking a beautiful picture that is too hard to draw it’s frustrating. Trying to be perfect, to get everything right, to finish a to-do list in one day are all the reasons it’s too frustrating to start.
Getting things done in whichever way you can is always better than doing nothing at all. Imagining a perfectly clean house is great but deciding to clean it all in one day is not such a great idea, and it won’t work, but starting with your wardrobe gets you closer to a decent-looking house. I will read a whole novel in three days won’t work but I will read a novel in two weeks will work. Even I will be the best version of myself today won’t work. Our life is a work-in-progress, and we do what we can. There are no rules. Just know your pace and follow it.
I’ve realized that when you go slowly, you go far. I’m a much more productive person now. My achievements are small, but I have achievements. I’ve cleared a lot of items from my to-do lists over a long time. My approach is to start small and not to exhaust myself so I can continue. It’s about being there at your own time, at your own speed and eventually getting things done no matter how much time it takes.