I had the pleasure of tackling a fairly Major project recently, one involving a good amount of research, organization, the shuffling of papers and filling out of tedious forms. As is my proclivity in handling such tasks, I had dragged my feet forever in starting to work on it, the result being an inevitable delay in its completion. The old adage that “work expands to fit the time allotted for it” was very much in play, especially since I had completely disregarded any semblance of a deadline to get the job done.
Sometime later as I was strolling with the puppies, lost in deep thought as I am wont to be, it struck me that the actual mechanics of getting that task done—the research, paperwork and such—was not exceptionally painful. Once I started working, everything flowed at a fairly decent pace as I focused on getting the facts right and all numbers in their correct little fields. And the satisfaction I felt afterward was palpable. Most notable was a distinct and not exceptionally congratulatory thought: Damn, that wasn’t so bad. Why didn’t I knock that off earlier?
That’s when I had my Big Epiphany: Ugly and not-so-ugly tasks are frequently put off not because actually doing them is odious, but because the thought of doing them is overwhelming. I don’t want to write that paper because it will be so much work! I don’t want to put up the holiday decorations because it will be such a chore! I don’t want to get out of bed and go to work because it will feel so awful not being in bed anymore!
The reality is that the awful feelings that elicit such dread either do not exist, or at worst exist for a fraction of the moment it takes for one to transition from doing nothing to attacking a task. I had experienced that firsthand with the dreaded paper-pushing task. So, what if one were to bridge that miniscule gap and go from inaction to busy-but-not-in-agony-over-it mode almost instantaneously? Would the dread and fear be proven to have been completely unfounded? I figured a mental image was in order, and for some reason turning a car key popped into my mind, complete with that satisfying vroom! sound indicative of a healthy battery and starter. That would be the trick: Feel the dread. Turn the key. Accelerate away smoothly with all of the purpose and none of the pain.
I gave my epiphany serious consideration and tried it out, initially on a small task that evening that would otherwise have been delayed unnecessarily. Then a true test, given my particular nature. The following morning, freshly woken by the Android alarm and snuggled against the warm, fuzzy bodies of both of my puppy sleeping buddies, I contemplated, as always, crawling deeper into my nest of blankets and delaying the drudgery of getting up, walking the pups, cleansing my body and beginning my day. I thought of my virtual car key, virtually turned it, heard the virtual vroom! and swung out of bed with a purpose. There was no lingering dismay or wistful regret; I was a man on a mission. In record time the puppies were emptied, I was clean, dressed and off like a prom dress.
I’ve since turned my virtual key a good many times when faced with the prospect of procrastinating, and the results have all been identical: Any perceived fear of discomfort was proven unfounded as I performed the task. I knew what I had to do. I knew how to do it. And it felt so good when it was done. My virtual key works quite well.
So did I find the panacea, did I suddenly become a whirlwind of activity, the model of productivity? Not so much. Although the key works, it’s still a mental trick—one has to want to turn it. There are distractions, insidious paths to places that swallow time. And the mind, faced with a solution to its natural tendencies, has a clever way of fighting back: Yeah, I’ll turn the key. Later.
Some may say that this is nothing more than the concept of self-discipline dressed as a mental parlor trick, but I say so what. If it works, the proof is evident. The mind can be exercised like any other part of the body; turn the key frequently, and it will become second nature to want to do so. After all, one can’t argue with success. And the virtual key to success.