J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

How To Complete Difficult Tasks

You're on your own.

You’re on your own.

What’s the secret to completing difficult tasks? If we can learn how to consistently overcome challenging obstacles, we can reduce our reliance on others, feel more capable and powerful, and take on bigger and more rewarding projects. If we give up too soon, we sell ourselves short, abort promising career directions, and become too reliant on other people’s expertise.

I think there is a secret to consistently getting the hard stuff done. But first a story …

We’d been having some trouble with our telephone and internet service. Dropped calls in the middle of important conference calls, internet outages in the middle of gigantic uploads, calls getting dropped after one ring, and so on. Incredibly frustrating, and bad for business.

After seven different support calls and one site visit from sonic.net (all fruitless), and one site visit from Bay Alarm (sonic.net thought the problem was related to our alarm system), I realized the best remaining option was the fix it myself.

I knew the problem had nothing to do with the external line, which tested clean when disconnected from our house. The problem was something in our home wiring. Something was introducing enormous amounts of noisy static onto the line.

I descended into our basement, filled with dread.

Dozens of yards of unlabeled phone wire (some old-style, some Cat5) spider-webbed along the support beams. Some long wires simply stretched over the gray dirt of the long dark crawlspace, heading who-knows-where.

Six wires tied into one line. We were only using two jacks. Where were the other four wires going?

At this point, the task felt overwhelming. So how do you deal with that feeling?

You chunk it. Divide the overwhelming task into smaller tasks.

I knew at some point I would need to label all the wiring. So my first job was to get out the trusty Brother P-Touch label printer and make a label for every single jack in my house. That, I knew I could do.

The next job was to trace wiring in my basement. Slow work, but not so overwhelming if I just did one at time. In the end it only took an hour or so, poking around with my 110-lumen narrow-beam flashlight, wiggling wires and straining my eyes.

Once everything was traced and labeled, the fun part started. Disconnect a wire to an unused jack, and then listen for noise on the line.

In the end I disconnected all but three wires. The wire to our alarm box, kitchen jack, and office jack we were using. There’s no phone in my four-year-old daughter’s room, and she’ll probably never need a land line anyway — so I cut that one. The other two wires went to our front bedroom, and one of those wires was spliced into an additional jack which led to an old outdoor phone box that used to service a second line. That jack produced no dial tone, but did sound noisy. Problem found!

Cutting the wire to that weirdly spliced jack fixed the problem. What seemed impossible actually only took two hours of work. Chunking out the job gave me a doable first step, and once I started actually working on it, momentum took over.

Along with chunking, it’s important to have some faith in yourself. Even though you don’t see the solution yet, the very fact that you’re perceiving the task as difficult probably means that you’re closer to a solution than you feel. The task wouldn’t seem hard unless your mind was already grappling with the details of how to get it done.

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6 Comments

  1. This is exactly the same way I’ve learned to solve problems, and accomplish tasks; some of those “I will start with the first doable step and let momentum take over from there” lessons, pay my bills, however most people think that my income is from lessons that I learnt in a classroom in my college days. Nope. Not at all.

  2. Here’s a good article from Adam Savage on basically the same topic:
    http://www.wired.com/design/2012/10/adam-savage-make-a-list/

  3. nefnie

    Excellent, simple! Like running: I say the hardest part is getting out the door = if I can get changed/put the running shoes on, then I might as well head outside and since I’m outside, I might as well run. Chunking indeed! Topic: what is the resistance to actually starting?

  4. Re: resistance, I like the “clear to neutral” concept as described in this post:
    http://www.asianefficiency.com/habits/clearing-to-neutral/

  5. Sharon

    What a great way to explain this to the kids.
    I usually teach my students Super 3 “Plan Do Review” a great task and problem solving strategy by (Little, T. J) the Early Childhood version of the Big 6 by Eisenberg and Berkowitz, 1999. We also teach “chunking it out” as a reading strategy, so chunking out a difficult task or problem seems to fit really well here. It may be another way for the students to ‘hook’ into understanding problem solving strategies and developing these for themselves. Yes, we do need to explicitly help students with getting started, helping them see the task as a number of small (doable) steps that lead to completing the task or solving the problem.

  6. Reblogged this on roslionel.

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