#157: How To Avoid Overwhelm (And Systematically Complete Projects)

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Whenever you have a deadline, somehow you're able to stagger towards it and get the job done. But other tasks never seem to move forward. You fall behind on your reading, your fun projects, even that movie you'd promised yourself. In life we need to complete projects that are urgent, but also projects that are good for the soul.

How do we get these projects going and how can we sustain them over the long term? Let's find out in this episode.

Click here to read it on the website: How To Avoid Overwhelm (And Systematically Complete Projects)


I remember lying in bed on a Sunday morning and realising I was a hypocrite.

My niece Marsha says she loves reading, which is why we bought her the entire Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson and the Kane Chronicles. She stuttered through the Harry Potter series but made her way to the last book. And as of this moment, she's been stalled on the first book in the Percy Jackson series.

When I ask her if she's been reading, she always nods happily, but she's barely progressed further than 10-15 pages in the last month or two. It bugs me, because I know that reading isn't just about reading. It's about spelling, structure, storytelling and imagination. As you'd expect, I'd nudge Marsha at every chance I got, encouraging her to read, but she still gives me a happy smile and makes little or no progress.

Until that Sunday morning, I didn't think the lesson of the nudge applied to me I'm one of those crazy people. I go for a walk, and sometimes I'll listen to music, or Renuka and I will talk all the way. Even so, I'll get at least between an hour to two hours of audio every week.

I'll read before I go to bed, and sometimes on weekends. I'll even spend Friday morning planning and then get an hour's worth of reading. I'll even watch a TED Talk on while making breakfast every day. Marsha's situation doesn't apply to me, so why did I feel like a hypocrite?

It just so happened that I was browsing through my Kindle collection that Sunday morning As I scrolled through the books, I realised I hadn't read at least 30% of what I'd bought. That among those I'd read, there were several that were half-abandoned.

A good chunk was complete, but how's that different from Marsha?

How's that different from all of us? We start out with good intentions.

We buy stuff; we save stuff onto our computers or devices for future reading and then suddenly it seems to be too overwhelming. We're reading through one book when you get a recommendation to read five others. You're leafing through one article, and a stack of one thousand seem to be trying to be trying to get through the front door.

I don't like the feeling of being a hypocrite, so I devised a system.

And since I like naming systems, I called it “TBM”: the bare minimum. It even sounded nice when written on a piece of paper. Or better still on a car plate. In my crazy mind, I read it as “T BM”. As in the “the bum”. The kind of guy who is lazy and won't do much more than needed to get by. This mindset of doing the bare minimum was my own invention, it seems. And yet it's not. Many years ago I'd read about the financial advisor, Dave Ramsey who talked about his own bare minimum method when paying back loans.

When you have several loans to pay back what advice do financial planners give you? They tell you to pay the biggest loan first. Which means if you have loans of $500, $2000, $200,000, it makes a lot of sense to whittle down the biggest loan, as it also has the largest portion of interest. Ramsey works on a seemingly counter-intuitive method. He gets you to pay the smallest loan first.

Here ‘s How the Debt Snowball Method Works As he explains on his website, it's a bit like a snowball, a debt snowball. The debt snowball method is a debt reduction strategy where you pay off debts in order of smallest to largest, gaining momentum as each balance is paid off. If the task is too big, it's easy to give up. After all, a $100 payment is barely going to tickle a $200,000 loan. But put that $100 towards the $500 loan and you've wiped away a chunky 20%.

TBM—The bare minimum. The idea gelled in my brain on a Sunday morning.

And this series is a bit counterintuitive as well. It's not about achieving any big goals. Instead, it's about chipping away small wins. It's important because we all seem to fall by the wayside when it comes to long term goals. The more personal the goal, the more likely it is to fall into the cracks. Reading a book that you dearly want to read, goes into the must-do-in-future list. And the future comes and goes, and the book is unread.

So what are we and Marsha to do? The world isn't getting less complicated.

