My New Habit for Tackling Nagging Tasks: Power Hour.

I’m working on Before and After, a book about habit-formation, so I constantly ask myself, “What are the issues in my life that bug me, and how can I tackle them through habits?

One problem: nagging tasks. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started. I knew this, but nevertheless I’d accumulated a lengthy list of small, mildly unpleasant tasks that I kept putting off—in many cases, for months. Maybe years.

These tasks weren’t urgent (which why they didn’t get done), but they weighed on my mind and sapped my energy. As I walked through my apartment, or sat at my desk, the accumulation of these little chores made me feel overwhelmed.

But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks?

I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I’d steadily work on these chores. An hour didn’t sound like much time, but it was manageable.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time. But although no one else cared when I replaced my office chair with the broken arm, or donated my daughters’ outgrown clothes to a thrift store, it made a difference to me.

I considered calling this time my “To-Do List Time.” Then I remembered a term from psychology, the “fluency heuristic,” which explains that an idea seems more valuable if it’s easier to say or think. An idea expressed in rhyme seems more convincing, which is why “Haste makes waste” is more compelling than “Hurrying fosters error.” I decided to name my new habit “Power Hour.”

First, I made a list of the tasks to complete. That was easy and almost fun; I get a weird satisfaction from adding items to my to-do list. I didn’t allow myself to add any task that had to get done by a certain time; I couldn’t use Power Hour for planning my daughter’s birthday party or buying airplane tickets (for some reason, I loathe buying airplane tickets), because I knew these tasks would get done. And I couldn’t use Power Hour for recurring tasks, like paying bills or answering emails, because I have different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores. Power Hour was time to accomplish those one-time tasks that weigh on my mind, but could be—and probably already have been—indefinitely postponed. For instance:

 Make a photo album of our summer vacation

Use up store credits

Donate books to Housing Works

Move pretend kitchen

Round up and recycle batteries and devices

It feels so good to cross a nagging task off the list. A friend once told me, “I finally cleared out my fridge, and now I feel like I can switch careers.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Power Hour is enormously satisfying, because I’ve managed to chip away at tasks that were draining me. The joy of Power Hour reminds of another great habit that helps me manage the chaos: my one-minute rule. If I can do something in less than one minute, I don’t let myself procrastinate. I hang up my coat, put newspapers in the recycling, scan and toss a letter. Ever since I wrote about this rule in The Happiness Project, I’ve been amazed by how many people have told me that it has made a huge difference in their lives.

These kinds of habits keep progress steady and manageable.

How about you? Do you have any strategies for staying on top of those little nagging tasks that mount up so quickly?

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  • http://www.aterriblehusband.com/about/ ATerribleHusband

    I love the power hour. I need to schedule it to be recurring in my calendar because it’s so great on the brain.

  • debbiedarline

    Power Hour. I love the sound of the phrase and the idea behind it. I never thought of setting aside a certain amount of time each week to handle the “important but not urgent” tasks.

    • http://programminglife.net/ mcatlett

      Hear hear. It’s a groovy concept that I’ll have to try, but the phrase resonates so that the longer I think about it, the more I’m tempted to just go have my power hour now. :)

  • T & K

    Love it !! I think once you start the habit it gives you the momentum to continue the next week. The trick is not to go over an hour as it may become tiresome and end up giving up on the whole idea.

  • Lynn

    Oh my gosh, this is wonderful! I think I’ll try it this weekend with the family. Normally we let things pile up and end up spending a whole day or weekend clearing out our backlogs of pesky tasks. If we set a limit of an hour regularly then no one will feel like it’s too much to do at one time. I have procrastinated hemming pants for my family (we are all short) – which I hate to do – but can absolutely get done in an hour. Re-framing the task in my mind makes it much more approachable. :)

  • diana

    I love it – I am going to steal it. I first thought you did this every day – but once a week sounds much more reasonable

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Brilliant. I have noticed you using the term before, but never really understood what you meant. Once a week? Things I have been shoving into the background? Ooooh, I can get with that . . . yes, where to recycle the batteries and light bulbs, yes, writing some notes that have been waiting to be written, yes . . . I can see this is a great place to put many things I’ve despaired of having time to get around to doing! Thanks.

  • Laura

    Just brilliant!! I love it. As I was reading your post I tried to analyze the way I manage these little tasks you mention. Yesterday I had my own power morning. I felt so good after that, that I wondered why I hadn´t been able to get them done long ago.
    Today I´ve read your post and felt even better.
    Since a year ago I set deadlines in order not to postpone things I want to do such as buying a bike, going somewhere for a weekend… it´s fantastic the joy it brings to me because I´m sure I´m going to do it soon.
    Thank you all for sharing your thoughts!!
    Have a great weekend!!

