Sometimes, small and mundane “check the box” tasks have to get done. It’s a problem if you never respond to email or fill out administrative reports, but if you spend all your time on the small stuff, you’ll get by, but you’ll never get ahead.
I believe that there’s more for you in your life and career, so I wanted to share some insights gleaned from my own experiences as the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and an interview I did with Alexander Schultz, CEO of Complete Labs, on what keeps us addicted to small tasks and how to get the big stuff done.
Here are six reasons you’re not getting anything important done at work – even when you have the time – and what to do about them:
1. ‘Cotton Candy’ Wins
“We want a sense of achievement and accomplishment,” says Schultz. “When we get a lot of things done, it feels good. But just knocking to-do items off my checklist is not the progress I want to have.”
Only doing small tasks is the equivalent of only eating cotton candy: You may end up with a quick sugar high, but you will soon crash and need even more sugar to get you back up again. Your larger projects are like meat and vegetables: They take longer to chew and digest, but they leave you with a lasting sense of satisfaction.
To more easily make progress on these large items, cut them up into the smallest “chunks” possible. This could mean listing out your activities, like sending an email to someone or editing the document after writing it. By dividing a big win into small celebrations, you’re getting something of substance completed and making it easier to progress.
2. Memory Mistrust
Another reason that you jump on little items immediately is because you fear you’ll forget to do them if they aren’t done now. Most likely, you blame this on having a bad memory, but in reality it doesn’t matter how good or bad your memory is if you have the right systems in place.
When you have a powerful to-do list, calendar system, and email processing system, you know that you’ll get the right prompts at the right times to move items forward. By developing the right structure – even if it’s as simple as a notepad where you write down and review all your current to-do items – you can relax and focus on the bigger items at hand.
3. Having No Idea Where to Start
If you arrive at work, take a glance at your calendar, open your email, and then just start bouncing through the day like a ping-pong ball, hoping that you’ll land in the right place at the right time, you’re not alone. Many people take this sort of reactive approach to their work. When you aren’t aware of your priorities or clear on when they need to get done, it’s incredibly hard to justify not taking care of the small stuff all the time.
To overcome this reactive tendency, you should review your projects and task lists on at least a weekly basis so that you know what’s most important right now. Then, if possible, slot in time to get the key items done on your calendar. Schultz also recommends writing your goals at the top of your to-do list and asking yourself, “Is this task aligned with what I want to accomplish and who I want to be?”
4. False Guilt
Yes, there’s a time and place to help your colleagues, but in almost every position, there’s also a time and place to focus on getting the work done that you need to do for yourself. Problems arise when external requests come at a faster rate or quantity than you can handle and you start to squeeze out the other work that you need to complete. This can lead to some people – especially people-pleasers – feeling guilty for taking time to do their own work before everyone else is taken care of. But the truth is that, if you don’t wrap up the projects only you can do, you’re not providing the most value for your company.
The key to overcoming this challenge is to pace the workflow. This means setting aside some time each week to drive your key projects forward, which then allows for work for others to fit into the remaining time slots available. This may mean that you don’t move ahead as quickly on other people’s projects, but in the larger picture, that’s typically okay as long as you’re moving ahead on the most important goals.
5. Shame at Missed Deadlines
When you haven’t done something that you know you should do, even thinking about the task can trigger shame. So instead of making a dent in that big project, you answer another email.
To overcome this cycle, it’s important to recognize that everyone makes mistakes and has items they struggle to complete. It’s also helpful to talk about what’s going on with someone you trust, because shame thrives in isolation. When you notice yourself avoiding a project and going into numbing behaviors – such as randomly checking social media – try to stop and recognize the root causes of these behaviors. This could mean sitting quietly and taking some deep breaths, journaling, or going on a walk and talking with a friend.
The counterintuitive truth is that, when you focus on your emotions and process them, you have the opportunity to release them. In turn, these emotions will have less impact on your behavior than they would if you just tried to avoid them.
6. High Fives Required
Getting affirmation for your work feels good for most people. Depending on your personality type, it can be almost essential for getting things done. If you’re one of those people, don’t fight that tendency – work with it. You can do so by using online tools where you can post your activities and have others comment on them, work with a coach, or set up a buddy system with a friend to make progress on your bigger goals. That way you can get a “Yahoo!” for each step along the way – even when the bigger project is far from complete.
If you are ready to really move forward in your career, stop letting the small stuff squelch your success.
A version of this article originally appeared on BusinessCollective.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder and CEO of Real Life E®, a time coaching and training company, and the author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money.