The Bermuda Triangle of meaningful work
You know how it goes: you sit down to do the hard work of getting started on a passion project or to finally tackle a problem you’ve been (secretly) avoiding, but then, somehow, you inevitably wind up doing a whole lot of everything else instead.
I’m no stranger to the Bermuda Triangle of Meaningful Work. I’ve had plenty of days where I’ve set out with the best intentions to finally work on a passion project only to find myself an hour later, elbows-deep into scrubbing the sink. It’s easy to get distracted and oftentimes even easier to stay distracted...and before you know it, the moment is passed. The opportunity gone.
Sure, you might manage to get a lot of tasks crossed off your list, but at what cost? If you’re like me, all those substitute tasks you did instead are weighed down by the nagging guilt of avoidance.
It’s easy to think, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, but there are only so many tomorrows left. Today is one of them. Learning to carve out time specifically for projects which refuel you as a person is an important life skill.
Whenever I begin to notice myself avoiding a meaningful endeavor, I try to get to the heart of why I’m having difficulty getting started. What is it about this project that’s causing me to turn away? Do I believe in the work I’m setting out to do? Does the scope of the project feel intimidating? What’s a small step I can take right now to just get started?
Maybe you’re not sure you can get started. After all, isn’t starting the hardest part? Sometimes, the very notion of “just getting started” can feel impossible, especially if you’re struggling to overcome burnout or are feeling overwhelmed.
In moments such as these, I begin by setting my intention and write my goal on a sticky note in bold marker which I then place prominently on my desk. For this sacred moment, that one task is the task. It’s the most important goal for the day. It’s the one thing that must get done.
When writing, designing, or brainstorming, I close all non-essential programs and browser tabs (when using the computer) and ensure my physical desktop space is also free of distractions. Most of the time, my desk is already quite spartan, but I find it helps to remove everything when I’m struggling to get started, including (and most importantly) my cell phone.
When drawing or nature journaling, I sometimes limit how many tools (pens, pencils, paint brushes, etc.) I’ll allow at arm’s reach. Limiting options helps me focus more intentionally on the flow of the work itself rather than on which pencil weight to use (2B or not 2B? 🤔).
I’ve also found setting a timer of 25 minutes (a Pomodoro timer) to focus solely on my goal helps me when I’m feeling stuck. If 25 minutes feels like too much, even 5 minutes can help me overcome the initial hurdle of getting started and help me get into a flow state.
Sometimes, just the act of jotting down the first few words of what I’m working on or sketching out a simple project outline can transition my mind into the doing phase.
Music can also help, and I’ve created dedicated playlists with the sole purpose of keeping my mind in focus-mode. These sacred playlists are off-limits unless I’m doing focused work, which helps me avoid forming associations of distracted behaviors with songs intended to keep me in flow, reminding me I should be focused on my goal whenever I begin to drift.
Next time you feel yourself being pulled away from the work you’ve set out to do, try to note how you’re feeling and assess whether there is a genuine need to step away or if you’re practicing avoidance behavior.
Life certainly happens and we can’t always help when things out of our control will pull us away, but it’s good to be mindful of when we wander over the boundary line of to-dos and must-dos and sacrifice meaningful work to the illusion of productivity. The more we choose to do the things that can wait over the things that shouldn’t wait, the more we communicate to ourselves that the things we’ve deemed meaningful don’t really matter.