  • http://projectsbydc.blogspot.co.uk/ Debra Carr

    I need this hour in my life!! I’ve recently done a big de-clutter and the next big task is to get on top of all those little jobs. I’m feeling much less inspired about this than I did about the decluttering so it’s very nice to come across this post this morning. I think I need to go and write a list now :)

  • Mimi Gregor

    One of the things I HATE doing is paying bills. And it feels even worse if I put them aside to pay all at once (I don’t understand how people can do that!). So my rule is that I only handle a piece of mail once. When a bill comes in, I IMMEDIATELY write a check, stick it in the envelope, and put it into the next day’s mail. Since I’ve been doing this, I don’t feel the angst that comes with bill-paying. Out of sight, out of mind. Nothing gets put aside for later (except fun stuff like magazines). Junk mail gets tossed in the recycling bin IMMEDIATELY — oftentimes unopened. Catalogs are either ordered from or tossed. Supermarket flyers are looked through, bargains circled, and kept with my coupons for when I make my shopping list. It feels so good to live a clutter-free life. That in itself is a source of happiness for me.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I am more in your direction NOW, but in the past I was always ‘broke’ and so I could not write checks immediately. I had to wait until payday and then pick what I could pay. Bill paying was a tough chore which made me very conscious how ‘on the edge’ I lived, and I used to procrastinate and hate the chore. It took me years of being pretty solvent to realize that I was ABLE to be more prompt and ‘routine’ about doing financial paperwork, because FEAR was attached to doing it. Gradually, I have come closer to your method, though I do pay bills twice a month. All my financial to-do stuff now fits in one small desk drawer, and I do sort through, discard, and open mail right away. Getting past the fear was my first step to being comfortable with order and method in this part of my life. I have a lot of sympathy for those who are still where I was. I can only say–things don’t get better by being ignored. If you know the dragon, you can slay it inch by inch.

    • Alina Mayer

      Why would you even do such a thing as paying bills? Everything that happens on a regular basis can be taken from your account automatically and the rest is easily paid via paypal/credit card which is also taken care of automatically. The only kind of bills I ever take care of is medical ones but that’s because I’ve got a private medical insurance. It doesn’t take long to automate everything, seriously.

      • Mimi Gregor

        I’m much too paranoid a person to set up an automatic system like that. It’s too much like giving someone else access to my account. In this case, a faceless, self-serving entity who doesn’t care about ME… only about it’s bottom line. Hell… I love my husband, but I don’t even have a joint account!

        • Penelope Schmitt

          Yes, I have heard too many stories from friends of screw ups. Also, this solution assumes you have always got enough money in the bank for an automatic bill pay to happen and not cause havoc with your personal finances. For many people this is not a reasonable assumption. The person who has his or her finances in a secure enough place to do this is to be congratulated for good management and good fortune, but I guess the first recommended goal here would have to be to carry enough in your account at all times to cover your bills. Not so easy for many average Americans to manage.

    • EyeCandi

      Money is an energy that gets us things. Paying bills is a reminder of this. If you hate paying bills you will never have enough energy (money) to do this effectively. Everyone loves opening gifts. Think of bills as a gift you have given yourself in advance. So when you receive a bill open it with the same enthusiasm (even if you fake it initially) as a gift. Use it as a reminder of the other gifts this bill was able to bring you (warmth, lights, fuel, food) and pay with gratitude. Over time you will find that you will have lots of energy to be grateful for.

  • SMeekerNY

    I love this idea! I also love that I saw you quoted in the NYT Magazine and I am seeing references to The Happiness Project everywhere I turn! You are changing the culture, Gretchen! Yay!

    • gretchenrubin

      Awww, thanks!

  • Chris P

    My daughter and I have a game of making up words, and she came up with “fix-urge” – when you finally tackle something that’s been bugging you for ages and you realize how simple it was to take care of…..and you realize you’ve spent 10 times as much time resisting it as actually DOING it. But I never thought about writing a “fix-urge” list. They seem so minor, but they really add up.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      Yes, if I had all the energy I had wasted on resistance to doing things that needed done, I could probably climb Mount Everest. Great observation!

  • Meg

    Gretchen, yes, this idea realllly resonates with me. Yesterday I completed one of these tasks (sorting a linen cupboard/store room) and felt so good afterwards – I’d been wanting to do it for ages, and it was only the deadline of embarking on upcoming studies and knowing I’ll have even less time over next semesters that prompted me. I hadn’t connected the no deadline concept till reading your post. Great idea. We already have a “Power hour” at home for 1 hr of cleaning chores – maybe I’ll call this Task Tackling, or Tsky Tasks leads to Zen En(for energy) – Hmm, maybe I need to work on the heuristic, but love the idea – a big thank you

  • Molly

    I am definitely going to try this idea! Have a 7/8 photo album sitting in my “projects” on a photo site, and have yet to put the finishing touches on it from January. You just reminded me! That will be my first power hour!

