When I was young and in a new job, one of my responsibilities was approving (or not) requests for government funding in an area I didn’t know much (okay, nothing) about clinically. There were rules and politics and personalities involved in each decision and I didn’t like doing it. The requests came in by mail, a handful each week, and I felt a pang of dread with each envelope.
I would open them all, glance through them, and sigh with relief at the ones that were easy to approve. I’d quickly deal with those, doing all the associated paperwork while the not-easy ones got added to the pile: The pile that I would get to “when I had time to focus,” or “when I’ve had time to reflect.” The Scary Pile.
The Scary Pile sat in the dark corner of a shelf, as far from my workspace as possible. It pulled on me the way the ring pulled on Frodo. I wanted to pretend it didn’t exist but felt its constant weight.
Sometimes I would sift through and tackle a few of the difficult ones from The Scary Pile, but it was nowhere near as rewarding as working on the easy ones where the answer was ‘yes’. Of course, people were upset at the delays, so the pile got even heavier with self-criticism and shame piled on top. All these years later, I can still feel the gnawing pit in my stomach as I write about it.
On a sunny walk to work one day, I imagined what it would be like going to an office without a scary pile. That glimpse of freedom felt unrealistic, but motivated me enough to take care of the three oldest letters in the pile first thing. Which gave me an idea…
Each day as I was leaving my office, I put three things from the scary pile onto my desk, with papers for a task I wanted to do peeking out from behind them. I could face three difficult things, especially if it meant I didn’t have to worry about The Scary Pile the rest of the day. For each of those three, I made the calls that had to be made, asked the dumb questions, challenged the egos trying to skirt the rules, and said ‘no’ when that was the answer.
I got through the pile. It was a bit of a shock to have emptiness where guilt had filled my gut. As each new letter came in, I dealt with it right away, easy or hard (which led to my magic email strategies).
Do you have a scary pile? Messages you’re avoiding? A mess of a drawer filled with who knows what tasks left undone? A project you don’t fully understand or maybe disagree with so you keep putting it off? Can you picture how it would feel to be free of it?
I do my most focused work first thing in the day, so I use that time to face challenging work. Everyone’s brain and body schedule is different so freedom from your scary pile might be found at the end of your work day or through evening ‘second wind’ sessions – you know yourself best so you get to pick :).
What The Scary Pile taught me was that the only thing harder than doing the difficult tasks is not doing the difficult tasks.
Now, the time I usually realize that I’m avoiding something is on my walk home from work, as my brain sorts through the day and I notice things that aren’t so obvious in the moment. So, my strategy is, when I go in the next day, I have to take care of that work before I get my morning coffee – crazy right? but so very motivating, it’s magic!
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