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Vickie L. Milazzo  |  09/13/2011

Vickie L. Milazzo’s picture

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Breaking the Feel-Good Task Addiction

Twelve tips for working smarter

In today’s world, we’re constantly sabotaged by nonproductive energy wasters. There are e-mails to read, Facebook statuses to update, receipts to locate for that already-late expense report, dishes to be washed, files to be organized, and on, and on, and on. These are the easy, albeit often unproductive, tasks that make us feel good. They may not get you any closer to accomplishing your greater goals, but at least you’ve checked a couple of things off your to-do list.

Unfortunately, this addiction comes at a high price because that cheap check-mark high is guaranteed to frustrate, overwhelm, and stress you out in the long term. You feel busier than ever but are accomplishing less of real value.

I, too, am a happy checker-offer. Working for two hours on a huge project I won’t finish doesn’t release the same amount of endorphins as cleaning out my in-box. After two hours or so, I want to check something off my list. That’s when I indulge my own feel-good addiction and attack the stack of bills, plow into the financials, or grab my mouse to viciously click through my e-mail.

Are these feel-good tasks the best use of our time? No. They often snowball until an entire workday is behind us. One e-mail leads to two—after all, it only takes two minutes to fire off an e-mail. Then there are calls to be returned. Two minutes turns into 20 as one item leads to another. Even if you set them aside once you put your attention to them, these small tasks buzz around in your head and have the potential to distract you for hours. Before you know it, quitting time arrives, and you haven’t accomplished a single step toward your most important goals.

Maybe it’s the curse of the modern world, but often our important tasks fall prey to the feel-good addictions of easy ones. By majoring in minor things, we never get to our big commitments. Breaking these addictions opens the door to achievement. What you engage and focus on is where you will yield results.

Going after larger accomplishments—an addiction to momentum—is a far more lasting high than the transitory feel-good of checking off trivial tasks. As I say in my book, Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman (Wiley, 2011), engage commitment to achieve “Big Things,” and once you’re engaged in accomplishing Big Things you’ll approach routine matters with laser-sharp focus, quickly deleting, delegating, and experiencing fewer distractions. More important, your creativity and productivity catch fire, and the momentum keeps you pumped. You’ll glide through your day full of confidence and satisfaction from achieving significant milestones.

Here are 12 easy steps to help you stop doing what feels good and start doing what matters:

Define three Big Things. Identify three Big Things that connect to your passionate vision, then choose one to schedule your day around. For example, your Big Things might be to get promoted, live by the ocean, or achieve financial security. So today you might agree to take on a high-profile work project to put you in the running for that promotion. Or you might start the search for your beachfront property. Or maybe you’ll develop a household budget. Set a target date for each of your Big Things, and begin working steadily toward achieving each of them. Start strong, and you’ll experience genuine elation from achieving real goals and solving real problems.

Challenge your plan of action. Often, we take a tiny step toward achieving a Big Thing to save us from having to make a big commitment and to ward off feeling guilty about not going after our passions. For example, flipping through a magazine on beach properties might make you feel better, but it isn’t really helping you toward achieving your goal. Ask yourself, “Am I really going for my goal all the way? Or if it’s too tough, will I quit?” Make sure your plan of action is doable. Assess each step when you are taking it, and make sure it’s the right thing for you to be engaged in at that time.

Turn off cyberspace. There’s no greater blow to productivity than breaking your concentration to reply to an e-mail as soon as it hits your in-box. Remember, no award will be handed out at the end of the day for the person who responded to the most e-mails the fastest. If you’re doing nothing but responding to e-mail, you’re bouncing around like a pinball. It’s also important to keep in mind that the purpose of e-mail is not to generate more e-mail. Unless a response is necessary for the sender to move ahead on a task or project, it’s OK to let them have the last word.

