Have you been trying to get fit, start a business, or learn Korean but have instead become an expert beatboxer or pen twirler? First, congratulations—beatboxing and pen twirling are impressive skills, regardless of what others say. But, yes, you, like me, may also be a master of spending “major time on minor things.” (Motivational speaker Jim Rohn’s words.)
Due tomorrow, or do tomorrow?
I hoped to write this article yesterday. Instead, here are all the things I did.
- Color coordinated my closet
- Browsed online for the perfect picture to use for the article
- Made tea
- Answered emails
- Forwarded bad jokes to friends.
- Read a magazine. For inspiration (that didn’t come)
- Made tea
- “Researched” the topic
- Answered emails
- Reached Genius level on the NY Times Spelling Bee
- Made Tea
- Drifted to sleep
So here I am again, staring at the thing that gives me, and I assume most writers, nightmares—a perfectly blank white screen. A thing of beauty for a minimalism artist, maybe, but an anxiety-provoking moment for a writer on a deadline.
Yes, I needed to clean my closet out and respond to emails. Someday. But did it need to happen yesterday? No. That was never the plan. What I’d really scheduled to do yesterday was write. What I did do instead was everything else. Especially the ones that didn’t need doing.
As Jim Roth once said, many of us spend major time on minor things. And wonder why the needle doesn’t move. We just can’t find the time to learn to sew, write a book, or run the marathon because, instead, we are too busy rearranging our pens, pairing socks up, or engaging in meaningless culture wars on Twitter.
Why we procrastinate
If you believe in the philosophy of “why put off till tomorrow what can be done the day after,” you’re not alone. A 2007 study by University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel shows that 80 to 95 percent of college students engage in procrastination. Obviously, the problem isn’t restricted to young adults.
While it’s easy to judge procrastinators as lazy, ambition-less folks, there is a lot of emerging research on why we procrastinate. One key reason we like to ignore the elephant in the room is that we are too scared of it.
It’s not denial. I’m just *very* selective about the reality I accept.
It’s all about the short term
According to the experts on the subject of procrastination—Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois—“Choosing to voluntarily delay (an action) in spite of our intention reflects a basic breakdown in our self-regulation. This breakdown occurs most often when we are faced with a task that is viewed as aversive (i.e., boring, frustrating, lacking meaning and/or structure), and therefore leads to unpleasant feelings or negative mood.”
In short, the researchers summarized in a study that “procrastination has a great deal to do with short-term mood repair and emotion regulation.”
The major and minor things
But is it procrastination if I spend my time cleaning out the refrigerator instead of watching cat videos on YouTube? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Because it’s not about what we do but rather what we avoid doing.
Now, if you’re wondering why I’d choose something as banal as cleaning a closet to repair my mood as the researchers claim procrastination does, here’s the magic phrase to remember— “Compared to.”
Cleaning the closet doesn’t feel like a chore compared to writing on a deadline.
Creating a color-coded training plan is way more fun compared to actually lacing up my shoes and going for a run.
When we procrastinate, we tend to avoid the major thing but instead focus on the minor things that either give us joy or are not as unpleasant as the major thing we’re avoiding doing. But more importantly, we pay a lot of attention to things that don’t move the needle while completely ignoring (dodging?) what’s important.
How to stop spending major time on minor things
What do you get when you cross a writer with a deadline? A really clean house.
It’s a joke that never gets old because it’s so true. But here are some tips to help us focus on the major things.
Separate the wheat from the chaff
Humor me by answering this pop quiz.
Let’s say you are on a quest to get healthier and want to understand the science behind good health. Which one of these is likely to give you the most bang for your buck?
- Research the differences between Zone 2 and Zone 5 training
- Read all you can about whether an everyday time-restricted diet is better for you than a 5:2 eating plan.
- Side with either Team Kale or Team Spinach and find reasons to insult the other team on Twitter
- Eat less and exercise more
If you’re an elite athlete competing in the next Olympics or a nutrition or personal trainer of the said elite athlete, you can be excused for spending time on items a, b, and c. But, for the rest of us, the best advice to get and stay healthy is option d—eat less and exercise more—the same as it has always been. It’s the major thing, by a large margin.
Options a, b, and c are probably more fun but won’t move the needle on your fitness if you ignore option d.
Getting clarity on what matters is key to ensuring we don’t spend major time on minor things.
Schedule your priorities
It is not by accident but rather by design that we get lost in minutiae. Evolution intended for us to stay comfortable, which is why change, discomfort, fear of the unknown, etc., are hard for us to deal with. But there’s truth to the saying no pain, no gain.
The only way to get something major done is to deliberately schedule (and follow through) on that thing before life (and our brain with its array of creative excuses) gets in the way.
This is why, for instance, you are likely to stick with a consistent exercise plan if you get your workout done in the morning before your day is ruled by others’ whims and fancies.
Jim Rohn liked to use the example of seasons to illustrate the ups and downs of life. In his book, “The seasons of life,” Rohn describes how winters are unavoidable.
Life is like the changing seasons—you cannot change the seasons, but you can change yourself. So, the first major lesson in life to learn is how to handle the winters. They come regularly, right after autumn. Some are long, some are short, some are difficult, some are easy, but they always come right after autumn. That is never going to change.
When life gets complicated, so does our desire to spend major time on minor things. But knowing there’s light at the end of the tunnel, and more importantly, knowing there is a tunnel to navigate, can help us stay focused and undistracted.
I recently came across a story that went viral on social media. An Australian restaurant provided makeshift cages for cellphones on the dining tables. The restaurant offered a 10% discount on the dining bill if the patrons put away their phones for the duration of their meal. As you can tell from the linked picture, not everyone seemed to think it was a great idea.
It is not a stretch to say that we are turning into an attention-deficit species, unable to stay focused on the task for even a short duration. As a result, we spend major time on minor things but wonder why our self-improvement efforts fail.
If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.