I was raised to ‘get things done’, to ‘get it off the table’, to ‘finish quickly what I started’. And that is a great attitude to have. It feels good to pull through and complete something that was not fun to do. I love the feeling when I get my taxes filed, or a big report submitted or my garage cleaned up. There are many of these tasks that feel so good to check off my to-do list.
But somehow I always have at least one big thing on my list or in the back of my mind that is bothering me. Something that is sitting on my shoulders and weighing me down. At the moment, it is a scientific paper I wanted to get done in February. But then I moved and ever since I keep dancing around it. Now so much time has passed that I need to review the literature again to make sure I don’t miss an important study that came out in the meantime. Time is tight right now and even though I know I could get done if I just dedicated 15 minutes every day, I just can’t get myself to start. Do you know the feeling?
It’s not that I don’t love writing. I enjoy writing a lot; I even like literature research and drafting diagrams because I love producing something useful. For me, it is difficult to start because I already know that to get done I’ll have to answer a couple of quite difficult questions. Right now, I don’t even have the slightest idea of how to deal with these questions.
We like to see the end of tasks before we start. If we know there are problems that are complicated to solve, then it is hard for us to imagine the end and that is why some tasks are just harder to start than others.
The main reason is that we don’t like to deal with problems. Somehow we think problems are bad.
We want to look at our day as an empty road without any obstacles. When is life ever like this?
And if it were, it would be hell. Just imagine you had nothing to do tomorrow. Nothing, no work, no errands, no food to buy, no laundry to do, no emails to write. Imagine that everything is taken care of.
Yes, it sounds pretty awesome. For a week, maybe a month or even a year you can probably just relax and do ‘nothing’. What about the rest of your life? Imagine that you’ll never have anything to do for the rest of your life. Whatever you wanted would immediately be fulfilled, always. There wouldn’t be anything to strive for. How much meaning would your life have?
Born Problem Solvers
We need to face it: We need problems because we are born problem solvers. Coming up with solutions is what we do. We even come up with solutions to problems we don’t even have.
Don’t tell me you never thought about how to deal with a potential scenario that ended up never happening.
“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
likely not MarkTwain
And although it is our nature to deal with problems, most of us do our best to avoid them. That is because subconsciously we substitute problems with risk. It is always good to avoid risk. Reducing risk meant surviving back when we were hunter-gatherers.
A Sabre Tooth Tiger in a tree is a problem, it jumping on us and killing us is the risk. Staying in the cave meant getting rid of this risk and thus indirectly dealing with the tiger-in-the-tree problem. However, then starving would be the other risk attached to the problem of running out of food. Back then there were always multiple problems that needed to be solved to ensure survival.
Today we are spoiled because not dealing with problems is often rewarded. We rarely die because we miss a deadline. If we forget to buy food we just dine out or order pizza. Other problems go away, become irrelevant or can be transferred to others.
But avoiding problems is not the attitude that gets us far. Is it? Quite contrary, we should be looking forward to dealing with problems. We should learn to love attacking problems. In fact, we should even strive to create more problems.
I know you think that I am finally out of my mind now.
Aiming for More Problems
Why should we strive to create more problems? Because avoiding problems is what is holding us back. If we aim to create more problems, then our thinking is on the right track.
Think about any of the great inventions. The telephone, television, the automobile, the internet, cell phones, etc. all of these inventions entailed solving a myriad of problems to be of any use. Just coming up with a carriage that didn’t need horses, i.e. the automobile, is great. But today you couldn’t jump into your car and drive off without rubber tires, reliable breaks, roads, gas stations, traffic rules, and many many other solutions to problems that the invention of the car created.
In your everyday life, you shouldn’t be worried about solving one problem and creating another either. Let’s say you don’t have time to go grocery shopping four times a month. So you decide to buy in bulk and go only once or twice a month instead. But then you may have the problem that you don’t have enough storage space for the now larger amounts of food you bring home at once.
At this point, you could leave things unchanged because you don’t want to replace one problem with another. This, however, means you still won’t have enough time to buy food.
You could also try to find other locations for storage. Which may result in the new problem of needing more space in your garage to fit in a new cabinet. Which means you’ll have to clean up the garage after all.
I agree, all this doesn’t sound convenient. But convenience is not what we are made for. Think again about the meaningless life without any obstacles.
A problem-driven mindset lets you improve your situation while you keep solving new problems. You may think “But then I’ll never be done!” Correct, because you’ll never be done anyway. You submit a report and will probably get questions back, or you submit your taxes just to wait for the next tax year to roll around.
Are you feeling exhausted and de-motivated already? For good reason!
Avoidance is Stressful
A big portion of feeling exhausted by daily life comes from our tendency to compartmentalize our day into these task units. Not the work matters but getting done with it does. And by avoiding obstacles, we also avoid dealing with the unknown. For the same old, we already know the procedure. We know what needs to be done to get done. There is nothing to change and hence nothing new to experience.
Having similar duties rolling around every day is boring, avoiding and procrastinating difficult tasks is exhausting.
However, when we seek to solve problems, the focus becomes the work and not its end. Improvement vs. being idle becomes the goal. There are no bad surprises just new challenges. Living this way is more exciting and less draining.
If you need a picture: What is better, driving 50 miles through changing landscapes on a freeway or covering the same distance stop and go from traffic light to traffic light?
When you learn to deal with problems as they come and are not afraid to create new ones, then you are truly living.