  • AllisonJ

    Good idea Gretchen! I’m going to try it. I have maintained what I call my “NUTS” list – Nagging Unfinished TaskS and tried unsuccessfully to par it down in the past. Even bribery which usually works great is unsuccessful with this stuff.

    • HEHink

      Love the acronym! Since many of my nagging tasks are related to clutter, it makes me think of a squirrel, who has accumulated too many NUTS. I like the idea of asking myself which room/drawer/shelf of NUTS I’m going to deal with today…

  • Diana

    I just did my power-hour & made headway on the pile of tasks related to IT. It was great.

  • https://twitter.com/YanaReadsALot Yana

    I completely agree with taking care of nagging tasks and especially with your friend who said that she finally felt she could switch careers after cleaning our her fridge! I have a pile of tasks like this, because being busy with college I always prioritize schoolwork, but then forget that it’s also important to take care of the things that make me happy too! I feel guilty for tending to anything else but homework until the list of things to do grows so long that it’s always in the back of my mind and I almost feel paralyzed to move on until I do these things. I think I should have a power hour too so I don’t always go in circles with putting these things off!

  • JoK

    Actually, I am not bad at these sorts of tasks. In fact, I can always think of new ones! Why? Because I procrastinate on the bigger things. Unlike your friend who can now switch career because she has cleaned out her fridge, I clean out my fridge to avoid thinking about the changes I could be making in my job. Maybe if I deliberately limited these tasks to one hour per week, I would not be able to hide behind them?

  • Campbell

    I love this idea! Can I ask when you schedule it beginning of day, end, weekend? I’ll over-think this wondering where to put the hour and miss the task completely.

  • HEHink

    I like how you point out that different types of tasks require different habits. For many years, I have made the mistake of putting EVERYTHING on my to-do list – which has been mainly mental, because even the idea of writing down EVERYTHING seems so daunting. But it’s very stressful trying to keep track of all those to-do’s in one’s brain, and even more so when barely a fraction of the tasks actually get done. Right now, I’m trying to establish an after-work routine that addresses several daily maintenance type tasks, so when that routine becomes a habit, I won’t need to put those tasks on a to-do list. Then I’ll be able to narrow down the other nagging things to a Power Hour list. And I like the idea of a Power Hour, because it’s so much easier to schedule than the individual items on on the list. I can see this working well for me during the summer, too, when I switch from full-time teacher to full-time mom. Keeping it to once or twice a week allows for working around appointments, activities, and bigger projects.

  • PNWGal

    I keep a running to-do list on my phone called Daily Three. The only rule is that they are non-deadline tasks. Seeing them regularly helps me “remember” them and when I have the time I tackle one. I think scheduling a hour a week where I just tackle the Daily Three list would take me to the next level.

  • Alicia @ Atypical Type A

    Like you, I’ve been focusing on establishing habits for the regular tasks while the non-urgent ones keep getting pushed to the backburner and weigh on my mind. The Man and I already do spontaneous ‘power hour’ cleaning/tidying frenzies so I think this approach could work really well for us.

    P.S. New book sounds great.

  • youonlylawonce

    I just tried this today and it went very well. Thank you Gretchen.

  • Goldberry

    Gretchen, the link under “different kinds of habits to cover repetitive chores”
    links to “10 Tips to Beat Clutter…in Less Than 5 Minutes”
    – is it by mistake?

  • johanna

    Hi, I just had my first power hour. And it worked! I was even having fun doing this nagging task. I really had to clean my small balcony… for one year it was on my list. Thanks a lot for this power idea!

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific!

  • rishi raj

    like this idea

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  • Emily Seamone

    I’ve been looking for a way to handle similar nagging tasks, and tho sounds like the answer! For me, it is even those tasks that will only take 5-10 min, such as scheduling a dr appt that isn’t urgent. I’m going to try this out. Thank you, Gretchen!

  • Allison

    I just came across this concept recently in Brook Noel’s work – called the same thing, Power Hour. I’m wondering who coined the phrase for this concept….and are they getting credit for it?

    • gretchenrubin

      I made it up, with great struggle, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s not uncommon for more than one person to think up an “original” idea. Each person truly thinks it up for themselves, but others do the same.

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  • Katherine

    I love this article, but what I loved most was the task
    “Move pretend kitchen.”
    I forgot you had kids and thought, “surely if it’s just an imaginary kitchen you can move it in your mind?”