Sometimes small, mundane “check-the-box” tasks have to get done. However if you spend all your time on the small stuff, you’ll get by, but not ahead.
What keeps us addicted to small tasks? And how can the big stuff get done? Here are six reasons you’re not getting anything important done in business — even when you have the time — and what to do about them.
1. ‘Cotton Candy’ Wins
“We want a sense of achievement and accomplishment,” says Alexander Schultz, CEO of Complete Labs. “When we get a lot of things done, it feels good. But just knocking to-do items off my checklist is not the progress I want to have.”
Only doing small tasks is the equivalent of only eating cotton candy. You may end up with a quick sugar high, but will soon crash and need more sugar to get you back up again. Your larger projects are like meat and vegetables: they take longer to chew and digest but leave you with a lasting sense of satisfaction.
To make progress on larger projects, cut them up into small tasks. By dividing a big win into small celebrations, you’re still getting something of substance completed and making it’s easier to make progress.
2. Memory Mistrust
Another reason you jump on little items immediately is because you fear you’ll forget to do them. Most likely you blame this on having a bad memory, but in reality it doesn’t matter if you have the right systems in place.
When you have a powerful to-do list, calendar system and email handling system, you know you’ll get the right prompts at the right times to move action items forward. By developing the right structure, even a simple notepad to write and review current to-do items, you can relax and focus on the bigger items at hand.
3. No Idea Where to Start
If you arrive at the office, take a glance at your calendar, open your email and then start bouncing through the day like a ping-pong ball hoping that you’ll land in the right place at the right time, you’re not alone.
Many people take this sort of reactive approach to their work. When you aren’t aware of our priorities and unclear on timing, it’s incredibly hard to justify not taking care of the small stuff all the time.
To overcome this reactive tendency, review your projects and tasks list on (at least) a weekly basis so you’ll know what’s most important now. Then, if possible, schedule time to get key items done on your calendar. Schultz also recommends writing your goals at the top of your to-do list and asking yourself, “Is this task aligned with what I want to accomplish and who I want to be?”
4. False Guilt
Yes, there’s a time and place to help peers. There’s also a time and place to focus on getting the work done that you need to do for your business.
Problems arise when external requests come at a faster rate or quantity than you can handle. Then you start to squeeze out other work you need to complete. This can lead some people — especially people pleasers — to feel guilty for taking time to do their own work before everyone else is satisfied. But if you don’t wrap up the projects only you can do, you’re not providing the most value for your company.
Overcome this challenge by pacing your workflow. Set aside time each week to drive personal projects forward. This allows for outside requests to fill remaining time slots. You may not move ahead as quickly on other people’s projects, but in the larger scope, that’s typically okay if you’re moving ahead on the most important goals.
5. Shame at Missed Deadlines
When you haven’t done something for a long time (that you know you should do) even thinking about the task can trigger shame and anxiety. So, instead of making a dent in that big project, you answer another email.
To overcome this cycle, it’s important to recognize everyone makes mistakes and has things they struggle to complete. It’s also helpful to talk about what’s going on with someone you trust since shame thrives in isolation.
When you notice yourself avoiding a project and going into numbing behaviors, such as randomly checking social media, try to stop and recognize the root cause of these behaviors. This could mean sitting quietly and taking some deep breaths, journaling, or going on a walk and talking with a friend.
When you focus on your emotions and process them, you have the opportunity to release them and they’ll, in turn, have less impact on your behavior than if you just try to avoid them.
6. High Fives Required
Receiving affirmation feels good for most people. Depending on your personality type, it can be almost essential for getting things done. If you’re one of those people, don’t fight that tendency — work with it.
Use online tools that enable you to post your activities and have your team comment on them, work with a coach, or set up a buddy system with a friend to make progress on bigger goals. This way you can get a pat on the back for each step along the way, even when the bigger project is far from complete.
If you are ready to really move forward in your business, stop letting the small stuff squelch your success.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E®, a time coaching and training company, and the author of “The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress” and “How to Invest Your Time Like Money.” Connect with @RealLifeE on Twitter.