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The key to breaking the cycle of counterproductivity

Illustration by

James Merritt

October 14, 2021

We all have our ups and downs, whether it’s our luck, our mood or our motivation but these factors all have an effect on our productivity. For people in full-time employment, they can usually get away with having a ‘slow day at work’ as they’ll still get paid at the end of it. But when you’re a freelancer, your livelihood depends on being able to get shit done, because if your clients don’t get the results they expect, then you’re not getting paid.

Of course, there’s much more to running a business than keeping clients happy. On top of actually doing your job, you need to manage your accounts, pay your own taxes and in most cases continue growing your income, either by finding more work or starting a side hustle.

We’ve all been there, your to-do list is growing faster than you can tick things off and because you can’t afford to outsource you’ve got to do everything yourself. But the more boring, difficult and time-consuming a task is, the more likely you’re going to be put it off, which may lead you to fall into one of two traps.

The first trap is when you put off the most daunting tasks by focusing on all your nice and easy jobs first. That is until you can’t put your big jobs off any longer and you’re frantically trying to finish them at the final hour. The second is, which can be a byproduct of the first, is when you’ve run out of ‘nice & easys’ and all you’ve got left is a load of ‘big & borings’.

With no jobs to ‘look forward to’ (for lack of a better term), it’s going to be even harder to summon the motivation to actually get on with those big jobs that you really should have done last week. This is where procrastination is born, something which comes in many forms. 

On the one hand, you’ve got productive-procrastination, where you’ll spend hours doing something like reorganising your desk, cleaning the bathroom or finally making that dentist appointment. Then there’s unproductive-procrastination, where you might fall through an internet rabbit hole researching the history of Feudal Japan, planning the perfect holiday or beating your high score on the Google Chrome Dinosaur Game…

While one form of procrastination may be ‘better’ than the other, neither of them are going to help you get things done. If this sounds like you, then you’ll no doubt be familiar with the low-key guilt that comes with putting off big tasks, not to mention all the space they take up in the back of your mind. 

Don’t you want to break the cycle? 

Well, here’s how… Do the shittiest jobs first, or as the author, Mark Twain famously put it: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”. Yes, it’s incredibly simple in theory but in practice, changing your behaviour isn’t.

Identifying your sh!t jobs

The first step to getting the shit tasks done is recognising them for what they are: shitty tasks. Again, this might sound obvious but actually taking a couple of minutes every morning to prioritise your to-do list is the first step to optimising your productivity.

The way to do this is to look at the things you need to do and figure out which of those tasks you least want to do but are the most important and are likely to have the biggest impact on your business. For example, rather than waiting until the January deadline to submit your self-assessment to HMRC, you could do it at the beginning of the new tax year in April — a whole nine months in advance!

This way you won’t be worrying about your taxes for nine months—which is a long time to have that thought niggling away—and you won’t be rushing to submit in January. Moreover, if you’re good at putting 20% of every penny you earn aside for the taxman, you might realise you saved too much and be able to give yourself a little rebate, which could go towards that holiday you were planning.

Getting sh!t done!

Once you’ve identified that big task, dedicate the first few hours of your day to getting it done and eliminate all your distractions. Ignore your emails, put some headphones on and—most importantly—put your phone away. Afterwards, you may be surprised at how much time you have left to address the other items on your agenda.

Imagine being able to take on that thing you’ve been putting off for weeks and being able to finish it before midday? It’s the kind of feeling that will make you believe you can take on anything! Plus, you’ll actually feel energised and more motivated to complete the smaller tasks once the weight of that big job is off your shoulders.

The key to this technique is not overloading yourself with too many of those shit jobs all at once, because you’ll wear yourself out and it becomes harder to build the method as part of your habitual workflow. Instead, just try doing one shit job at the beginning of every day and everything else will fall into place.

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