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Sat, 03 Oct 2009

I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and I've found that it leads to all sorts of trouble. Particularly this last couple of weeks I've noticed that I've gotten into a bit of a corner. The house is messy. I haven't vacuumed. I haven't cleaned, except the bathroom essentials. I haven't been keeping, up with washing up or emptying bins as much as I should. So what's going on?

The main issue at the moment is that I have a big deadline looming. I mean, the chances of failing to meet this deadline are slim - I've done the bulk of the work and I know I can write it up at a decent rate - but still, it weighs on my mind. So in my mind, I feel guilty if I'm spending significant time doing anything other than working towards that deadline.

Meanwhile, I'm still a perfectionist, and I want to devote the right amount of time to things and not do a half-arsed job. So when I think about doing something else, I always think of it as taking a significant amount of time away from the work towards the deadline. I want to give it whatever time it needs.

One way of resolving conflicts of priority is to identify importance and urgency, the classic Covey "First Things First" approach. While this is rather useful as a model, it isn't so obvious when you're worrying about things that are urgent and important because of a fixed deadline and things that are urgent and important because they always need doing. It also doesn't take into account my perfectionism, which will only let me devote time to that one pressing task. What I need is a way to allow myself to give a portion of the time to other important and urgent tasks.

My solution so far is to come up with a quick plan for the hours I want to spend on the large important task. If I keep plugging away at it constantly I'll just feel worse and worse, even though I might finish it a little sooner. Meanwhile, all the other stuff is neglected and seeing the mess around the place makes me feel like progress is really, really slow. So I pick out a set of tasks with the following characteristics:

  • Doable within the next few hours
  • All really important
  • Clear end objective to aim for
  • Relative priorities based on time needed to reach end objective
  • Easily interruptible

The plan only needs to cover 3 or 4 hours, like this example from this evening:

  • Main task: 75% of the time. Work on report. Aim to finish draft of section 5 in this time.
  • Secondary task: Wash up, dry and stack in the kitchen, then sweep and mop.
  • Third task: Put the washing on, and fold the stuff that's now dry.

This was a pretty useful first try, and I ended up getting a lot of this done. The tasks in the kitchen leave it feeling clean and neat and tidy, and they weren't onerous as I was able to spread them out through the evening. The washing task felt really good as none of the individual parts took very long but there was an obvious organising effect. And the report? Section 5 is coming along very well indeed - I've written most of the insightful parts and the rest is tracing items to one another, something that takes a little time but doesn't impact as much on the effectiveness of the end result.

Now, the real trick is to get to the point where I recognise that my perfectionism is getting in the way, and back off for a couple of minutes to really think things through. And do that subconsciously...

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