How to Complete Hard Tasks

Sometimes you just can’t get your mind working.  You wonder what’s going on, things you want to remember just slip through your fingers, and time gets away from you.  It happens to everyone, but major episodes of mania or depression can result in reduced cognitive capacity, which takes time to heal.  Reduced cognitive capacity can be scary; we wonder if it will ever come back, or it we have changed for good.  During these periods just living can be a hard task, and following good advice, like a morning routine, can seem like climbing Mt. Everest.

How to we tackle things that are really hard to do?  Here are some tips from a neuroscientist on completing hard tasks.  A hard task might be planning a moon shot, or it might be making the morning coffee, that doesn’t matter, what matters is how we tackle it.

Cognitive control is a skill set that anyone can learn, and it becomes particularly useful when the tasks you face are hard to accomplish.  David Badre, writing in Nature gives these tips that will help with bringing cognitive power to bear on the hard tasks you face:

  • Make space for “working memory”.  Any task requires a set of knowledge and skills developed for addressing it.  But we can’t access all our skills all the time.  To get started on a task, we have to bring up the skillset it requires into our immediate working memory.  Then we have to keep it there while we focus on the task.  So, it’s important to establish how much time and effort any given task will require and to set aside the necessary time.  Optimism is all very well, but experience teaches that we can’t rush important work.  Bring the necessary knowledge into the working memory and keep it there until the task is done.
  • Be consistent.  For important work, a set time of day and work space can be extremely helpful.  Context helps working memory get on task and keep the focus strong
  • Minimize distractions.  Easier said than done, I know!  But keep the cell phone and the TV turned off when you have difficult tasks to perform.  Your working memory will thank you.  Connected to this is never multitask.  You just can’t do more than one thing at a time, don’t even try.
  • Stay with it.  Just make up your mind that you will keep trying until you succeed.  If it doesn’t work out today, try again tomorrow.  The oldest, most cliched advice is usually the best!
  • Take breaks.  On the other hand, you have to be nice to yourself.  If it’s really not happening, take a break and talk it over with a friend.  Or get outside and breathe.  Or get some exercise.  Any of those can help the brain reconnect and get moving again.