In his Masterclass on screenwriting, Aaron Sorkin contrasts writing to painting a fence. He says that writing requires you to be in a good mood, but your mood doesn’t matter when it comes to painting a fence. Sorkin's point is that to do our best work, we must be in the right frame of mind. Mindless work, such as painting a fence, only requires we go through the motions. Painting fences is my specialty.
I often find myself choosing to do mindless work when I know that I should be doing something else. I do this all the time. In fact, I did it 30 seconds ago while writing this blog post. I saw an email come in that I knew I could deal with immediately and I shifted my attention to address that, rather than focus on the more challenging task of writing. I didn’t judge the email to be a higher priority, my subconscious recognized it as an easy opportunity for victory, so I took it. Of course, this victory came at a cost because it took extra time to get back into the mindset needed to complete my writing task.
I do the same thing when it comes to the challenging work of building my business. I know that I need to be making sales calls and asking for new business, but I dread this work. I dread it because on some level I think that I am not good at it and because I fear the rejection that might come with putting myself out there. Instead of doing the work that I know I should be doing, I find fences to paint. They are real fences and they really do need painting. They just don't need my attention right now. In the end, I would be better served by getting on with the challenging work.
When you are faced with challenging work, how often do you choose to look for fences that need painting instead? What are your fences? What is the real work that you are avoiding while you tell yourself how much those fences need painting?
Here are a few tips to ensure you are working on the most important tasks in your life:
- Name your fences. We all have our favorites. Look at your patterns and make note of the mindless tasks that you do when you are tired or stressed. Part of the challenge here is that you will avoid the real work and not even realize you are doing it. By naming your fences now you will be able to notice when you start painting them and this will trigger you to look at what you are avoiding.
- Name your fears. You know the work that you are avoiding. You know it better than anyone. Without question, you are avoiding this work because you are afraid of something. In my case, I was afraid that my blog post wouldn’t be good enough and I am afraid of being rejected by potential customers. What are you afraid of? What evidence do you have to support your fear? Most likely, you are making a lot of assumptions that you have not tested. If you missed my previous blog post where I explain how every emotion comes down to either love or fear, you can check it out here. (There is also a free downloadable workbook available to help you uncover your fears.)
- Create supportive structures. Overcoming the power of emotion and fear is hard. You need to create some repeatable systems, processes, and habits to help you. For example:
- I start each morning by creating my To Do List. I only allow 3 items to make it onto my TODAY list. I keep a running list of things that I need to do in other lists, labeled NEXT or SOMEDAY. By selecting which 3 things will go on my TODAY list, I force myself to identify the important work as well as the fences vying for attention. I only allow myself to spend attention on the things on my TODAY list.
- When I have a complex task that I want to avoid, I find ways to create “small victories” by taking the large daunting task and breaking it into smaller pieces. For example, with regards to my terrifying task of business development, I commit to making “one pitch” each and every day.
- I try to be compassionate to myself. I always ensure that I have at least one fence on my TODAY list. This allows me to have some time to recharge my mental batteries and also helps to ensure that I taste some victory every day. Plus, those fences really do need painting from time to time!
Now put down that paintbrush and get on with your real work.
Photocredit: Jay Mantri