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How to Do the Things You Keep Avoiding

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Tasks you’re avoiding never leave your consciousness for long. They hang there like clouds, some distance away, watching you.

They’re big and looming, but they don’t move very quickly, so you can always just move a bit further away. You still feel their presence though, and it feels bad.

In many cases, you can keep avoiding a cloud for weeks or months or years. It is content just to continue looming nearby.

Of course, in the meantime, more clouds appear. Things get gloomy. Even when you look away, you feel them.

Of course you should just deal with them. You already know that. You should pick one, block off an afternoon, and tackle it.

You don’t though, because whenever you get close to a cloud, you see -– or feel – exactly why you’ve been avoiding it. There are so many things that could go wrong. So many cans of worms you’re not ready to have sitting open.

And how are you supposed to get a handle on a cloud, exactly? It’s too billowy and amorphous to deal with it bit by bit like people say. You’re not sure quite how to get started, so you retreat to a comfortable distance again. You can deal with it Sunday. If you have time.

If instead of backing off to regroup, something had possessed you to move into the cloud anyway – a deadline perhaps, or a rare surge of courage – you might have noticed something unexpected.

Inside the cloud is something small and firm. Something like a brick, or a stone tablet. It has some weight to it, but at least it has hard edges and a finite size. It doesn’t loom or billow.

This is the Task itself. It sits quietly at the center of the Cloud, and can only be seen when you get right inside the Cloud’s damp, misty air.

The Task is surprisingly small, because it contains only the tangible experiences that comprise the job. There’s nothing hypothetical here. Just brushes and paint cans. Fonts, headers, and paragraphs. Lines of code. Phone conversations. The stuff work is made of when you’re doing it.

The Cloud is not the Task, but from a distance it appears to be. The Task is what you have to do. The Cloud is all the immaterial, psychological stuff that condenses around a Task when you’re thinking about it without doing it. It’s a byproduct, made of intolerable, insoluble problems that aren’t really about the task, like self-doubt and the pain of past mistakes.

Tasks look like Clouds, but feel like Tasks

Because it’s so much bigger than the Task, the Cloud is all you can see when you ponder a Task you’re not currently doing. This illusion makes any job seem like it’s much bigger than it really is, entailing much more difficult questions –- “How do I make sure I’m liked and admired by my colleagues?” rather than, “How do I make my Excel table look like the ones Terry makes?”

The good news is you don’t have to deal with the Cloud, or solve its existential riddles – not once you get your hands on the solid surface of the Task.

Once you get your fingers into the material of Task itself – the spreadsheet, the light fixture, the command line, whatever it is – something shifts. The Cloud doesn’t feel very relevant anymore, because your concerns have become practical rather than hypothetical, and specific rather than general. You don’t need to do something huge, like solve your confidence issues, you need to choose a font, or unscrew this bracket, or look up the Offset command in AutoCAD.

Do the Task, not the Cloud

We avoid the Cloud because it’s huge and impossible to deal with. But the Task is what needs doing, and unlike the Cloud, it’s limited in scope and made of pieces we can handle.

Once you start handling those pieces, they become what’s important. The Cloud becomes easy to ignore, like a billboard that’s too close to read.

The trick is not to get psyched out by the Cloud on your way to the Task. You begin to break the spell the moment you get your hands on the materials. As quickly as possible, make physical contact with the tangible components of the Task itself: the sketches, the file folders, the gloves and pliers, and start doing.

This isn’t the same advice as “just get started.” Getting started is a nebulous concept. Often we “get started” on a task by doing even more thinking about it, trying to resolve all of our doubts so that we can really start. That’s all still Cloud.

Don’t deal with the Cloud. Get your hands on the Task. The Cloud doesn’t know what to do about that. It’s just vapor.

***

Photo by C Dustin. Drawings by David Cain

Need help getting stuff done?

The big productivity books are written by people who don’t especially struggle with productivity. The rest of us find other ways.

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Lenka February 16, 2021 at 2:23 am

Jus wow. David you are always on time to blow my mind… THANK YOU so much for explaining this cloud & task example. So so so needed one!!!!
with all my love
Lenka

Vic Stan February 16, 2021 at 2:56 am

Perfect timing for a great article. The universe is definitely at work. I’ve been focused on the cloud of writing on my own website instead of meeting the task head on. I write for a living all day long and dread writing about writing. I am going to read your timely article a few times more. Thanks!!

