Rank Your Tasks Based on Fear

I tell my students to try to do those things first that make them the most afraid.

Of all the emotions that drive us, fear is the most primal. Yet fear must be confronted if we are to survive individually or as a species. Without confronting our fears how could human beings have learned to hunt, conquer the land, the seas and eventually even the cold depths of space. As students and professionals you likely fear those things that have yet to be rather than those currently facing you. To become productive and grow as a person, the only strategy you need when confronting the daunting amount of things on your todo list is to rank them based on fear. Then do those tasks first that scare you the most.

Things that scare us

  • Things that are delayed tend to scare you the most, gnawing at your confidence and repose. Do these first.

  • Things that are due soon tend to make you anxious (anxiety is just another flavor of fear). Do these tasks soon.

  • Those tasks that require some amount of confrontation (such as asking your boss for a raise, or your professor for an extension) engage our evolutionary fear of social censure. This is a good sign. This kind of fear usually tells us that these tasks are worth doing. They are tasks others don’t do out of fear. Doing them makes you unique and uncommon. Prioritize these tasks and your horizons will grow, as will your wealth and freedom.

  • Tasks that create a sense of sadness and emptiness often make us afraid because of how we believe they will make us feel when we later do them. I refer to this as fear of future fear. Fear OF fear is ironic because your feelings are just about the only thing in the universe you have some sense of control over. You can choose to feel what you want. Choose to feel grateful for the time your mother spent with you and move forward with organizing her funeral, despite how sad that makes you feel. Honor the emotions of your husband and seek divorce now rather than waiting another year. It will hurt you both a lot more later.

Doing scary things first leads to some amazing benefits:

  1. Confronting your fears dissolves them … in all areas of life. Studying for that dreaded final makes saying no later to someone we don’t like that much easier. Courage is accumulative. Like a muscle, the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets.

  2. Completing tasks that make us afraid makes other tasks feel much easier. After all, if you’ve already dealt with those things that scared you the most, what’s the worst that could happen?

  3. Tackling your fear allows you to accept evermore difficult and more meaningful tasks. In our comfortable societies, those things that make us afraid often tend to be the things worth doing (they wouldn’t make us afraid otherwise). As you continue to challenge your fears, you invite risk and the concomitant reward that comes with it into your life.

Some additional tips

Start small. Take measured steps when confronting fears, especially deeply held ones that may deal with your insecurities. Often, the smallest most ludicrous step is the easiest to do. Want to begin working out but fear of failure holding you back? Tell yourself you’ll only do one push-up per day for the next week. Ridiculous right? Anyone could do that! So that means you can too. By the end of the week you’ll have done seven more push-ups than you would have had you never started. The week after, move the number of push-ups to two per day. By the end of the year you could be doing hundreds of pushups a week. All you have to do is keep going, increasing incrementally week by week.

Congratulate yourself. Confronting fears isn’t easy. Go easy on yourself if you fail. Starting the process is perhaps even more important than succeeding completely.

I wish you a fearless, productive week of finals and a spectacular summer!