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The Things That Get in the Way of Doing


After working on my procrastination, mindfulness and productivity habits for the last 9 years, I’ve gotten much better at doing and accomplishing.

Today I sent out the digital editions of my book to Kickstarter backers, for example, while working on a 13-person coaching program, a habits membership program that has several thousand readers, writing a guide on mindfulness, preparing for several webinars, and of course writing this post. One task at a time, but lots getting done.

And yet … I still have things that get in the way of my doing. Some of them I’m OK with, but nonetheless I thought I’d share what I’ve learned about the things that get in our way.

Doing Obstacles, & Some Solutions

This list isn’t complete, but just some ideas to get you thinking:

  1. Online distractions. This is a big one for me. I can go to my favorite online sites (just a quick check) and get lost for an hour or two. Or more if I hit on something that really fascinates me. What has worked for me: To overcome this, I try to remember to pause … and often get up and walk around, and realize that I’ve gotten lost again. Then I’ll clear my screen and just have one thing in front of me, and try to stick with that until I’m done. I don’t always succeed, but when I remember to do this it works very well.
  2. Being overwhelmed. If you have a crapton of things to do … it can make you feel helpless. How can you possibly get it all done? So you don’t even start. You can’t get it all done … at least, not right now. What has worked for me: Right now, you can do one thing. So when I’m overwhelmed, again, I’ll clear everything, and make a list of 1-3 things I need to do most right now. Yes, sometimes the list is just one thing, because that helps me focus and not feel overwhelmed.
  3. Email is piled up. When my email inbox has a lot of messages piled up, it can feel overwhelming. What has worked for me: I use Google Inbox or Mailbox, and just snooze a bunch of things I don’t need to worry about right now. Then I’ll deal with as many of the others as possible, and leave some to deal with later. Instead, I close email and get to work on a more important task.
  4. Feeling indecisive. What if you have so many things you can’t figure out what to do? Often, that leads to doing nothing. I remind myself that not deciding leads to stagnation, and while I don’t believe you need to move at a million miles an hour, I don’t like myself held stagnant by fear. What I’ve learned is that this is a fear of not knowing the perfect decision, because we don’t know what the future will hold. Is it better to take that new job or keep this one? Is it better to work on this project or that one? It’s impossible to know, because the future is uncertain. What has worked for me: I try to just pick one based on whatever information I have (usually a gut decision) and take some action. It’s better to work on something than to stop moving because of fear of uncertainty.
  5. No energy. This is a huge one, bigger than most people realize. When you have a lack of sleep, you are low on energy and you just don’t feel like working on anything hard. You can’t focus and you have a hard time pushing through. What has worked for me: Either I give myself a break but really focus on getting to bed earlier and getting some good sleep … or I push through and do the hard stuff. Just because we don’t feel like doing something hard doesn’t mean we should skip it.
  6. Lack of discipline. This is usually the result of low energy, or being in fast mode and not wanting to stop to focus on something. You tell yourself you’re going to do something, but then you don’t. What has worked for me: I forgive myself for messing up, and instead I try to be mindful about what’s going on. Am I tired? In fast mode? Not inspired by this project? Instead of the general “I lack discipline” diagnosis, I try to find a more specific problem, and then address it. And then get to work.
  7. Task switching. Again, being in fast mode means that you’re doing lots of little tasks, constantly switching between apps and tabs in your browser. You can’t stick to one because you’re constantly switching. What has worked for me: Again, I will take a break and then clear everything, and refocus myself. I try to stick to the one window mode (close everything else) and just focus on one thing for as long as I can. I’m not always successful.
  8. Getting little things done. We feel productive when we’re taking care of lots of little tasks (emails, calls, errands, small admin tasks, paperwork), but while those do need to get done, they aren’t the important things. We’re avoiding the important things but we feel productive because we’re busy. What has worked for me: I fall into this trap a lot, so when I catch myself doing it, I stop and ask myself what my big task is for the day. Sometimes I can’t choose between 2-3 big tasks, but it doesn’t matter … I just need to pick 1-3. Then I ask myself: “Am I working on it?” If the answer is no, I’m not really being productive — I just feel like it.
  9. Task seems too big. We all fall into this one, and we all know the answer. It’s too big, so we put it off. The answer, of course, is to break it into smaller tasks, but we rarely follow this advice. What has worked for me: I focus all of my energy into starting. All I have to do is write the first few words. Once I do that, I focus on the next few paragraph. One bite at a time.
  10. We’re afraid we’ll fail. We also all have this problem — we don’t feel competent at this task, it’s confusing, it feels like we’ll embarrass ourselves. And this is understandable when we’re doing something that’s not in our wheelhouse. What has worked for me: I remind myself that letting myself be controlled by fear is not the way I want to live. I remind myself that failure is actually not the worst outcome — not even trying is a much worse outcome. Why? Because if you try something and fail, you learned something, you got some practice, and next time you’ll be better. You’re further along than before. But if you don’t even try, out of fear, you don’t learn anything, and you’ll probably keep doing this because you’re creating a pattern of running from fear. Instead, push through and do it anyway, because the value of doing is so much greater than the value of being safe and doing nothing.

What obstacles get in your way? How can you get better at dealing with them? How can you get to doing?


Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
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On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
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You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
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Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
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The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
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I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
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The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
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Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
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Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
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16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
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When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
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Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
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Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
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Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
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My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
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My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
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Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
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Travel Lessons with My Family
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The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
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A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
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A Year of Living Without
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I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
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How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
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The Little Book of Contentment
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5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
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Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
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Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
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Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
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Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
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The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
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A Vegan Tour of NYC