How do we roll this bare minimum plan out and keep at it? Let's find out.

The three things we'll cover are: – What is the bare minimum, and why it's not a mind trick to do even more. – How to use triggers to get the bare minimum going – Why you need to use it exclusively for long-term projects

1) What is the bare minimum? And why it's not a mind trick to do even more

Almost every one of us has seen a progress bar on our computer, haven't we?

It's that little bar that goes from left to right, telling us that a program is opening, or a file is being saved. What many of us might not know, is that the progress bar doesn't quite give us the real situation because let's face it, we're impatient. To counter this impatience, then-student, Brad A. Myers decided that progress bars made computer users less anxious, more efficient and could possibly help them relax at work.

He then got his fellow students, 48 of them, to take a test with and without the progress bars. 86% said they liked the bars. They loved knowing that progress was being made. They were told that the progress bar wasn't an accurate representation of what was happening within the computer, but they didn't care. They still preferred the progress bar, to not having anything at all.

Let's rewind that last line, shall we? Still preferred the progress bar, to not having anything at all. That's what it says, doesn't it? And when we look at the tasks we have before us, we see nothing at all. We haven't started on the job, because we know there's a lot involved. Just the thought of the steps needing to get to the end point seems to overwhelm us immediately.

And we're not talking about learning a complicated program or writing a book. We're referring to something as simple as reading a book. We look at the book, knowing full well we'd like to read it, but absolutely nothing happens. And one book piles up on another, until we have books and e-books that we'd like to read, but can't get started. Or if we get started, a distraction comes along, and we chase down that butterfly-like-distraction right away.

When I first started out in marketing, I didn't have many butterflies to chase

Back in the year 2000, almost all marketing was done offline. You'd get a big package in the mail. Pages, lots of pages, talking about some program that would help you become more successful. But that's all the post box held—one big set of pages.

There was nothing else to see. Unlike today, where you can easily find two dozen courses and programs in your inbox, there was just this one package. You paid a small fortune for the program as they all seemed to start at around $1500 or so, and some were $5000 and even higher. Then you got these three ring binders, your cassette tapes, later CDs and that was that. You didn't see any butterflies and didn't have to invest in any Butterly net.

Today, you and I have a sea of stuff that we can download in minutes, and buy in seconds

And that's only part of the problem. Learning, yes, that's really important, but then so are the other things in your life. They're all piling up, and you can't seem to figure out how to beat that overwhelm. So why not borrow a concept from the credit card companies?

Let's say you have to pay $5000 on your credit card. Logically speaking, you should be getting Mastercard or Visa to deduct the amount directly from your account. But the credit card companies seem like Santa Claus, don't they? They say: Don't worry, just pay $125 on your credit card, and we're good. You and I know there's not a lot of good in paying off the minimum amount, but hey, sometimes we do. And then the insidious debt creeps up.

It may be insidious for paying off credit card bills, but it's perfect for getting things done

Going back to that book that you haven't read, you don't have to do anything but the bare minimum. Let's say the bare minimum is one paragraph. C'mon, you say. One paragraph is a cop out. You're not going to get very far with one paragraph, are you?

Well, there's this story about John Grisham, the famous author. “If I had 30 minutes to an hour, I would sneak up to the old law library, hide behind the law books and write A Time to Kill”, he said in a USA Today interview with Dennis Moore. It took him three whole years of 30-minute segments, but a thousand days later he was done. If Grisham weren't famous and hadn't sold 250 million books, this story might have never been told, but now we know that his entire career was built on 30-minute increments.

And yet, for many of us, 30 minutes seems like a lot My friend, Campbell Such and I had a mini-tussle over meditation.

I happily boast that you need at least 30 minutes of meditation to get any momentum. For the first 20 minutes or so, it seems like you're swatting flies in the vast Australian outback. But as you get to the 30-minute mark, things start to happen. Campbell disagrees. He spends 5-10 minutes every morning, meditating. “That's all I can manage,” he says. And he's right. I disagreed with him at the point we had the discussion. I thought that 10 minutes was barely a warm up and that if a person couldn't do at least 30 minutes, it's better to avoid it altogether.

