On Perceived Difficulty

At a recent meet-up I attended, I was introduced to the concept of perceived distance. Perceived distance is the mind’s perception of how far you have traveled while absolute distance is the distance actually traveled. Obstacles could increase the perceived distance, like road blocks, traffic, rough terrain, and changes in elevation. At the meet-up, the speaker used the example of bicycling on the same lane as fast driving cars. Here in Silicon Valley, we have expressways connecting different cities where cars could drive easily 50 to 60 mph (that’s roughly 80 to 96 km/h for you non-Americans). When a bike has to share that same road, the biker will perceived the distance to be longer because of the stress of getting hit by a car.

This made me think about how similar the concept of perceived distance is to perceived difficulty. Sometimes I can be quite stubborn and refuse to do something because the initial action is cumbersome. I held off on writing an email for a whole month because I thought the writing would take an hour. In my mind, I place a 1 to 1 ratio between time and difficulty, meaning the more time it takes, the more difficult it becomes. In reality, the email took me 5 minutes to write and one click to send.

David Allen, author of “Getting Things Done”, talks about how to get incoming work done. If the activity takes two minutes or less, do it now. If it doesn’t, figure out the next action that must be taken, whether that is blocking off a part of your schedule to do it, defer it to someone else, or figure out an action at a later date. However, in my implementation of his system, that last part about taking the action at a later date never comes. I’ll have my inbox stack up and be left with an overwhelming number of 10, 20, or 30 minute activities.

When I read Kelly McGonigal’s book, “The Willpower Instinct”, I learned about willpower depletion and how easily we can be susceptible to wasting our time when in that state. To diverge from this path, I’ve been reduced to doing things while I have the self-control and drive to do them. But with a large stack of todo items that take longer than 2 minutes, there’s no possible way I can do that in the allotted time when I have the willpower to do them. This leads me to an unfortunate conclusion; I don’t know how to lower the perceived difficulty and stop overloading my schedule. I would actually like to hear how others deal with perceived difficulty and getting things done. What are some techniques you use to get things done?