COVID-19 has been a rough ride. With so many experiencing mental, emotional, physical, and financial harm, I am greatly looking forward to the day when this will be behind us. In the meantime, like many of you, I’ve been watching webinars and listening to podcasts. While much of what I have heard has been helpful, I have found that traditional wisdom, particularly as it relates to time management and productivity, has not been quite as applicable. The reason for this has to do with what we “can” and “can’t” do right now.
Can’t is a broad term, and we tend to apply it to a variety of situations. In order to understand how to cope with “can’t,” it helps to first acknowledge that our use of the word tends to fall into one of the following three buckets:
BUCKET 1: Can’t = I don’t want to
In the world of productivity, these are items that we tend to procrastinate. It isn’t that we lack the ability to accomplish these tasks, it is simply that we don’t feel like taking action. Often, this is something unpleasant, like carrying a heavy bag of trash to the can in the garage or having a conversation with a prickly person. We use the phrase, “I just can’t” as a shortened form of, “I just can’t rally the energy, focus or desire to tackle that right now.” Strategies for breaking down large projects into smaller tasks, for initiating action, and for maintaining focus are all very helpful for this kind of situation.
BUCKET 2 Can’t = I don’t know how
Tasks that fall into this bucket are numerous, as are the strategies for tackling them. Generally, these are jobs we need to do, but we aren’t sure where or how to proceed. This might include things like writing a term paper, fixing a broken appliance, doing math homework, and applying for loans. We aren’t sure exactly what to do, so we set aside the responsibility as something we “just can’t do.” When we find ourselves in this position, we need to identify where the knowledge gap lies, and identify tangible next steps to get the answers we need to move forward.
BUCKET 3 Can’t = I am unable or am not allowed to
Things that fall into this bucket are tasks, chores, and actions that even with the best plans, intentions, and tools, we are not physically able to complete. For instance, most of us are not able to fly to the moon. Similarly, the majority of us – even with practice – will never be able to run a mile in under 4 minutes. In the days of coronavirus, most people are dealing with items in Bucket 3… and for many of us, this is a relatively new experience.
Back in the early and mid 20th Century, living with true “can’t” was more common. Generations lived through times of ration cards, bombings, movement restrictions, and economic disaster. Fortunately, recent times, while admittedly imperfect, have been comparatively better. On the whole, we’ve been able to move about, work, study, plan, and in many ways control our lives.
In contrast, over the past couple of months, there have been many things we simply have not had the freedom to do:
- Get a haircut
- Dash into the store to pick up bleach
- Host a dinner party
- Hop on a flight to visit family
- Go on an in-person date
- Shop in a local/non-essential store
- Hang out with friends
- Eat out at a favorite restaurant
- Go to the movies
- Attend class
- Go to prom
- Hold the hand of a dying loved one in the hospital
Fortunately, we seem to be moving toward once again being able to do many of these things. Still, the pace and manner in which we will be “returning to normal” will be slow and uneven. As a result, there may be items on our “to do” or “wish to do” lists upon which we simply cannot currently act. How should we respond when we run up against full-stop roadblocks?
I suggest three groups of questions to ask when you face a task that you cannot tackle at this current moment in time:
- How necessary is this?
- Does it truly have to be done, or is it optional?
- Is it physically, legally, and ethically possible to do this right now?
- If not, can it wait another three months? Six months? Twelve months?
- How can I do this in a way other than the one I know?
- What other approach could I take that might yield a “good enough” result, even if it is only temporarily?
- What other experience or effort could I pursue that would give me a similar emotional payoff?
- Can I pass this off to someone who is better positioned to deal with it right now?
Let It Go
- Could I remove this task from my life and be ok?
- Might this be the time to finally release this goal and find another that is more achievable?
- Might I free myself of guilt if I remove this from my plate?
* * * * *
There may be some tasks that we need to simply set aside and plan to deal with later. Some may need to be approached with a work-around mindset. Still others may, upon close inspection, not warrant the weight of being carried into our future.
Can you think of anything you’ve been planning to do, cannot now do, and perhaps might decide to simply let go?