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You Are Better at Getting Things Done than You Think

posted 2011 by Peter Wastholm

If you do what you've always done, you'll be what you've always been. -- Unknown

Some people seem to get so much work done. Alexandre Dumas wrote 277 novels, including classics like ''The Three Musketeers'' and ''The Count of Monte Cristo''. Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice, the physics prize in 1903 and the chemistry prize in 1911. Thomas Alva Edison held 1,093 patents. (But he didn't invent the light bulb. Not exactly, anyway. He did, however, make important improvements that made electrical lighting practical for home use.)

It's easy to feel like a hopeless couch potato compared to people like this. Or compared to prosperous businesspeople, popular artists, or victorious athletes. Even compared to that annoyingly successful neighbor or acquaintance or colleague. But I think there are two things that are easy to forget but important to keep in mind.

The first thing is that we, as external observers, can only see the things these supposedly hypereffective people did do, not the things they didn't do. Like us, they probably had an even longer laundry list of things they wanted to do, but never got around to. Or at least didn't consider important enough, compared with other to-do items, that they took the time to do them. From this we can learn that we shouldn't worry too much if our to-do lists keep getting longer instead of shorter. This isn't really a problem as long as we also learn that we have to prioritize. If we want to travel the world, maybe we can't also have a meteoric career. If we want to learn something really really well, maybe we have to settle for simply getting by with other things. If we want a rich cultural and/or social life, maybe we can't always have a spotless home and an impeccable garden. Or vice versa.

The second thing is that success breeds success. If we get something done today -- something small, but something we can honestly say we consider worthwhile -- it may be a little bit easier to also get something done tomorrow. And if we can pull that off, we have the beginnings of a good streak, and most people don't like to break good streaks. Perhaps we can even make it easier for ourselves to keep track of our streaks by marking them somehow. It should probably be something really simple, like drawing marks on a wall calendar (I read somewhere that Jerry Seinfeld does this) or writing a short note in some sort of journal (I do this myself). Hopefully, by tangibly illustrating our good streaks, we can not only encourage ourselves to keep at it, but also give ourselves a little peace of mind: we may not be moving to where we want to be as quickly as we might like, but we are moving.

The beginning is the most important part of the work. -- Plato, The Republic

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