I’m not saying that e-mail isn’t important, but there is a time and place for it. If you let it, it will absolutely distract you from more important tasks. If you can’t bring yourself to close your e-mail box, at least turn off the sound alert and pop-ups so you won’t have the annoying “ping” sound and flash notification every time a potential time-waster drops out of cyberspace and into your mental space. Think of yourself as an emergency room nurse using her triage skills. Don’t start the surgery unless the patient is critical. E-mail doesn’t bleed out, doesn’t need defibrillation, and, unlike a critically ill patient, won’t expire if not tended to immediately.

Turn off the TV. Every hour you sit in front of the TV you’re accomplishing nothing. Every second of that time is irretrievably lost. If you’re struggling to let go of this feel-good addiction, start by turning your TV off one day or one hour a week. Instead, spend that time working on your Big Thing.

If you dare to fully realize the phenomenal power of TV banishment, take a week off from watching. You might already be gasping from withdrawal pains, but I guarantee you that if you stop watching TV, you’ll be taking back a significant amount of your time and making something wickedly powerful happen. You’ll never again find yourself saying, “I’m too busy to….”

Tame the social media beast. Social media can be just as time-consuming as watching TV. It’s fun to read the details of friends’, family’s, and clients’ lives and to see the photos they’ve posted on Facebook. It makes us feel good when they “like” something we’ve posted or when we’re tagged in one of their photos. That’s one reason social media is so addicting—it’s like experiencing human hugs all day long. Now that you understand why you like it, it’s time to tame the beast.

Social media can quickly move from a social communication to an obsessive compulsive disorder. You can get caught up in all of the things to do there—the games and other ancillary applications. That’s my big issue with social media. Let’s face it, clicking your mouse to get points to build a hen house for your farm or sending someone virtual hugs, flowers, or groceries seems like a crazy waste of time. Does “I got a new llama for my herd today” really sound better to you than “I made three sales calls on new clients?”

Wickedly successful women avoid those meaningless feel-good addictions. We spend our time growing our lives and careers, not fertilizing our virtual fields. We measure our lives in seconds, not just hours and days. Social media is a great thing and can be a valuable tool. It’s changing the way we connect and communicate. Just make sure you’re using it to advance relationships and meaningful engagement.

Set aside sacred “momentum time.” Momentum time is the only way you can stop being a slave to petty distractions. It’s the precious time you are able to set aside for yourself each day to work uninterrupted toward achieving one of your Big Things. To carve out time, examine every activity and decide how to eliminate it, delegate it, hire it out, or do it faster.

My office opens at 8 a.m. Often by 7:50 there’s a line of penitents forming outside my door: employees asking for my input on projects, directors telling me why they won’t meet a deadline, and the janitor asking me to diagnose a toenail fungus. Knowing this madness is coming, I use my quiet momentum time, the early morning hours before the office opens, to hunker down and work on those projects that need the most concentration.

If part of your day is rarely interrupted (such as early morning or late evening), reserve it for momentum time. Keep your momentum time sacred. Use phrases such as, “I’ll be available in one hour. What time after that works best?” Start your day with a two-hour uninterrupted chunk, then gradually add more two-hour momentum sessions each day. Claim your momentum time, and you’ll find those lost hours you’ve been looking for.

Interrupt the interrupters. Statistically, you’re interrupted every seven minutes in the workplace. Today we’re bombarded by a plethora of interruptions that we invite into our mental space—e-mail pop-up notifications, Facebook postings, text messages, Twitter streams, and blinking message lights.

Whether you’re working at home with family around you, in an office with colleagues, or camped out in a Starbucks with your laptop, you’re going to be interrupted. I personally think there’s a secret alarm or flashing blue light that goes off the moment I shut my office door to focus. It seems to be a shout-out for people to start lining up to interrupt and ask me questions ranging from the important (Please approve the advertising budget) to the mundane (Can I leave early on Friday?).

