Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

7 great tips on getting the hard things done


Anything on your list at the moment that’s been there a while? Something difficult, or something you just don’t want to do?

We all have jobs to do which we don’t really enjoy, from the ironing to our expenses. They tend to be the things that keep getting carried over to the next day’s to-do list, or you avoid by saying you’ll just knock a few quick things off your list first.

But often these are the most important, or they’re the things that will move you forward fastest. I have one on my list at the moment. It’s a pretty big task – an ‘elephant’ – and today I’m determined to start attacking it. But not before I’ve written this post for you on how I (along with some tried and tested suggestions from others) usually get the hard things done.

1. Get the helicopter view.

Step back and look at all your tasks and activities for the day, and then put them in order. Put an easier task in first to ‘warm you up’. Don’t leave all the hard tasks until the end of the day where they are more likely to get ‘bumped’.

2. Understand your own ‘effective times’.

Are you better in the mornings? In the afternoon? Working with, not against, yourself will help in the battle to complete the harder tasks – if you are someone who suffers an afternoon ‘slump’, then coffee alone is unlikely to encourage you to do the thing you’ve been avoiding all week (though it might help!).

3. Break your time down into chunks.

Use the 2:5:10:20:30 method. Take three tasks and rotate them. Spend 2 minutes on task 1, 2 on task 2, and 2 minutes on task 3. Then 5 minutes on each, 10 minutes, etc. This breaks down the ‘elephant’ – and often you’ll end up wanting to carry on when your ‘chunk’ of time is done. The Pomodoro Method is another way of breaking your time down into chunks – based on the idea that taking frequent breaks can help your mental processes be more effective. Or try 52:17.

4. Ensure you know exactly what it is you have to do.

Sometimes we avoid difficult tasks, or view them as difficult, because there’s an ambiguity about what we should be doing next. We know we have to move the ‘Singapore project’ along, but what is the next specific action? We want to book a holiday, but what kind? Breaking the project down into actionable steps will remove ambiguity and mean you know exactly what your next activity is.

5. Watch out for online distractions.

Turn your email off. Turn your wi-fi off. Turn off all your social media alerts.  The internet and its constant distractions is a very clear source of time-sucking for most people. Turning your connection to the net off may feel like a small part of you has died, but try instead using the time chunking methods as above, and check your emails and social media only once an hour rather than every few minutes as a new email comes in.

6. Have a look at who’s around you.

Are you an introvert in a sea of extroverts? Extroverts enjoy brainstorming ideas out loud and bouncing them off others, introverts are more likely to process their work inside their heads. If you’re an extrovert, limit the times you’re working with others (or these can turn into another distraction or a chat about the best restaurant to go to at the weekend); if you’re an introvert, go find a quiet room for a short period while you attack the task. It’s all too easy to blame others for a lack of focus – but no matter who’s to blame, the outcome is the same, the difficult task doesn’t get done.

7. Beware displacement activities!

Do you really need to send that email right now? Didn’t you just make a cup of tea? Could you check out what’s on at the cinema later? Acknowledge that these (and so many more like them) are displacement activities that are getting in the way of your task. Be firm and focus – it’s the only way to get the hard things done!

How do you get the hard things done?

Are you a productive Pam, or a procrastinating Paula?

Let me know in the comments below, and share your own tips – I’d love to know more!

8 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Susie Jones September 3, 2014, 1:22 pm

    Great tips! I am often caught out by number 4. And I’m definitely going to give 3 a go!

    • Ellen September 4, 2014, 10:22 am

      Thanks Susie. And funnily enough, I am just working on number 4 right now – after a few days ill, my to-do list is all over the place – ouch! I’m going to work out what the next action is for each of the nebulous things that have snuck onto my list and get them done! Good luck with trying out number 3, it’s really useful.

  • Lucie Lincoln September 3, 2014, 2:31 pm

    This is perfect timing Ellen. There are a few pesky jobs on my to do list that aren’t getting done. I am very guilty of excess social media and displacement activities. Thanks for the tips. I am going to get my head down, twitter feed off and get those tasks done now. Thanks!

    • Ellen September 4, 2014, 10:23 am

      Thanks for reading Lucie! Yes, social media can be…a total time-suck! Turning off those little ‘ping’ alerts is extremely helpful in getting the hard things done…good luck!

  • Fab September 4, 2014, 11:23 pm

    I am a massive fan of Pomodoro Method, even if I’ve been playing with the idea of Power Hour as well!
    Fab recently posted…Three Ways to Use Pinterest Vision BoardsMy Profile

    • Ellen September 5, 2014, 4:38 am

      Thanks for commenting Fab, if we mean the same thing by power hour – where you have an hour, every day, where you focus on the ‘one big thing’ – then I think it’s definitely worth experimenting with. I’ve been using it this year for another project of mine, and was really surprised to see how an hour a day (focused!) really adds up. Good luck!

  • Ruth September 5, 2014, 8:39 pm

    The online distractions are the ones which get me! I just found there’s a Chrome plug in where you can ‘ban’ yourself from certain websites during the day so I’m thinking of downloading it!
    Ruth recently posted…Ask Your Customers THIS Question and Watch The Magic HappenMy Profile

    • Ellen September 6, 2014, 5:26 am

      OOO that sounds nice – though I have two or three browsers on my computer so I’d be worried that I’d just use another browser!

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