Which is the flaw with a lot of productivity plans, when you think about it

They seem to suggest you fool your brain. That if you want to go for a walk, you should put on your shoes and then you'll end up going for a 30-minute walk. And the concept of the bare minimum is entirely the opposite. It's pure sloth behaviour. It's not asking you to fool your brain at all. It's saying: do the bare minimum, just like those credit card companies ask of you. Do nothing but the bare minimum. No mind tricks, no additional time, no extra effort. Just the smallest possible thing you can take on, and that's all you should do.

I tried this method for my website In July 2015, I started on the revamp of our website.

I'm super fussy, but I did outsource the website. I got quotes, I got designs, and they were so terrible, I was tearing my hair out in frustration. Anyway, in 2015, I did the website designs in Photoshop and Stresslesweb (they're our coders) put together the site so I could get on with my fussy ways. Two years ticked by. Every chance I got, I thought about the website, but nothing happened.

Then in August 2017, I decided to do the bare minimum. Some days, I'd merely list what I had to do on the website. The next day, I'd do a headline and the first paragraph. Another day, I'd add a cartoon or two. To my surprise, I started getting that silly momentum. I'd want to do more, but most days I resisted like crazy.

It's because I have a lot of other long-term projects as well I paint every day in my Moleskine diary. But that too was falling apart because I felt the burden of painting. So instead of doing another painting, I'd just do the bare minimum. It could involve simply doing a sketch. Maybe later in the day or next day, just doing a wash. It seems almost tedious because you're literally watching paint dry, but I've begun to turn out some amazing art work. I'm painting better than ever before.

And guess what? The web pages are getting done, and I'm going through the book list as well. I read just one or two paragraphs, and then my progress bar is complete.

The bare minimum may not seem like much, but we all need to push psychological boulders

When faced with the task of taking a walk for 30 minutes, writing a book, or doing any long term project, it seems like we're never getting anything done. But think of your progress like the progress bar. You might get just 2% of the task done, and the progress bar in your brain feels like it's 100%.

You follow up the next day, and whammo—another 100% is done. It may make no logical sense, but this isn't about addition or logic. It's about the satisfaction not just of getting something done, but 100% of that something. It's tiny, that something, but you don't care. The goal isn't to take the second step. It's to take the step you need and stop right there. No fancy motivation or momentum—just one step.

My niece Marsha doesn't need to go through the Percy Jackson series

She needs to go through a paragraph or two. That's it. Campbell Such doesn't need 30 minutes of meditation. If 5 minutes is all he has, that's all that he needs to do. The bare minimum, that's all we need, and it's amazing how much slow progress we make.

However, there's still a problem with planning to get all these activities, right? Which is where triggers come into play. Instead of fancy alarms that you merely ignore, how about aligning your bare minimum to a trigger that shows up every day? Let's find out how.

2) How to use triggers to get the bare minimum going

In many Western countries, Christmas brings carols, chaos, and carrots.

Carrots for Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet, Cupid and Donner and Blitzen. And Rudolph, of course. They also leave a plate of milk and cookies for Santa. That tradition seemed to have originated in the 1930s when the US was deep in the Great Depression. Parents tried to teach their kids that was important to give to others. And also to show gratitude for the gifts they'd received. But what sets off the milk, cookies and carrots? Why, Christmas Eve, of course. It's the trigger that requires no alarm or reminder.

And that's because alarms and reminders don't work very well anyway

You know how it works, right? You put a reminder on your phone, but as the reminder pops up, you swipe it away. If it's e-mail, you're likely to jump right into reading it, possibly even answering it, but any reminder to do a task gets a look of disdain. The way around this system is to have no alarm at all. Instead, you do something when something else happens.