But there’s really only one person responsible for interrupting the work you’re doing and keeping you from getting to your Big Thing. That person is probably responsible for more interruptions than anyone else in your home or office. Who is the responsible party? That’s right—you. It’s more important than ever to work with focus and a consciousness about whether you’re on or off focus. If you can interrupt the interrupter, you’ll get a whole lot more done.

Alternate momentum time with “weed pulling.” Miscellaneous routine tasks are like weeds in your garden: We all have them and no matter how often we get rid of them, they never go away. Yet they do have to be handled, and pulling a few weeds can provide a restorative break from more intensive work. Separate tasks into two categories—Big Things and weeds. After each momentum session, devote 15 to 30 minutes to weed pulling—i.e., handling e-mail, phone calls, and other minor tasks.

Don’t try to tackle all your weeds at once. Prioritize. Set aside a three-hour block periodically to do the deep weeding and organizing. But if you just need a five-minute break from your Big Thing, don’t tackle the weeds. They will only distract. Use those five minutes to refresh your energy with a stretch or a bit of nourishment such as raw nuts or a cup of healthy green tea.

Focus on one Big Thing at a time. When you engage in too much at once, you risk finishing nothing. Finish your first Big Thing, or at least reach a significant milestone before embarking on the next. I have difficulty following my own advice on this, and do have to tame the beast of “too many good ideas.” But on this, do as I say, not as I do—engage one Big Thing, then the next and the next.

Use technology to your advantage. With the advancements in Smartphones and the development of iPads and miniature-sized laptops, we can stay connected and work from almost anywhere. The trick is recognizing when you are using these technologies to your advantage, and when they are distracting you from better things.

When I travel, I can check my e-mail on my iPhone before I even pick my luggage off the conveyer belt. So when I hit the hotel I’m ready to accomplish Big Things—the reasons I traveled to begin with. Likewise, I know when to turn it off—for example, when I’m at a friend’s house or when I’m speaking to a group. In both of these situations, the people I’m with deserve my undivided attention, and I know that I’ll get more out of the experience if I’m not thinking about where I can go hide to check my e-mails and Facebook.

Let go of bad ideas. Successful women can be successful at many things, so it is tempting to go after all kinds of ideas, even ones that are not so great. When we decided to update our training curricula for our online and live programs at Vickie Milazzo Institute, we put extensive time into customizing the material to each format. Midway we realized we were creating a monster. Every future revision meant double the work. It still breaks my heart to think of the hours that went into this before we wised up and created one curriculum that worked for both formats. That’s an example of a “great idea” that wasn’t so great after all. When a great idea isn’t so great, you have to be brave enough to cut your losses and let it go. Doing so will free you to work on the next genuine Big Thing.

Safeguard your momentum. Accept that you won’t please everyone. Someone is bound to be unhappy about the changes you make to focus on your Big Things. A friend might get upset because you can no longer meet for lunch on Wednesdays. Your spouse might complain because you won’t run his errands on a weekday. Bottom line? They’ll get over it. Stop feeling guilty and stay true to your goals. Surround yourself with friends, family, and peers who support your vision. Discard all discouraging messages. Your Big Things are your passions and goals, not anyone else’s.

Wickedly successful women make big commitments. They go after big goals. As I like to say, they engage big. They don’t settle for the small-time achievements that lead to the feel-good addiction. They go after their Big Things. Put that to-do list away and start thinking about the Big Things you want to achieve.

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About The Author

Vickie L. Milazzo’s picture

Vickie L. Milazzo

Vickie L. Milazzo is the owner of the education company, Vickie Milazzo Institute, and was featured in The New York Times as the pioneer of a new profession. Milazzo is recognized as a trusted mentor and dynamic role model, and she shares her vast experience with thousands of women. She has been featured or profiled in The New York Times, Entrepreneur, Houston Chronicle, Ladies’ Home Journal, Los Angeles Times, and in more than 220 newspapers. She is the author of Inside Every Woman: Using the 10 Strengths You Didn’t Know You Had to Get the Career and Life You Want (Wiley, 2006), and Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman (Wiley, 2011).

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