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5 reasons we get “rocks” on our task lists (and how to get rid of them)

We all have those dreaded tasks that live forever on our task lists or to do lists. I call these tasks “rocks.” They sink down, heavy, to the bottom of our list. They sit like shipwrecks on the ocean floor, ghostly reminders of our original plans. We mean to get to them, truly we do. We put them on our task lists with the best of intentions. But there they sit, week after week, month after month, sometimes year after year. Glowering at us. Reminded of the gap between our lofty intentions and what we’re really doing with our days.

Tasks become rocks for different reasons. Some tasks– some mega rocks– might have multiple reasons for sitting on our to do lists for ages. Here’s a quick rundown of some reasons that tasks turn into rocks, and some questions you can reflect on to help chip away at the rocks and get those rocks (finally) done and off your task list.

We resent the task 😾

The problem

This task is someone else’s priority, not ours. We have this task on our list out of a sense of duty, of obligation. Maybe it’s our boss’ priority at work, so we grudgingly put it on our list even though we disagree with the approach or allocation of time and resources to this task. Maybe we put the task on out of a sense of duty to family or friends, all the while resenting that they don’t recognize what an imposition it is, and feeling like a bit of a martyr.

Questions for reflection, to find a potential solution

  • Whose priority is this task?
  • Do I agree that this task should be done at all?
  • Can I imagine a version of this task that I’d agree with more?
  • Do I have to do this task? Could someone else do this task? Could the task be eliminated altogether?
  • If I do have to do this task, can I edit it at all to be more agreeable or manageable?
  • What is the minimum viable version of getting this task done? What might a good-enough solution look like?

This task is for our ideal selves, not our current selves 🤩

The problem

We agree with this task, in principle. It’s our priority, not someone else’s. But this task doesn’t fit into our current lives. Perhaps it’s something that we used to fit into our schedule with ease and joy– before we had kids, were working two jobs, and caregiving aging parents. Perhaps it’s something we imagined we would be doing at this life stage, but chronic illness is a barrier to having enough energy to dedicate to this dream project. Maybe we feel strongly about volunteering for a cause or organization, but already struggle to find enough time in our day for the basic obligations of our lives.

Questions for reflection, to find a potential solution

  • When did this task (or a task like it) fit into my life? What has changed since then?
  • What does this task represent for me? Is it related to a type of identity? A milestone?
  • Do I feel like I “should” have done this task already at my life stage?
  • Do I feel pressure to fit this task into an overflowing life?
  • Could I imagine letting someone else make this contribution right now, while also knowing and remembering that it’s something I value and would like to contribute myself in another season of life?

The task is too large and daunting 🗻

The problem

The task on our to do list is actually a multi-step project in disguise. In GTD, David Allen distinguishes between “next actions” (aka tasks) and projects (larger deliverables which should be broken down into smaller components). When we’re getting our ideas out onto our to list, it’s easy to write quick items like “buy birthday gift for Cynthia.” And sometimes that’s all we need. But for those tasks that are sitting on our to do lists becoming rocks, we might need to break them down further into smaller, more manageable components. When we do this, we are also motivated by the sense of movement and progress we can see and feel as we chip away at smaller pieces of the whole, even if the overall project isn’t yet done.

Questions for reflection, to find a potential solution

  • What is the smallest piece of this project could I get done today, to feel like I’m making progress?
  • How could I break down this task into smaller chunks to chip away at?
  • Could I create my own interim deadlines or milestones for smaller pieces of this project, to feel like I’m passing smaller milestones before the final one?

We’re afraid of doing it wrong ❌

The problem

If we don’t start, we can’t fail. Some tasks that we feel are very significant sit as rocks for ages… until an external deadline forces us to pull together something that isn’t up to our highest standards. If we procrastinate until the eleventh hour, we can protect our ego from criticism or a low mark or a failing grade. We can tell ourselves that if only we’d had more time, if only we’d truly made an effort, then we could have succeeded.

Questions for reflection, to find a potential solution

  • Is there in fact just one “right” solution to this task?
  • Who am I afraid of disappointing with my work on this task?
  • What’s the worst-case scenario if I did in fact do this task wrong? Are there any remedies or solutions or fixes I could use to fix that worst-case scenario in the future?
  • Can I imagine my performance on this particular task along a spectrum of quality, rather than a binary of “right” or “wrong”? What might a “good enough” solution look like?

We don’t have all the tools or supplies we need 🛠️

The problem

We’re motivated to do the task, we agree with it philosophically, it fits into our lives, and we’ve scoped the task appropriately. So why are we still stuck? Sometimes, when we’re stuck on a task, we haven’t recognized that we lack an essential tool for getting the task done. This could look like using clunky, outdated software when we know that better options exist, but we haven’t identified the need to do focused research to find a better solution. Or maybe trying to do a home repair job using makeshift replacements (instead of the proper tools or supplies), leading us to get frustrated and abandon the task midway through. Or maybe we don’t have a large enough workspace to spread out the papers for our project, and constantly procrastinate because we dislike the unpleasant feeling of cramming papers onto a tiny workspace and dropping folders on the floor.

Questions for reflection, to find a potential solution

  • What tools or supplies or workspace (physical or digital) do I need to efficiently complete this project?
  • If I were delegating this task to someone else, what would I want to make sure they had available to them to do this task well?
  • If I imagine starting this task, what barriers or roadblocks do I forsee to getting this task fully completed?

Want to learn more about taking an intentional, mindful approach to productivity and task management? Explore my archive of articles about quiet productivity and productivity tips.

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