Rocky February 16, 2021 at 7:14 am

Howdy David… Perhaps that book I keep waiting for you to write is up there in the vapor? When I read your last post, “The 65 most helpful posts on Raptitude”, I thought it was a great foundation for a book. I know you have a great one in you !
Many thanks for #66 :)

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 9:46 am

Hah… definitely it is. It’s not a priority at the moment but that will change after this year.

Peggy February 16, 2021 at 9:05 am

Wow, indeed. It’s like you’re sitting in my brain, David – exactly what I have been wrestling with, lately. But I have never heard or seen it explained so clearly, so precisely – deep bow of thanks .

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 9:43 am

I know that exact feeling. The task seems too big to start doing the tangible stuff, so we try to break it down in our minds first, but that just makes it bigger and harder to begin. I hope you can find a brick to put your hands on and start to dissipate the cloud around it.

Ben February 16, 2021 at 3:26 am

Excellent piece as usual and just what I needed today. Thanks David

Kevin February 16, 2021 at 3:31 am

Great article! It’s amazing how good we are at making things seem bigger than they really are, and attaching all kinds of connotations to them, only to find out that everything works out just fine.

Matthew Felgate February 16, 2021 at 3:32 am

Hi David. Thanks for writing and sharing this. It is helped me clarify how to approach unwanted tasks. I think it is better than the well meaning but incomplete approach of “just get started”. I’m keep to implement this new thinking right away. I have experienced what you have described when approaching a dreaded task, and getting my hands on it realise it is a real world physical action that needs to be done and has a “next step” to be done which is a lot smaller than the “cloud of dread” that has been manufactured by my mind over time.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 9:53 am

I think most of us have experienced that feeling at some point — that sudden congealing of a task when we start to deal with its tangible components. I’ve become more conscious of it because it’s so pivotal. Making contact with the Task shrinks the job down because it’s real now rather than imaginary. Its apparent size becomes bounded by its actual size. In the mind it can expand forever because it’s all hypothetical.

Isaac Hall February 16, 2021 at 4:03 am

Absolutely brilliant

Sally February 16, 2021 at 4:29 am

This is a great explanation and makes a lot of sense to me. Love your work David.

Janie February 16, 2021 at 4:54 am

David this one really hit the nail on the head. Such a clear and powerful articulation; love the idea of the vapour. Would you be happy for me to link to this post from my LinkedIn page? I think this would really help a lot of my client group.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 9:56 am

Hi Janie. Links are always appreciated, no need to ask!

Michelle @ FrugalityandFreedom February 16, 2021 at 6:25 am

I feel this in my BONES. Thank you for putting it into these words. Indeed, I could’ve saved so much angst in my new freelancer career by remembering my concerns are often merely vapor. As per the last decade, still loving your writing.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 9:57 am

Excellent! Bones are tangible!

Susan Ward February 16, 2021 at 6:56 am

Good timing David – ‘Don’t deal with the cloud, deal with the task ‘ – I hope that’s an accurate quote. And tax time looms! One page at a time. One receipt at a time – it’s all doable.

Erin February 16, 2021 at 8:32 am

This is such a great approach, and you’re spot-on with the cloud analogy. Big projects nearly always feel daunting, but breaking them down into tasks and milestones helps. I tend to struggle with that first step of reaching into the nebulous cloud to extract that tangible task, so I’m going to keep this in mind the next time I find the cloud looming. Thank you so much for so generously sharing your wisdom. :)

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 10:06 am

Part of the difficulty is that any complex task involves identifying what actually has to be done, and that part is basically all thinking. So the first step can often lead to more thinking, and doubt, which expands the cloud.

What seems to help is to identify some useful, tangible, step that obviously has to be done at some point, and do that. Already it will start to make the task feel more real, and bounded by reality, so the abstract planning/thinking stuff will be less out of control.

