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5 Foolproof Ways to Get Through a Tough Task

Still staring at that blinking cursor on your blank screen? Here's how to get past it.
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Few things are as daunting as a blank page, a report you need to write, or a pitch you need to create. It's all too easy to find yourself staring at the large white window on your computer screen. Pausing to check your email. And staring some more.

As someone who makes a living by writing, I find myself facing a blank page on almost a daily basis, and I've learned some effective ways to get past it and to a finished product efficiently. Here are five of them:

1. Set the small stuff aside.

Answering that nagging message or reorganizing your online files is never quite so compelling as when you're trying to get those first few difficult sentences down. On any given day, there will be a series of small and seemingly urgent tasks that you'll want to get out of the way before you tackle your big project. By the time they're all out of the way, much of the day, and most of your energy, may be gone as well.

Instead of giving in to these instincts, ask yourself what will happen if the task has to wait until after your bigger project is finished. If the answer isn't something dire, let it go till the more difficult task is done.

2. Break the job into chunks.

Writing a 30-page report may seem like an impossible task. But writing the opening two-page section covering the first part of the topic may not be quite so scary.

When I was writing a particularly challenging book, I used to celebrate every time I crossed the dotted line in my word processing software that signalled the end of a page. You don't need to go that far, but breaking the job into briefer, more manageable pieces will help you get through it much more quickly.

3. Use blocks of time.

Another effective approach is to set yourself short blocks of time to focus completely on the job at hand, followed by short rest breaks that are equally important. That's the principle behind the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method that's been around since the 1980s and helps lots of people, including me, get through big projects. Software developers particularly love it, but I find it works for writers too.

The technique is named for a tomato-shaped timer used by its inventor Francesco Cirillo. You work on a task non-stop for 25 minutes, stop precisely at the end of that time, take a five-minute break, and then work for another 25 minutes. After four of these cycles, take a longer break. Knowing a break is on the near horizon helps you focus on the work at hand and tackle it more efficiently.

4. Start with a bad first draft.

I owe this tip to Anne Lamott, although she uses a less polite word than "bad." It's much easier to revise than to create, so start by getting down some first version of whatever you're working on quickly. Don't worry about whether it's good or not. Once you've got your bad first draft, you can go over it again and make it much better. And you may find that even though you created it quickly, it's not really as bad as all that.

5. Reward yourself when you're done.

There's a four-year-old inside each of us who doesn't want to sit still and be disciplined, and tackling a big project means frustrating that part of yourself. So whenever you finish a project, or a significant piece of one, make sure to reward that four-year-old. The reward could be anything from a few minutes playing a video game, to a short shopping expedition, to watching a favorite sporting event. Whatever it is, make sure it's fun for you. Giving yourself positive reinforcement will make it easier to get through the next tough task that comes along.

IMAGE: madame_furie/Flickr
Last updated: May 2, 2013

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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