Get It Done, Dammit!

by | Aug 31, 2022 | What I'm Thinking | 3 comments

One of my favorite comic essays is by the American humorist Robert Benchley. Written in 1930 and called “How I Get Things Done,” he says:

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon. The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

He goes on to describe how he fools himself by making a to-do list that does not include the things he must get done. To avoid doing the things on his list, he does the other, unlisted thing as a way of procrastinating. Thus, to avoid writing a magazine article he accomplishes an impressive amount of work: he answers a pile of correspondence, goes through a collection of magazines to clip and file articles he needs, and then builds a bookshelf. 

It’s an impressive technique, but I have a my own approach. 

1) I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do for more than 15 minutes. It is amazing how often I make that deal with myself—whether it’s cleaning off my desk, drafting an article, or exercising—I set the timer on my phone and begin the task, telling myself I can stop after 15 minutes. Inevitably, I want to keep going.

2) I pretend that my “work” is  torrid love affair. I look for every opportunity to continue drafting that essay or story or chapter, whether its first thing in the morning or immediately after dinner. I pretend to be a normal, respectable person, living a perfectly ordinary life as I show up at meetings, eat meals with my husband, do the laundry, buy groceries, etc. etc., but all the while I am thinking of my lover (that essay/story/chapter) and how I can once again be in its presence.

3) Put it on a list. I have a slightly different approach than Benchley. I do put the things I need to do on a list and it gives me great satisfaction to check them off as I do them. Note that I don’t say anything about finishing. Any effort toward the listed task, even 5 minutes (theoretically), wins me my coveted check mark. But just as with the 15 minute rule, I nearly always end up putting in significantly more time. And if I don’t? Well, tomorrow is another day.

4) Then there are the normal approaches, as Nava Atlas outlines in her article on how women writers with enormous obstacles managed to churn out novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, My Antonia, and Anne of Green Gables (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, and Lucy Maud Montgomery, obviously).

Years ago, someone taught me this little bedtime poem. I don’t remember it every night, but I offer it to you now:

Now I lay me down to rest

The day is done, I did my best

Whatever promises I hope to keep

Tomorrow wait ’til after sleep.

[photo by Pixabay]