The other night, I found myself staring at the computer screen, torn between the task I felt I should work on, and the task I wanted to work on. Obviously, I didn't really want to tackle the "should" -- but guilt prevented me from diving into the "want." Finally I ended up working on a completely different project -- which was at least productive, but didn't resolve my underlying issue.
So I decided to examine that issue a bit more closely, on the assumption that I'm probably not the only person who has this problem. When "should" conflicts with "want," is the answer really as simple as telling yourself, "Well, you know what you should do, so just do it?" Sometimes it is. And sometimes it isn't.
When this conflict arises at your own desk, here are some questions to ask:
1) Which task is more important? My "should" task involves a project that needs to be finished next week. The "want" task, however, involves developing an organizational scheme that could actually save me considerable time over the next five years. Each task obviously has value, so choosing simply on the basis of "which is more worthwhile" may not be an option.
However, even when tasks aren't of comparable value, that doesn't mean that one automatically trumps another. Perhaps you "should" start work on an article but you "want" to play your favorite computer game. Again, the simple answer is that the article is more important than the game. Sometimes, however, a better choice is to allow yourself half an hour to play the game before you begin work -- because sometimes, playing a simple computer game can actually help clear your head and make you more productive when you do tackle that "should."
2) Which task is more urgent? Again, sometimes this is less obvious than it seems. Clearly, if the organizational task has no deadline, while the other project is due "next week," I should focus on the project with the deadline, right? However, one reason I'm drawn to the organizational task is because I've been working with the materials involved for the past several weeks. Right now, all that information is fresh in my mind. If I postpone it for a month or so, it won't be. I'll lose the edge I have today, and add delays while I reacquaint myself with material that, right now, I'm familiar with. Sometimes, missing an opportunity may be worse than missing a deadline.
3) Which deadline is more urgent? This isn't quite the same question as the one above. Each task may have a deadline, but which deadline is more important? For example, I consider this newsletter to have a "deadline." It comes out the first and third Thursday of the month, and I doubt I've missed that date more than once in seven years. But if I did, the world would not end. I'm not about to fire myself, and I don't think any reader would suffer serious harm if an issue were a day or two late. However, other types of deadlines are far more serious. A missed assignment can mean not only the loss of pay but the loss of a working relationship with your editor. And, ironically, deadline pressure is one of the key reasons we tend to procrastinate on our "should" tasks. An important step in determining which task to choose is determining whether we're avoiding something precisely because it has an important deadline.
4) Which task requires more energy? Sometimes, our reason for preferring a "want" to a "should" is an (often subconscious) awareness of the amount of energy and effort involved in each task. Perhaps you've come to the end of a long day, and the thought of dealing with one more "important" task on your to-do list is too much to endure. Your desire to choose a "want" over a "should" may be your body's subtle way of directing you toward a project that you can handle with the resources of time and energy available to you. Even if the "should" has a tighter deadline, you may benefit from putting it aside until your energies are refreshed and you have time to give it your full attention.
5) Which task excites you? Chances are, the task you want to do is the task you're excited about right now. Perhaps you've just been struck by an inspiration. Perhaps you've just figured out how to solve a problem in a tricky scene. Perhaps you've just discovered or learned something new and want to try it out. Whatever the reason, postponing such a task means risking losing that excitement. Even if it's not the most important task on your plate just now, "excitement" is another vital window of opportunity. It doesn't last. If you repeatedly push a task aside for "more important" projects, chances are that when you finally do get to it, it won't excite you anymore. At that point, it's likely to shift from a "want" to a "should," the task that you start to push aside because there are other things that interest you more.
While "excitement" can't always be the only factor governing your choice of tasks, it's not one to ignore. If you continually turn away from tasks that excite you in favor of those that are simply higher on the priority list, you end up sacrificing your joy. Eventually, you'll be stuck with a list of tasks that bring you no joy whatsoever -- an endless list of "shoulds" without a "want" in the bunch. When that happens, you may start to wonder why you're doing this in the first place, because the things that brought you joy and excitement about your work have become only a distant memory. Which brings me to...
6) Is there a reason you don't want to tackle the "should" task? Often, we find ourselves avoiding those "shoulds" because they're actually tasks that we really don't want to do at all. When you don't want to do something -- and I mean really, really don't want to do it -- then almost any other task, down to scrubbing the bathroom, looks more appealing.
If that's the case, it may be time to evaluate why you have this task on your plate in the first place. Is it important? Is it necessary? Is it something you enjoyed once but now find a tedious obligation?
As freelancers, we often end up burdened with a host of projects and obligations that we've taken on simply because they provide income. We've lost sight of the whole reason why we quit our day jobs and started freelancing in the first place: Because we wanted to be free. Freelancers, by definition, are seekers of independence. We set out to do what we loved, to do our own thing. And all too often, the result is longer working hours, fewer (or no) vacations, and the joy of working for a dozen unreasonable bosses instead of just one.
Discovering that a "want" constantly arises to distract you from a "should" is one sign that, perhaps, your to-do list is full of tasks that bring you no joy. Writing simply to keep food on the table is no different from being a wage-slave at any other job. It's not "doing what you love" if you don't love it anymore. Worse, it brings the added risk of destroying your original love of writing -- the kind of writing you keep wishing you could find time to do, if not for all the things on your "should" list.
Sometimes, evaluating "should" vs. "want" simply means evaluating what you're going to do for the next few hours of your life. And sometimes... it means evaluating what you're going to do for the rest of your life.
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