We live in the age of self-improvement. Wherever you go–your home, your car, your bar, your favorite bodega or bookstore–it’s forever there, staring you in the face.
It can drive you a little crazy. Most of us are satisfied to excel in just a few areas, and if we sacrifice our beach body by prioritizing parenting over the gym, so be it. But the ads keep pouring in: You can be perfect.
It’s pure B.S., of course. Life is short, and we can only strive so much. But if you put a gun to my head and demanded that I choose a single rule to live by–a rule to rule all others in the quest for human excellence–I’d have a ready answer.
Always do the hardest thing first.
It’s by no means an easy rule. It’s easy to say, and it feels nice to say it, but the minute you sit down at your desk, and that hardest thing is in front of you, and you’d literally rather do anything else–all bets are off.
Now for the good news. I’ve practiced this rule for many years, and can confidently report that with enough repetition it becomes habitual. You’ll still recognize the hardest thing as being the hardest thing–whether it’s balancing the books, making a sales call, or wrestling with your taxes–but the psychological dread that caused you to procrastinate in the past will have disappeared.
Here are three suggestions for taking the beast head-on:
1. Prepare the night before.
Before you go to bed, review tomorrow’s agenda. Channel your inner Alex Honnold–if you haven’t seen Free Solo yet, I highly suggest it–and memorize every move in advance. Single out the moves that really suck, and then the one that sucks the very most.
Legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu advised that you learn to “know your enemy…and in one hundred conflicts you will naturally prevail.”
You now know your enemy. Meditate on it. Let it stand out in your thoughts. Isolated, it isn’t quite so intimidating.
2. Establish a soothing ritual.
Confronting your enemy in a dull or disordered state of mind is a great way to get slaughtered. To avoid this, establish a ritual or routine that you perform the moment you walk through the office door.
Arrive five minutes early. Greet your colleagues by name. Act cheerful and alert. Take your stuff to your desk and get organized.
Now make a cup of coffee or pour a glass of water. (Be methodical–your co-workers should be able to set their clocks by your movements.) Return to your desk. Seat yourself and take a sip. Fire up your computer. Your mind should be in a clear, calm state by now.
3. Inform someone else of your plans.
Announcing your intentions will ease your burden and provide extra motivation to succeed. You don’t have act like you’re running for president, but don’t be shy about it, either.
Tell a trusted teammate: “I’m going to do X now, and I’m going to show you when I’m finished.” If it helps, add some humor. Confide that you haven’t been looking forward to this particular responsibility and you hope talking about it will help you become the hero your mother always said you were. Or, if you had a rough childhood, that it will help you avoid becoming the lazy slob your mother always said you were.
Complete the step by following up with your teammate. Enjoy the euphoria for a minute or two, then move on to the next responsibility.
The rewards for doing the hardest thing first are obvious. The moment you cross that chore from your list, your mind unfurls like the first day of spring. Suddenly, other difficult tasks aren’t so difficult. Suddenly, your mind is totally yours, whereas before it belonged to the task you were postponing.
Perform the three steps religiously. Accept that you’ll fail–probably often. But then, something magic will happen. Gradually, you’ll improve. Your focus will tighten, your mood will lighten, your value will increase. And one happy morning, when you briskly crank out a task that six months ago would have haunted you all day, you’ll know what self-improvement really means.