How to overcome the challenge of finishing a single task

Jordan Peterson had a famous rule titled: clean your room.

I think Peterson was on to something with this rule, but I think you could go deeper with this idea.

In this article, I try to explain the cycle of failure that often happens when you commit to making a positive change in your life.

You have an idea that this year, you are going to build your expertise as a professional writer. You have a vision that by the end of the year, you will have read this many books, you will have written this many articles, and you will have started a corpus of your own professional library of thoughts and insights. If you wanted, you could simply become a consultant and make a lot of money, acquiring influential and interesting friends in the process.

Then, nothing happens.

Somewhere along the line something goes wrong, you revert back to old routines, and the cycle of new year or mid year resolutions starts again.

It’s no easy task to figure out this massive negative loop that happens to many professionals in all stages of their career. I have encountered this phenomenon many times myself, throughout my career.

To shed some light on this, I want to share with you what I’ve noticed occuring after I make a commitment. It relates directly to Peterson’s concept of “clean your room”.

1. Initial commitment – It all starts with a big commitment you make to yourself

You say to yourself: “I’ve already discovered what I love doing and what interests me”. Be it psychology, literature, marketing, content (these are all my darling interests BTW).

You ask yourself: “How can I become the writer / marketer / content creator I aspire to be?”

2. Baby steps – Lowering the bar with an easier task to complete

You follow the “self help” best practice of choosing a simpler task to complete. This rule of thumb has become a cliche.

Let’s say that I have a different resolution. I want my house to be cleaner. I follow the self help guideline and instead of taking 4 hours every week to clean the entire house, I commit to keeping the kitchen sink clean.

So far, nice plan.

3. The challenge – what you experience the moment you start cleaning the sink

You are facing the sink. Sponge at hand. You clean the dishes. Immediately, thoughts and doubts start springing into your mind.

“Am I giving each dish a thorough enough clean?”

On the other hand – “Am I spending too much time cleaning each dish? Is this even sustainable?”

Efficiency doubts start trickling in – “Should I get a dish washer? Am I wasting my time?”

You clear all the dishes, but the job doesn’t end. The sink is dirty, so you start cleaning it. But crumbs always remain in the sink. “What is happening?” you ask yourself. “Do I even know how to clean?”

“Does the sponge contain crumbs? Is it too dirty that I must buy a new sponge? Why didn’t I buy several sponges last time I was at the supermarket?”

All these doubts. You finish cleaning the sink, but it still looks dirty. That’s because it’s an old sink, and some stains have settled. “Should I ask the landlord to replace the sink? Maybe I should move!”

Then you start thinking of how you are going to finance your new house, all because of the need for a cleaner sink.

In other words, all hell broke loose, even though you started with a clear, positive intention of keeping your house clean. Where did it all go wrong?

The vicious cycle of improvement and failure

Not enough is said about the vicious cycle of improvement and failure.

This is a fundamental process, that prevents us from feeling satisfied and on track to build our professional life.

I have no clue how prevalent this process is, I just know it happens to me a lot. It forces me to run through the same process of Improvement resolution > Small step > Failure > Depression > Reversion back to default habits.

This happens over and over again. Always committing to doing the same things:

  • Become a better writer
  • Read more books
  • Do more exercises
  • Stay organized…

Back to Peterson

This is a good place in the article to go back to Peterson’s idea of cleaning your room. Peterson positions your aim as the fundamental thing to focus on. What you aim at changes how your world organizes.

This is true to some extent. But it doesn’t mean you should “aim at aiming”. That is a fatal error. It’s another loop you can go into. So there is danger in following Peterson’s advice. While aiming, you should also keep a broader sense, because being is always much broader than your limited aim.

How can you aim and achieve tangible things in the world, without being caged and limited by them?

The only answer that pops into my brain has to do with letting go over some of the control.

Your blindspot

In your attempt for self improvement, automatically arises a blind spot. Without knowing it, you become a control freak of some sorts.

You are trying to get things done, instead of discovering authentic original ways to getting them done.

Instead of investigating, you are acting out.

After deciding to keeping a house clean, the real trap is following what you consider is the way people should clean their house, and fixating on this or that method.

Instead, this could be a journey of discovery.

Go into this journey with the question: “how can I keep my house clean?”. Consider this question a mystery, yet to be discovered.

You are Indiana Jones, on a quest to find what is the best ultimate way for a busy professional like you to keep their house clean.

Maybe this journey will lead you to an innovative new Marie Condo technique. Maybe you’ll end up hiring help. No matter what, you will follow a path that is genuine, and you will avoid the vicious cycle of improvement and failure.

This is a triumph much larger than keeping your house clean.

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