Brian February 16, 2021 at 8:37 am

I’ve been better at getting tasks done by scheduling them instead of listing them but a few linger. I decided I’d make a Procrastination List of items so I’d have a clear list of what I was avoiding (“nail down the clouds”)–and of course I haven’t gotten around to that. I think your little tablet of the actual task embodies one helpful step: break down and itemize the task into component tasks–sub-tasks or taskettes. Then you have a clear picture of what the actual task is and can even bite off one or two things at a time instead of tackling the whole thing. I decided to death clean my house (kind of like ruthless spring cleaning) and by breaking it down to room by room and scheduling each one I’m steadily ploughing through them. Now I must get to that Procrastination List. Thank you, David, for the clarity you create.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 10:08 am

I have a list called a “Monkey List” that is reserved for things whose not-done status particularly bothers me (a “monkey on my back”). They are often big-cloud kind of items that are easy to avoid, but man does it feel good to cross one off.

George Coghill February 16, 2021 at 8:42 am

Excellent insight, as usual.

I have found that the Task is typically resisted by the aspect of my mind that resists all change (even when that change is for a desired outcome, oddly). But curiously, once the Task is finally underway, that aspect that doesn’t like change now doesn’t want to change the activity of performing the Task.

It’s the classic “just do one push-up” approach. But it helps me to know that if I can just get that resistant aspect into the Cloud and working on the Task, I can leverage its obstinate in my favor.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 10:11 am

There is a switch that flips when we start the bones of the task, and I think it’s because we start to recognize that the task is limited in scope, unlike our thoughts about it. When we’re still not doing it, all we have are thoughts, so it feels limitless.

Linda February 16, 2021 at 9:05 am

This is brilliant and I will be sharing with my fellow procrastinators!

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll finally get around to doing all the stuff I put off because it tires me out just thinking about it!

Sharon Hanna February 16, 2021 at 9:57 am

So good. Last week I completed a couple of tasks that had been in the cloud for a long time and I had spent hours freaking out about them….it involved planting up some bulbs that had been hanging around since the fall. I kept looking at the packages and feeling nauseous. Anyhow it took in total about 3 minutes to do them. Thanks again David.

David Cain February 16, 2021 at 10:23 am

I have literally avoided tasks for a year or more then accomplished them in 3 minutes. The Cloud illusion is so powerful.

Allyson February 16, 2021 at 10:04 am

Another excellent word illustration towards motivation. Thank you!

Mike February 16, 2021 at 1:02 pm

Fantastic, David! Exactly what I need to hear – my sky is beginning to look quite gloomy. Thank you!!

Vilx- February 16, 2021 at 2:10 pm

There’s more reason to avoid the cloud. That’s the one I have. I look at it and I can even see past the cloud to the tasks themselves but… there are multiple of them! So which one should I do? Even when I have an opportunity to work on some of them, I can only do one at a time. So how do I choose one? And how do I justify choosing THAT particular one? It’s a decision paralysis.

David Cain February 17, 2021 at 9:19 am

I know what you mean. The decision paralysis stuff is still cloud. Some of the tasks themselves are apparent in the cloud. You can know from a distance, for example, that sorting your disastrous office involves gathering stray file folders, putting things into piles, etc. But there’s a difference between doing these tasks and just thinking about them. If you’re trying to sort them out in your mind, so that the whole process is clear and you have no doubts, you’ll never actually start, because you’ll never find that complete clarity.

However, if you keep advancing despite the urge to think it all through, and get your hands on the material components, you will have broken that paralysis. You don’t have to justify choosing a particular place to start. You’re already doing the task, which makes it much clearer what else has to happen for it to be done, and what you should do next. The clarity comes much quicker when it’s bounded by the physical reality of the task than when it’s floating around as an unbounded, hypothetical cloud of stuff in your mind.

Edward G. February 16, 2021 at 2:18 pm

A very good post, David. Thank you. Just start doing something that will get you moving and the rest will fall into place.

