Making Progress on “Big Rocks”

Ever find yourself doing things that clash with your long term goals? You end up doing something that, upon reflection, moves you no closer to where you want to be, and might not have even been rewarding. Why do we do that?

Social Scientist Dan Ariely wrote (“6 Reasons You Keep Making Decisions That Work Against You”) about some of the common reasons why our short-term actions prevent us from taking care of these “big rocks”. He uses the term “big rocks” as a metaphor for our really important undertakings. Those are the decisions or actions we must undertake that require a lot of time and effort. We face them, but often do not take action on them. I won’t repeat his article. But I believe one of his strategies is a good one for thinking about career/life transitions.

One of Ariely’s six reasons was this:

We Prefer Activities That Help Us Feel That We Are “Done”

Unlike small, unimportant tasks, the challenge with big rocks is that our efforts aren’t immediately rewarded with visible progress. Responding to 15 unimportant emails has a tangible output of 15 emails, and this can makes us feel like our morning was well spent.

What about thinking critically for an hour? These kinds of activities are often accompanied by no tangible output, which makes us feel as if we have made no progress.

The key to success here is to break down the big rocks into smaller milestones so that you can feel a sense of progress. Then mark your progress on each milestone in a visual, dashboard-like way, so you can see your progress and be encouraged by it.

Let’s say you are planning your next large project and to get a sense of progress you break the overall task into: creating a shortlist of ideas, creating a pro/con grid for each idea, create a list of requirements and dependencies, etc.

We get a lot of pleasure from crossing finished tasks off the to-do list. Let’s make it easier to get that wonderful feeling while working on the big rocks.

I think he is on to something there. Big tasks are hard to do. They take time. They take sustained effort. The rewards are oftentimes not reaped until the undetermined future. Along the way, we will hit roadblocks. There will be detours and unanticipated challenges. So the “big rocks”, like thinking about our career and how it fits into our life, often gets shunted aside. The reward is too nebulous and too far in the future. The effort is hard and often unrewarded. Could breaking the big rocks down into a series of smaller rocks be the way to lessen the immediate challenge and lead to immediate reward for the effort?

It is really hard to do something and not get immediately rewarded for doing it.  We are not wired that way. The reward does not have to be something big. We just like to be acknowledged for effort. We all feel this way. When doing some activity we want to believe there is an “accomplishment” at the end. Getting something done, however small, feels like we are being productive. So we naturally (unconsciously) measure the effort/reward. The small tasks usually win out.

But is this thinking really productive? Is it really in our best interests? As Ariely notes, clearing out 15 e-mails is doing something. But is it the best use of our time at that moment? Is it advancing our well-being?

Let’s put it in concrete terms. How about the person who is job seeking, but spends an hour or two straightening up their garage? That certainly is something accomplished. There is a tangible reward for the effort, the garage might look good. But it is the best use of time on a Tuesday morning, when they should be looking for a job?

Probably not.

Cleaning the garage is an accomplishment, but it is the best thing to do when trying to decide on your career?

But the effort/reward ratio can feel better, in the moment, than trying to tackle something really big.

Trying to figure out the answer to the question “What’s next in my career and life?” is a really big rock. There are so many things to think about. Do I start with where I want to be? Or should I start with where I am today? For some people, it is easier to decide what I don’t want rather than what I do want. Do I move to a new industry? Do I expand my search to a larger geographic area? Just settling on an approach is overwhelming. But perhaps that is the small first step required. Once you have an approach, you can move to the next logical step in your approach. Maybe that is brainstorming. Maybe that is contacting former colleagues and bosses.

Sometimes the best way to accomplish something big is to recognize that the task is bigger than one person can do. Asking for help, joining a small group, finding an accountability partner, are all ways to get help. A different perspective can help you see progress, to find a way.

I think using Ariely’s approach of breaking the large rocks into smaller chunks is very viable. Here are my thoughts on the steps to break the big rocks

  1. Decide on an approach – a way that works for you. Ask the questions I have asked above
  2. Decide if you want to do it alone or with help
  3. Understand where you are today. What do you like? What are your strengths, accomplishments and talents? What interests you? What don’t you like about today?
  4. Think about when (this month, this year?) change is viable. Be honest. “If not now, when?”
  5. Start to envision the future. What does your ideal career look like? How does that career blend with your life? What skills and interests do you want to utilize?
  6. Be willing to write this down  and share with others at some points in time

The list is only a start. But it is a way to break that big rock apart. Aren’t you worth it?

If you want to read Ariely’s full post, it is here:


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