So for instance, I paint right after breakfast No matter what time I have breakfast, I will sit down for about 5-10 minutes and sketch or paint. Renuka on the other hand sketches every time she drops her mother off for Tai qi. When we go for a walk, we talk until we hit the first traffic lights. Then, it's time to put on the headphones and listen to audio books or podcasts. The same applies on the walk back from the cafe. We walk to a certain point, hit the dentist's clinic, and it's back to headphone time again.

This system of triggers is important because we rarely keep to a fixed plan

No one ever has breakfast at the very same minute, and hence if your breakfast is early or late, it's easy for you to ignore the alarm. When an activity like breakfast is itself the trigger, then you know what comes shortly after. We do take our vacations.

Every 12 weeks we're off for a month, and that means the triggers go out of whack. But since I'm not working on vacation, nothing else matters. I can ignore the painting after breakfast, choosing to do it at noon helped by a bottle of Cabernet, instead. Or not do it at all. However, once I get back, and the triggers go off, it's back to normal.

It's important to point out that you should not start with many items on your to-do list

Right now I have about 4-5 long term projects going. I know the website won't last forever. And in a month or two, I should be able to get the hang of how to use ePub. My painting, however, has been on since 2010 and that will go on for a long, long time. Some long terms projects come and go while others need to be done every day.

To make things a habit, you need to choose just two or three things to do in a day

Five minutes each and you've only spent fifteen minutes of activity. And even the busiest person has fifteen spare minutes in a day. Over time, some things become so much part of your second nature that you don't even think of them as part of your to-do list.

Take brushing your teeth, for example. When was the last time you needed an alarm or trigger for that activity? I now wake up to the sound of the meditation chant. It's part of what happens every day, and so that's not even part of the list anymore.

However, when you're starting out, just set up one trigger and the bare minimum time you can spend on that task. And get going. But there's one last caveat. All of these bare minimums are not for urgent or important tasks. They all need to be used only for long-term projects. Let's find out why that's the case.

3) Why Use The Bare Minimum Only For Long Term Projects

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare, don't we?

They both set off on race, and the tortoise is slow, taking step by step. As the story goes, the hare falls asleep, and the tortoise wins the race. The story may sound remarkably like a bare minimum tale, and in a way it is. But it's important to note there's a big point of difference as well. A race is not a long term project. It's reasonably finite, in the sense that there's an end point and in many cases, a deadline.

We tend to drop things that have no deadline

There's really no point in learning Spanish, or painting or doing many of the things that you and I do. We do it for our own happiness. You may, therefore, join a dance class or a cartooning course and then find you've given up somewhere along the way. The photographs you planned to put in that photo book—that didn't get done either. We smartly prioritise what's important to us. Things that are revenue-driven, client-driven or have fixed deadlines can't wait, and so they get done. Things that are often essential to the soul, that gets tossed into the corner.

It's sad, isn't it? We feel that sadness.

We feel the pain of taking a course that feeds our soul and then finding we've either abandoned the course or having finished it, don't get the joy of continuation. It's the same with books we haven't read or documentaries we would love to watch.

However, sometimes even the work-related projects, like my beleaguered website, end up in that same to-do pile. Doing just the bare minimum keeps the project going. At all times, however, the bare minimum should be reserved for the long-term project. No one needs to tell you how wrong things can get if you do the bare minimum on something that's governed by a deadline.

But if the project isn't something that has a line in the sand and probably goes on forever, it's best to simply plod along step by step. It's the journey of a thousand miles.

But it's not about taking steps. The bare minimum is about taking just one step.

And then you're done for the day. When you have to take just one step, there's no overwhelm. Yes, the list of things that you need to do can and will pile up. But you're just taking one step. The rest of the world can drive themselves crazy. Like Marsha, you read two paragraphs at a time. Like me, you finally get down to building your website.

You achieve a lot with a single step per day. TBM—The bare minimum. Now do it.

P.S. Ready to start working on your bare minimum taking action plan? Join a whole lot of introverts in 5000bc and take one step at a time to achieving your goals.

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