Magdalena February 16, 2021 at 2:51 pm

Thank you David, this post is particularly clear and useful (as it was cleaning the tile, not the floor). I can only add one piece of advice I heard from Marie Kondo: the very first step when your stuff gets really disarranged is to make big classifications. I think this would help dealing with what you call your “monkey list” (the brainstorm of things you know you have to do). You may start by writing down your “have tos” and/or “want tos” as they appear in your mind, but you may get overwhelmed too because the clouds are still scrumbled. So, when you have several clouds floating or looming at the same time, how do you choose one?
First by classifying them in big categories, such as “things to fix / things to buy / things to do because I want to (non-urgent) / because I must (mandatory) / because it is necessary for me / for the family / for others / etc. Sort of like naming the clouds but also grouping them according to types.
Second, by filling each category with the corresponding things to do.
You’ll end up with a “collection of lists” that will set your mind at ease (since your memory gets a break).
Then you can start selecting the tasks that are real priorities without worrying about forgeting the rest.
Throughout time, the tasks will vary, but the titles of the lists won’t, so it becomes increasingly easy to avoid the sense of mental chaos or overburden in the long run.
I hope that helps too.

Jo February 16, 2021 at 2:53 pm

I have a cloud ….

I need to update my Massage Therapy registration, so I stay current. To do that, I have to submit my First Aid Certificate, which is due to expire this month. So, now I have to sit a refresher course. Problem is, there are a number of First Aid courses, and I’m not sure which one I should do. I need to fetch my old certificate to answer that question, but, that certificate is sitting in a big old chest that my flatscreen sits on. That small physical activity of moving the TV, which isn’t heavy at all, has put a halt to my remaining current as a Registered Massage Therapist.

As I type this, a lightbulb has just gone off. How did I know that my First Aid Cert is about to expire? I had to go through the same process for something else a few months ago. I don’t recall needing to move the television. Bingo! I have a digital image of the First Aid Certificate on my android, which I took 2 years ago, thought I’d better keep as it would come in handy some day!

Today, I will book in for my refresher First Aid Course. My cloud has just ‘poofed’.

Thank you David, you were very helpful today :)

Mel February 16, 2021 at 3:12 pm

Awesome concept and the illustrations are great as well. :)
I will forward this to a friend I am regularly helping to dissolve the vapour. Some things seem impossible to him untill I firmly tell him to get a pen, sit down and fill out that form.
I know the vapour as well but get quicker into action because my brain gets stuck on constant repeat when there are open tasks and this constant repeat most of the time is worse to me than facing the nebulous fears around the task.
And somehow starting a task with someone else, even if it is tiny and stupid seems to ease it a lot for me as well…

David Cain February 17, 2021 at 9:25 am

Involving another person does seem to make a huge difference. I believe it’s because we each have a different cloud around the task. The cloud is psychological, which means it’s specific to the individual, while the task is objective. So one person can bring the more clouded person’s attention right to what has to be done, and once they start the doing phase, the cloud breaks up anyway.

Susan February 16, 2021 at 4:55 pm

I love this! It is so true. I’m going to put a picture of a cloud where I will see it every day so I don’t forget.

Norman H February 16, 2021 at 9:47 pm

Fantastic piece. Who doesn’t recognize themself in it? Really captures a truth of human nature.

Sandra February 17, 2021 at 2:57 am

Perfect! Just what I need!

Katharine Kent February 17, 2021 at 1:24 pm

Spot on brilliant! You have clarified a mystery that has surrounded my life for years. I get it. And I will do a concrete part of the task now…….
Thank you.

Nancy February 17, 2021 at 1:54 pm

I’m going to read this every morning until my cloud shrinks and my sun comes back out. Many smiles :)

Jeremy February 17, 2021 at 2:53 pm

This is one of those thoughts/ideas/experiences that I’d noticed hanging out at the periphery of my awareness (kind of like the clouds) but had never been able to express coherently.

Thanks as always for sharing your wisdom and insight David!

David Cain February 18, 2021 at 9:06 am

Same here, but the analogy came to me when I was discussing this with someone else, and it made it so much clearer. I’m glad it works for other people too.

Jonathan February 18, 2021 at 12:05 am

This blog post is the perfect summarization of capturing and clarifying – two key concepts of Getting Things Done by David Allen. I read this book at the end of last year and finally started to implement this system and just those two things alone – capturing ideas and then clarifying what the next action is to make those ideas reality – have had a pretty substantial impact so far on me this year. Highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone – especially in the age we live in where information comes at us constantly.

