pondering the mystery of time: why tasks take longer than they need to

What if the single most important thing that keeps us from getting to our most important tasks is nothing and no one else ... but ourselves?

pondering the mystery of time: why tasks take longer than they need to
Photo by Fabrizio Conti on Unsplash

Next week will mark the 5-year anniversary of the publication of my very first book, In Search of Leo!

An idea

My debut book, it is a speculative fiction take on the stages of grief and the realization that the eventual acceptance of loss always makes way for something new.

This was my very first book, and I published it at a time when I didn't have access to book formatting tools (I use the awesome Vellum now) nor the knowledge and experience of writing book descriptions and blurbs.

It is also the only one of my books that is available only in ebook format and that too only on the Kindle store. In all these years, I haven't gotten around to publishing it in print or on any of the other retailer platforms!

For the last two or three years, I'd been mulling giving it a bit of a face-lift and uploading a newly formatted ebook version, with an updated description, in addition to a paperback version.

But I never really got around to doing so because the thought of writing a book description always stalled me. The blurb is essentially sales copy, a few sentences that ought to be tantalizing and enticing enough to get the reader interested enough to turn to the very first page at least.

Now that the 5-year anniversay is coming up, it seemed like a good enough deadline I could impose upon myself to do all that needs to be done to celebrate the beginining of my career in writing and publishing.

Ebook cover of In Search of Leo depicting a young adult standing atop a rock and holding a lantern in the moonlight
In Search of Leo - Cover Design by Pen Astridge

A Tool

I've recently been playing around with ChatGPT, an openAI tool that has become an assistant of sorts, a co-writer if you will, and I've begun using it extensively to write book descriptions.

It's mind-blowingly brilliant, and even if it doesn't yield the result you are after in the first go, you can always tweak your input and watch the output change accordingly.

The UI is a chat interface, so it's literally like texting a friend and asking them "Could you please write a book description for the following story?" And ChatGPT responds with utmost courtesy and intelligence!

I haven't used it to help me write the stories themselves because I quite like the creative process of story-telling, even when I am grappling with doubt as to where the story is headed and all those nagging voices that keep telling me I'm wasting my time creating something worthless. Those voices are expert liars!

For the past few weeks, I kept telling myself that I should check out ChatGPT for getting a book description written for In Search of Leo.

And then I was beset with doubt that I wouldn't know what input to provide the tool to come up with a blurb. So that saw me avoiding the task for a couple of weeks.

A Simple Task

Until finally, yesterday, sick of my own dawdling and indecision, I logged on to ChatGPT and typed the following:

"Hello, Can you please write a book description for a speculative fiction story in which a young adult named Heidi loses her dog and she thinks he's lost in the woods? When she goes to look for him, she meets many characters who, unknown to her, represent the various stages of grief. Thank you."

And ChatGPT gave me something mind-blowing.

"Sure! Here is a book description for your speculative fiction story:

Heidi is a young adult who is devastated when her beloved dog goes missing in the woods. Desperate to find her furry companion, she sets out into the forest to search for him. As she navigates the unknown terrain, she encounters a diverse cast of characters who each represent a different stage of grief. There is the angry man who refuses to accept his loss, the bargaining woman who tries to make deals with the universe, the depressed man who has given up hope, and the accepting woman who has learned to live with her pain.

As Heidi journeys deeper into the woods, she grapples with her own grief and learns to process the emotions that come with loss. Along the way, she discovers that the forest is a magical place full of secrets and strange occurrences. As she navigates the ups and downs of her search for her missing dog, Heidi discovers the strength within herself to confront her grief and move forward. Will she find her dog, or will she learn to let go and find a new path?"

This was an excellent start! I proposed a few tweaks, worded my question in many different ways and finally got a result I'm sure I can use with some modifications.

All of this took no longer than 10–15 minutes at most.

And to think I had spent weeks procrastinating (not counting the last 2–3 years when I didn't have a tool like ChatGPT at my disposal) on a task that really didn't need more than 15 minutes of my time and concentration!

The Big Realization

Often, it takes us far less time to tackle a task in reality than it does in our imagination.
infographic comparing time estimates for a task based on whether we are thinking about it or actually working on it
how long a task actually takes

This is not the first time that I've come to this conclusion. Over and over again, I've found myself putting off tasks using one of the many excuses listed below.

