Have you every felt so torn between tasks that need to be done that you don't start any?

I've felt this way many times. And it has gotten worse since I started working from home. Maybe the proximity of my coworkers had a tempering influence on my neuroses.

This torn-between-demands experience happens when many urgencies stare me down all at the same time. Sometimes it's clear to me which thing is most important to do but often it isn't. When that isn't clear, even if I commit to working on one of the things, then the little voice in my mind nags me about the other things that aren't getting done and how I'll have to disappoint the people waiting for those things and how bad that will feel. When I get like this, even if I force myself to knuckle down and work on something, the experience of doing that work feels very negative.

The dumb wrong thing vs. the perfect right thing

I imagine how dumb people will think I am for working on the dumb wrong thing when I could have saved the world by working on the perfect right thing.

Recently, after a couple days of making myself sick and not getting much done, I realized that in those two days, I could have finished all the things if I had just picked one, done it, and then picked another, and done that, and so on. I would have felt much better at the end of those two days and the people waiting would not be waiting anymore. What kept me from doing that? My mindset.

It's perfectionism, plain and simple, these mental loops that bug a doer, whispering that what she's doing is not the perfect right thing. This thinking will slow you and eventually stop you cold.

Sometimes you close your eyes and point

The truth is, perfectionism lies. There is no perfect right thing. Sometimes there is not even any clear best thing among all the things awaiting your attention. Sometimes, you just have to close your eyes and point. Wherever your pointer aims on your list or kanban board or bullet journal page of to-dos, do that thing.  Then do another. And another. All the things will get done much faster than if you sit and deliberate and worry and beat yourself up.

Here's another perfectionism-feeding factor: what if all the things are BIG complicated things that cannot be done in a day or even two. Like what if multiple articles need to be written, and edited, revised and proofed. Like what if a multi-page website needs to be designed and built?

In such cased, here's what I do ... I visualize what will make the most difference to my goals and my perception of whether I'm achieving them? Or, I imagine what will bother me the most if it is not done? Avoiding that imagined pain is motivating. Worst-case, if I still don't have any clarity, I close my eyes and point. Wherever my pointer aims, I take that big complicated task and break it down. What's the first tiny thing I need to do to make progress? Set a timer? Put my headphones on? Open VS Code? I do it. And then I do the next tiny thing. I may not finish the project by the end of the day, but I make more progress and feel much better having made progress than I would have chasing my looping worries around and around my mind.

The magic of action

First actions are magic. They sneak you past your perfectionism and put your feet firmly on a path toward your goal.

After your first action, the next action becomes the first and so on. Every project is a series of first actions and next first actions.

I've found the first action that makes the most difference for my focus and productivity and even creativity is not opening a new document or starting a timer or putting my head phones on ... It's jotting down what I just did (whatever that may be ... staring off into space, answering a slack message, whatever), and then writing "now I'm ready to switch to writing a user article about this product." This is called interstitial journaling and I got the idea from this article: https://betterhumans.coach.me/replace-your-to-do-list-with-interstitial-journaling-to-increase-productivity-4e43109d15ef.

Write what you did, then what you'll do next

Interstitial means in-between. It's that in-between focus periods, those transitions where you stop one thing and inertia can prevent you from switching gears to move onto the next thing. It helps me (in an almost magical way) to write through that switch. I write the thing I'm going to work on and then the first action I'm going to take and then I do it ... no worrying about the perfect right thing, no other decisions to be made, just do do do.

An example from just before I started working on this: "10/9/19, 1:02 p.m. —- OK, I finished the user testing meeting and now I'm ready to edit an article. First action: open an article in Notion. Then start the timer."

And then I did it. I grabbed 28 minutes of time sandwiched between two meetings that otherwise would have been frittered away.

If you keep using interstitial journaling to take breaks and get back on the next first action, you'll finish that project and the momentum from that will carry you into the next and the next.

You'll finish your five projects ... maybe not as fast or perfectly as perfectionism dictates, but if perfectionism had its way, you would still be sitting there worrying about how many things needed to be done and which is the perfect right thing to do next.

Don't be the hater criticizing the imperfection of the person who did something. Be the doer, the learner, the imperfectionist taking action and making mistakes to get to good enough and leaving all the perfectionists in the dust.