David Cain February 18, 2021 at 9:20 am

I would also recommend GTD — its basic principles are just too useful not to have in the toolkit (especially collection/processing).

However, I struggled to implement it because it often didn’t do a good job crossing the particular psychological gap outlined in the post above. Identifying the Next Action makes it far easier to start, but I found that it wasn’t always a simple matter to identify the Next Action of a project you hadn’t yet started. With complex, large-cloud tasks, the initial Next Action is often “sit down with a piece of paper and figure out what actions this project entails.” The problem is that this is still just thinking, still more engagement with the Cloud, because the task is still hypothetical. In my efforts to determine the proper Next Action, I would often end up sitting there with that piece of paper trying to think through (rather than do) the task, just adding to the Cloud and my aversion to starting.

What has worked better for me is to get my hands on some part of the task I know must be done, which begins to dissipate the cloud (i.e. the mental/hypothetical form of the task) and makes much more clear what will need to be done. After moving to the practical, tangible level, *then* the Next Action becomes a lot more obvious, and it won’t be “sit down with a blank piece of paper and figure out how you’re going to do this task.”

Mark Limke February 24, 2021 at 8:58 pm

I guess I would quibble with your objection to “just thinking” is not moving the project forward. In GTD, if you don’t have a Next Action, then thinking about it IS your Next Action. It is not a failure; inaction is.

If you do the high-level thinking, the least you will have is an idea of where to focus your next thinking session – and that too is progress. Enough thinking and pretty soon you have a Next Action that is doing and not planning.

I would argue that just picking out some concrete (non-planning) task to start with is not effective, it is just a less crappy form of procrastination. Making you feel better instead of being smart and doing what is called for. What if your ultimate plan makes the action you took unnecessary, or worse, counter-productive?

David Cain February 25, 2021 at 10:57 am

I understand all that. I’ve read GTD multiple times. In my experience, there is a certain psychological barrier that is crossed when you go from thinking/planning/analysis-type actions to concrete actions that are bounded by physical forms and possibilities.

That barrier is a place many people get stuck. If you don’t, that’s great. David Allan doesn’t seem to either, and that’s great for him. For the rest of us, it can be helpful to have a way of getting ourselves across that gap.

Victoria Yazlle February 20, 2021 at 8:07 am

Brilliant!! In simple words you explain teh complexity of being so human as we are.

Gunnar Pedersen February 21, 2021 at 4:48 pm

Thank you, David!
Combining this way of thinking with making “power moves” will (hoping that “would” won’t be the verb…) move so many tasks from ‘what needs to be done’ to ‘what is actually done’.

Again, thank you for putting difficult topics into easily read articles.

Gunnar

Gunnar Pedersen February 21, 2021 at 4:52 pm

…just thought of a great quote I heard from Greg McKeown, that fits well here: “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.”

ثبت برند February 22, 2021 at 11:58 pm

A very good post, David. Thank you. Just start doing something that will get you moving and the rest will fall into place.

Ellen February 25, 2021 at 1:32 pm

Love this, David. I think it has great application to learning music. I struggle with guitar because I’m trying to deal with the cloud, not just sit down and learn the notes in the scale; or try to learn 3 notes on the fret board….the shiny objects get me every time.

Gina Pera March 9, 2021 at 12:22 pm

Hi David,

A friend just directed me to your blog. I love your thoughtful, sincere approach.

Kudos!

Gina

David Cain March 9, 2021 at 12:34 pm

Hey, welcome Gina! Just checking out your site now. Excellent!

nick April 2, 2021 at 6:03 pm

great article – thanks david! i can identify with the cloud thing, that things blow up in your mind. also i would say it becomes a habit, to put things off – i would say be kind to future sef and do something TODAY towards a task, rather than leave it until tomorrow.

often we worry and think about things far too much, when it is written down and some action taken on it, it loses it’s unspecificity, it then becomes doable. basically don’t think too much and just keep taking action.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/happiness-in-world/201311/being-considerate-your-future-self

and

https://www.kathleenjshields.com/inspiration/tomorrow-a-mystical-land-where-99-of-all-human-productivity-motivation-and-achievement-is-stored/

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