  • This is a huge task and I will need an uninterrupted 2–3 hours to tackle it. So I'll put it away until I can get that chunk of time. (Good luck finding that as an adult, especially if you have little ones at home!)
  • I need to read up more on how to do this so I can do it perfectly in the first attempt. (After all, so many non-fiction books begin with the promise "I made all these mistakes so you won't have to make them too", while subtly following up with the disclaimer that "What worked for me may or may not work for you.") So to do something sub-optimally has become pretty unacceptable in our culture!
  • I'm going to totally screw this up. What's the point of even getting started?
  • This is not part of my job. I should be able to outsource anything and everything that is not writing or parenting. (As writers grow more successful, they do hire assistants for a bunch of non-writing-related tasks, such as marketing or social media engagement. But in the initial stages, when we are quite literally a one-person operation, we are called upon to wear many hats. And I've come to see that each of these experiences, which takes us a step ahead in our path, actually helps us grow rather than take away time from the core activity at the heart of it, which is writing, in my case. But it doesn't always feel that way!)
  • When many days pass without us having taken action, we start criticising ourselves. "I should have done this sooner." "This is still pending." "When am I ever going to get to it?" The cumulative weight of these worries soon becomes unbearable.

I'm sure if I were to note down every thought that crops up in my head the next time I have to tackle a task I've been postponing, I'd come up with many more excuses to add to the list above.

But we probably don't need to expand this list to see the singular underlying theme that prevents us from taking action: fear of doing a bad or mediocre job.

We can call it fear of failing, fear of being embarassed, fear of being exposed, fear of finding out that we're not as skilled as we thought we were.

For me, because all my life I've been the child with the A grades and the first rank and the gold medals, it's the fear of doing a less-than-stellar job that does me in.

More than two decades ago, someone once wrote to me the following words: You have a tendency to live with regret than with failure.

Even now, after all this time, I marvel at how largely true that statement continues to be in my life. It has almost turned out like a prophecy.

So long as I don't stick my neck out and try something new and unfamiliar, I can continue to live in an illusion, in an alternate Universe where if I had only just tried that one thing, my life would have been vastly different now.

It's funny how familiar and comforting that refrain feels. All the could-have-beens and should-have-beens form such a safe haven, who'd ever want to leave that refuge to find out what can be?

A Sense of 'Wrong'ness in Making Mistakes

I have no more than anecdotal evidence to back up my claims right now, but the more I think about this, the more I find that there is this deep subconscious belief that's holding me back.

The belief that it is somehow wrong to have made a mistake. Because I should have known better. Because I should have done better to avoid that mistake in the first place.

I didn't connect the dots earlier but if we just take a look around us, we can easily see that we live in a culture that penalizes mistakes. (I am not talking about illegal deeds and crimes for the sake of this discussion.)

One very obvious way this happens is when the first or the fastest or the one who scores the most in a game or a test is declared the winner or otherwise praised and lauded.

We are not rewarded for effort, but for result. We are compared with our peers all the time and measured and ranked and told to improve rather than acknowledged for our effort.

So what happens when we live in an environment where mistakes are penalized, even if not outrightly so?
For instance, score less than stellar marks on a test, and our mind gravitates to the mistakes we made.
We cushion this under the pretext of learning from our mistakes so we won't make them again.
But this only reinforces the 'learned pattern of avoiding mistakes'.
And this is a pattern we then spend the rest of our lives trying to unlearn by trying to 'embrace failure'.

Is it any wonder then that we live in such abject fear of making mistakes or producing work that we judge as shoddy, even if we're only doing it for the first or even the hundredth time?

On the flip side, sometimes (or perhaps often) tasks do take longer than expected.

infographic depicting how sometimes tasks take longer than our initial estimates
when tasks need to take longer than our initial estimate

This may be because once we get started, we learn that we may need to spend more  time to understand the task, acquire a requisite skill or resources, plan how we'd go about it, or some other factor that we become aware of only when we are in the midst of the task.

If the sense of 'wrong'ness creeps in here – in the sense that our time estimate was 'wrong' and so now we've run into a problem – we can easily go down the rabbit hole of thoughts like these:

  • We should have planned better.
  • We should have anticipated this and accounted for this.
  • We should have consulted someone (insert name of an expert here).
  • We were not ready for such a big undertaking. We should have prepared better.
And we forget that this ability to plan and do better can simply not be gained without first having tried and failed.
Yet, experience is no buffer against failure either because the world around us and the environment we operate in and the tools we use are forever changing!

It's not surprising that we subconsciously think along these lines because whenever something goes wrong, it's typical, especially in organizations, to look for a scapegoat to pin it all on. To find the person responsible and punish them for it.

It's also typical for people to look back and think of all the ways they could have avoided this problem, chalking it up as a lesson for the future.

But the underlying implication that remains is this: if we run into a problem, the tendency is to think that this happened because we were wrong or our efforts were inadequate, both of which are undesirable in the course of life and hence, could have been avoided, should have been avoided, in fact, and the fact that we didn't avoid them and ran into a problem in the first place means we screwed it all up royally.

This is what I've observed in myself and, on reflection, I've seen most members of my family go through this kind of thought process.

