Problems expand to fill available space
At any given moment, I have a set of open problems in my life. On my good days, I’m working on the most important one, aiming to solve it as quickly as possible. Otherwise, my most important problem is that I’m not working on my most important problem!
From time to time, I manage to solve a problem, and can remove it from the list. As a side effect, my #2 problem “gets a promotion” and becomes #1 (thanks to Jerry Weinberg for this analogy).
The problem at the top of the list, by virtue of being a focal point, can easily seem bigger than it is. As humans, we normalize our point of view based on what is happening to us. If we apply conventional productivity wisdom and focus exclusively on our most important task, that task consumes all of our attention. Being constantly in this state can be very productive, but also create a problem orientation. I experience this as a feeling that I am constantly surrounded by problems and never “catch up”.
At times like this (if I’m aware and realize that it’s happening), these are some of the things that help me recenter myself:
- Devote some attention to reviewing what I’ve accomplished recently, to remind myself of progress
- Ask myself if my #1 problem is actually urgent, or if I’m just on a roll. If it’s not urgent, consider taking a break from problem-solving and work on something else important for a while
- Give away some problems that I’m holding onto but don’t need to own
- Remind myself that this feeling as a side effect of where I focus my attention, and I can therefore influence it