It's Only Work – No Big Deal
The Benefits of Doing Tasks When They Need to be Done

“You increase your self-respect when you feel you’ve done everything you ought to have done, and if there is nothing else to enjoy, there remains that chief of pleasures, the feeling of being pleased with oneself. A man gets an immense amount of satisfaction from the knowledge of having done good work and of having made the best use of his day, and when I am in this state I find that I thoroughly enjoy my rest and even the mildest forms of recreation."  - Eugene Delacroix

Nearly everyone prefers play over work and pleasure over pain (these are not related terms, except in our minds – most any work can be pleasurable and any athlete can tell you about the pain of play).

Many people think of work as pain and something to avoid, and play and pleasure as states to maximize. When evaluating competing possibilities for our time, play and escapism lure us even when we know that avoiding work is not in our best interests*. Why do we do this? Because most decisions are based on unconscious motivations, usually stemming from negative emotions rather than our rational minds. Our emotions only want us to consider their right-now wishes and are incapable of thinking, rational analysis, or evaluating long-term outcomes. So we skip opening the mail, organizing our files, dealing with our finances or taxes, or many other activities that would make life easier and less distressing because we think that there are more enjoyable, less painful things to do.

When we defer a necessary activity, the pain that the activity causes usually increases. Opening the mail does not become easier by being delayed – the task increases in difficulty and consequences (late fees, legal issues, more time lost to hunting for essential documents, missed opportunities, etc.) as the volume of mail increases. The longer our papers are unorganized, the more difficult the task becomes because there are more of them, it is harder to organize many than a few, and we become more intimidated. Calculating our taxes becomes harder the longer we wait because our documents become increasingly scattered and mysterious, and we become more nervous. Worse, every important unfinished task preys on our mind at some level, denying us real ease or relaxation until it is done.

Our emotions lead us to believe that many tasks are too scary, overwhelming, distressing, or unpleasant, and therefore we should put them off. But most of what we hear from our negative emotions is false because they are incapable of correctly assessing reality. Our negative emotions tell us that we are weak and fragile when we actually have wellsprings of strength and calm we hardly even know about**. Negative emotions lead us to fear things that are not a threat (nobody dies from opening the mail, organizing their papers, or doing their taxes). Negative emotions tell us that things that exist only in our minds (i.e., our fears, anxieties, hang-ups, or hosts of similar internal-only bogeymen) are more important than consequences that exist in reality, such as late fees on unpaid bills or taxes, unfindable important documents, accumulating clutter, or any other preventable bad outcome. Worse, negative emotions tell us that our distress over issues that exist only in our minds is more important or real than the constant, nagging distress of knowing that we have not done for ourselves what we actually need to do, that is, we have not served our own best interests.

Why do negative emotions have such power over us? Our earliest ancestors who lived on the savannahs of Africa needed to be constantly alert to the slightest hint of danger. They could not wait until danger was actually upon them, and there were few preventive safety measures available, so fear helped them stay alive. We don’t need to worry about lions or other predators, but the instinct to be constantly alert to danger and ready to flee or fight remains in us but with little real cause, so our brains invent justifications for this instinctive activity. (This is a simplified version of our complex evolutionary history and the processes involved.)

Why don't we perceive the actual risks incurred by avoidance? Emotions are very powerful neuro-chemical states that block clear or long-term thinking, objective analysis, or accurate perception of the factors that should go into decision-making. Many people rarely evaluate the short- and long-term consequences of their actions or using logical conclusions to guide their lives: this is why we overeat or eat unhealthy foods, spend or drink too much, or fail to exercise. Our emotions prioritize short-term comfort over long-term well-being and falsely equate comfort and even pleasure with safety and security. This illusion of safety lulls us into only considering our present circumstances and overlooking the long-term consequences of our actions and choices of whether to work or play, to do a task now or perhaps later (overlooking the reality that later is never actually under our control).

Our ability to make good decisions regarding when and how much to work is also undermined by our attitudes and history. As children, most of us resisted our parents attempts to get us to do anything other than play; children often expend more energy resisting work than it would take to just do it. The struggle between authority vs. freedom, being unfettered versus accepting necessity continues to play out in adult life. If we do not challenge our childlike beliefs and attitudes, we may never perceive the reality that work is rarely as time-consuming, painful, difficult, or unrewarding as we imagine it to be.

We often avoid work that we need to do when we do not know how to do it, or have a system to make it easy. Since our work cannot be improved by avoidance, we would be better off seeking help to learn how to do it better, easier, or faster. Many articles on my website offer insights into possible systems that could make routine tasks easier: Secrets of Managing Your Money, Incoming! Systems for Managing Mail and Newspapers, Secrets of Being On-Time, for Everything, Always, The Ecstasy of Cleaning (yes!), and many others.

The reality is that even our humblest, most mundane daily tasks can be every bit as satisfying as play if we approach them with the right attitude. Most tasks are not inherently stressful, unrewarding, or a waste of time. Most work offers the same opportunities for exercise, learning, and even relaxation as play. Even in those rare situations where work gives us few extrinsic benefits, there is always the inherent opportunity to use it as an occasion to learn to manage our emotions, the most important accomplishment of all. When we stop horribilizing work (“It's going to be so terrible to do that”, “It's so overwhelming”), doing it becomes much easier. Our resistance and emotions do more to make work unpleasant than the reality of the activity required to accomplish it. The bulk of our energy is often spent on denying the necessity of work or resisting doing it. Once we begin any avoided task, we usually discover it is easier and less painful than we expected.

Whatever task you’ve been avoiding, giving yourself 15 minutes per day to work on it will keep it constantly moving forward in the direction of being checked off your to-do list!

(Please note: I am not dissing play, but only encouraging better balance, not using play to avoid work, and not allowing tasks to accumulate to an unbearable level.)

* As defined in previous newsletters, our best interests are whatever improves long-term physical, mental, emotional, or financial well-being (spiritual is left out because people have such differing ideas about what that is or if it even exists)

** Two examples of these wellsprings include the heroic strength that people sometimes exhibit in dire emergencies, the calmer, more centered person that most people become after a short period of consistent meditation, or the depth of compassion we can often find for loved ones or even strangers.

© Gloria Valoris, 2014

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