You Don’t Need to Clear the Decks to Focus on Important Work

By Leo Babauta

We’ve all done it: we have an important task to do, and yet we have to do a thousand other things before we can start:

  • Process email and reply to messages
  • Make sure we’re up-to-date with the latest news
  • Pay bills and check on our bank accounts
  • Make sure the kitchen is clean
  • Check social media one more time
  • Look up that obscure fact we’re suddenly curious about

We’re looking for perfect conditions before we can start to find any focus, before we can launch into that important, meaningful task that we’re committed to doing.

When we’re done with all of that, we decide it’s time to get going with that important task … but first, there’s that one other thing we realized we need to do. Every little task takes importance over this important task.

Try this experiment: commit yourself to doing the one big important task you know you’ve been wanting to do (it’s usually one you can identify easily, because you’ve been putting it off) … and commit to doing it right after you’re done reading this post.

See if you find little things you need to do first, before you can get started. If you have no problem, commit yourself to doing the next most important task (or continuing this one, if it needs several sessions) first thing tomorrow morning. I mean first thing, before you start checking messages or getting ready or taking care of the little things you normally do in the morning.

And then try it every day this week. If you’re like most people, you’ll find a bunch of things you need to do to clear the decks before you can get started.

But here’s what I’ve been reminding myself: you don’t need to clear the decks to get started. You can just launch into the important task.

The feeling that you need to take care of everything else first comes from a handful of sources:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed by everything. You have a thousand tasks on your plate, and you want to clear as many of them out because you’re feeling overwhelmed. I get this, I feel the same way. But putting off the important things to get a feeling of control over your huge pile of tasks is rarely the answer (sometimes it is, if the pile is causing problems). This just leads to the important tasks never getting done, because we get into the habit of prioritizing the pile. Instead, it’s usually better to deal with the feeling of overwhelm by feeling it. Meditating on the feeling, accepting it, letting it be there as we dive into the important task.
  2. Feeling overwhelmed by the important task. We put off the task because it’s big, scary, difficult, overwhelming. Something about the important task makes us shut down — it’s like our brains have a fuse box that gets overloaded and shuts down to keep us safe. This is completely understandable! Something in our past made us feel that we can’t handle these kinds of overwhelming feelings. But it’s usually not true — we can handle the overwhelming feeling. We can turn towards it, feel it, be with it. Practicing like this, we teach ourselves that feeling stressed by this is no problem, that we can handle it.
  3. Knowing that you actually need to do the other tasks. There is some truth to needing to take care of all the other tasks. They actually need to get done. So it’s not a bad idea to take a look at your list and ask what you actually need to get done right now. Do you need to take care of a few smaller administrative tasks before you launch into the important tasks? Or can they wait an hour? Usually they can wait, if we’re honest with ourselves. Sometimes (probably less than 10% of the time), we need to take care of a couple of smaller tasks now. 
  4. Old habits die hard. In truth, much of the time it’s a combination of all of the above, and then just the way we’ve always done things. For example, maybe you’ve always started your day with a cup of coffee and reading your favorite news sites and social media. Then you do email and admin tasks. Only after doing all of that do you start the important work. Starting with the important work before all of that would feel wrong! But there is nothing written in stone here — we can start earlier, and in fact, if we get into this new habit, we’ll find that we’re getting the important work done more often, and having the impact on the world we’d like to have.

Here’s what I’ve been practicing around this:

  • Notice when I’m feeling like taking care of everything else. Bringing awareness to the problem, I can turn toward the feelings of overwhelm instead of trying to fix the feelings by doing little tasks or running away from the important task. Be fully with the feeling of overwhelm, stress, fear. Let myself open up to the feeling, and see that it’s actually OK that the feelings are there with me. I can still do the task with them there.
  • Turn toward the task with an open heart. Now that I’ve allowed myself to feel the overwhelm, I can turn toward the task and see that actually, I have committed to doing this out of love for myself and others. This task is actually an act of love. It is important enough to overcome my discomfort and open myself up to it.
  • Do the smallest step. If it’s hard, scary and overwhelming, can I focus on just a small piece of it that’s actually doable? Do I need to worry about the whole mountain, or just the next step that I can actually do? I pick a small step (maybe writing just one sentence), and let that be the thing I focus on.
  • Be fully there with that small step, as if it’s the whole world. With that small step in front of me, I let everything else fade away. I’ve already done my thinking and decided that this is what I need to focus on. So I don’t need to think about it anymore — I can just pour myself completely into it. It’s the whole universe. Nothing else matters right now (unless a loved one asks for my attention, then they are all that matters), so I let everything go and devote myself to this completely, as if it deserves my full attention, my full heart, my absolute commitment and devotion.

In addition, I’ll keep a note where I can write down the small things that I think of doing, and know that I can get to those later in the day. There’s a place for those things, but it’s not right now.

What is worthy of your full heart, attention and devotion right now?