I’m working on Before and After, a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?"
One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a secret of adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off — in many cases, for months. Maybe years. These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.
But, how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks? I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.
With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure — because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another secret of adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But, although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.
I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “haste makes waste” is more compelling than “hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “power hour.”
First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use power hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And, I couldn’t use power hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be — and probably already have been — indefinitely postponed. For instance: make a photo album of our summer vacation; use up store credits; donate books to Housing Works; move pretend kitchen; round up and recycle batteries and devices.
It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.
Power hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of power hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives. These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?
Gretchen Rubin, author of two New York Times bestsellers, is our go-to gal for the best get-it-together know-how. Every week, she'll be dishing up her wisdom straight from her popular blog, The Happiness Project, to get you on the road to a more productive, healthier you. Here's to a 2014 resolution that sticks!