When we went through a family crisis almost two decades ago, I saw my parents spend years after that wondering what they could have done differently and if they could have prevented it.

Every day was a variation of this theme. It is only in the last few years, after more than a decade of first blaming themselves and then grieving what was lost, has acceptance seeped in.

Because you see, it is not about fault-finding. We each are doing the best we can, given the skillset we have at any given point in time.

And who we are at that point in time is a function of innumerable factors – upbringing, cultural conditioning, world events and how they affected us or our caregivers, genetics, and so much more – almost none of which is in our control.

So now, how do we go about undoing these subconscious patterns and tendencies that keep us from doing what really matters to us in life?

Making the mindset shifts that matter

Dare to be bad. ~ Dean Wesley Smith

I first came across this phrase in Dean Wesley Smith's blog post, where he talks about how he and fellow author, Nina Kirki Hoffman, used this catchphrase to keep themselves motivated to write a story a week and mail them out to editors.

Dare To Be Bad
A Great Catch Phrase… Following is a post I wrote almost exactly ten years ago. Very little has remained the same in publishing in ten years, and especially through this pandemic, but I figured it would be a good time to bring this forward, touch it up a little bit. Many of you have heard…

Although the article is written from a writer's point of view, it is equally applicable to almost anything we do in life where the only risk is that of failing, and if we look at it through the right lens, we'll come to see that even that is not a real risk at all.

Ask yourself, "What am I afraid of? How would I be if I did not have this fear? ~ Dr. Shefali

I've been a follower of Dr. Shefali's wisdom teachings ever since I learnt about her, which was around the time D was born.

If You Can’t Get Out Of Bed In The Morning, Watch This
There is a feeling we have in the pit of our stomach when we have to prepare for a day that we don’t want to face, a sense of dread. But just because we feel...

In this video, she gives us some useful tips to tackle the fears that keep us from getting out of bed in the morning. These are the very tips we can use to tackle the fears that keep us from getting to a task.

One thing she tells us to ask ourselves is this: What am I afraid of? How would I be if I did not have this fear?

She goes on to say, "Do we feel worthy? And if we don't, we need to work on our self-love. We need to begin to understand how our past childhood patterns have created within us a deep sense of shame, a deep sense of unworthiness. Because it is only when we break that pattern of believing we are unworthy or not deserving enough, only then  will we be able to face our lives and go and face new adventures and new challenges."

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. ~ Steven Pressfield

I first came across the term 'Resistance' as applied to the artist's journey while reading the books and blog of Steven Pressfield.

He talks of how this resistance is something we have to face everyday. In fact, the higher the stakes (for instance, the closer we are to finishing a project and putting it out for public consumption), the greater this resistance grows.

Many mornings I find resistance sitting heavily like a solid block of stone on my chest, pinning me to the bed.

I used to think this meant there was something wrong with me, because after all, shouldn't I love my work so much that I should just be able to spring out of bed every morning, roused with passion and excitement?

People ask me sometimes, “When in your day do you first feel Resistance?”
My answer: “The instant I open my eyes.
~ Steven Pressfield, Resistance Wakes Up With Me

There are endless articles on Pressfield's website on the topic of resistance, and each is worth a read.

If resistance shows up everyday, then we need to show up for our dreams too!

Much emphasis has been laid on cultivating a daily habit or disciplining ourselves into doing something repeatedly, day after day after day.

The following visual by high-performance coach, Sarah Arnold Hall, puts into perspective what it really means to show up every day.

infographic depicting that showing up daily means having many days of sub-optimal productivity

We're not going to be able to sprint towards our dreams exactly the same way at the same speed with the same optimum momentum every single day. Life is way too random for that. But we can show up and continue to make the best effort we can on any single day, day after day.

And often what happens is that when we think we're unable to put in 30 minutes of work but decide to show up just for 5 minutes instead, the momentum of simply getting started is sometimes enough to carry us until 30 minutes or even for much longer!

In parting

cliff climbing on a rock face above a sea of clouds
Photo by Jef Willemyns on Unsplash

As I was writing this article and delved deeper into understanding why we inadvertently sabotage ourselves, a few more thoughts/questions occurred to me, and these are what I will leave for you as a parting gift.

I'd be deeply honoured if you decide to answer these for yourself and/or share your insights with me.

  • What if we're judging ourselves harshly to armour ourselves against others' judgements?
  • What if we're rejecting ourselves pre-emptively so that others' rejection of us won't sting?
  • What if we're choosing to dismiss our work as sloppy and never publish it so that others don't even get a chance to dismiss our work as sloppy, whatever the odds of that may be?
What if we're refusing to shine our brightest selves so that no one else will ask us to dial down our true essence?
How much that would hurt! And how much harder would it then become to carry on shining!