May 2, 2022

Noble obstacles: The productivity barriers we never see coming 

Why do so many of us struggle to get things done? Because we excel at getting in our own way. In fact, we’re wired to seek out barriers to productivity. Fortunately, understanding the issue can also help us thwart it.

Let me explain.

Suppose I am tasked with completing a proposal within three days. It is a budget request for a training course. It’s extremely important to my department, and I repeatedly remind myself how important as I get started. I determine that, in my attempt to nail it, I will begin with exhaustive research into the options.

Two days later, my boss asks about my progress. I realize I have nothing to show for my work because I spent all my time researching instead of writing. In my effort to craft the perfect proposal, all I have done is create a big problem. Now I need to stay up most of the night, and I may still not get the proposal done.

What’s really going on here?

You have probably heard about the relationship between perfectionism and procrastination. While creating the perfect proposal is an understandable goal, it carries a lot of pressure. So much pressure, in fact, that it becomes difficult to start at all.

And so, in my hypothetical example, I fall into a common trap: the noble obstacle.

Barriers to productivity in disguise

It’s easy get distracted when facing a high-pressure task. But the noble obstacle is a special brand of distraction.

Unlike obvious distractions like a Netflix or Twitter vortex, noble obstacles are distractions in disguise. They seem good and virtuous (such as: do more research to reaaaaaalllllly understand the problem!), but all they really do for you is serve as an obstacle to starting – and finishing.

When you consider that the result is angst and stress, it becomes clear that there is nothing noble about this tendency.

So, what are noble obstacles really about?

Thinking first in evolutionary terms, humans have a natural tendency to resist tasks that take a lot out of us. This was a good thing when our ancestors needed to conserve energy, avoid danger and seize every shortcut to survive.

Today, it’s less necessary for survival — and less helpful for our day-to-day of preparing reports, writing lectures and planning new ventures. Unfortunately, it’s also easier than ever to fall into the trap of procrastination. Humans are bright creatures who can see connections everywhere. And we have access to more information than ever before at the click of a button. When something piques our interest, we can go down a rabbit hole and spend days there. It can feel good — like we are learning lots and getting things done. But what we are actually doing is digging deeper and further away from what really needs our attention.

Art, tight abs and acts of courage

What do those things have in common? They all leave us prone to noble obstacles.

Creative work is a big one. If you have experienced writer’s block, for example, you know just what I mean. And you will appreciate the book War of Art by Steven Pressfield (in fact, reading it might be a very effective noble obstacle!) It’s all about the natural tendency to resist the creative process and embrace distraction. And it’s where I was first exposed to the idea of the noble obstacle.

It turns out that while we are wired to resist pursuits like creativity, we are also prone to resisting other types of challenges. Perhaps a few of these are familiar to you, paraphrased from Pressfield’s book:

  • The pursuit of any creative calling or creative art
  • The launch of an entrepreneurial venture
  • Pursuit of a diet or health regimen
  • Pursuit of tighter abdominal muscles
  • Programs of spiritual advancement
  • Efforts to overcome addiction or unhealthy habits
  • Education of all types
  • Acts that require political, moral or ethical courage
  • Efforts to help others
  • Commitments of the heart
  • Taking a principled stance amid adversity

The common thread here, Pressfield notes, is the lack of immediate gratification. The goals are longer-term in nature. A regimen of abdominal crunches may not deliver an appreciable difference in muscle tone for weeks, and you may write 10 terrible versions of a chapter before crafting your first good one. No wonder the noble obstacle is so appealing.

Overcoming barriers to productivity

The most important tool you can use to thwart these tendencies is awareness. The power of the noble obstacle is its disguise as something you should definitely be spending time on. Once you see through that disguise, it loses its power.

Harder is realizing that perfect really is the enemy of the good, and realizing it’s OK to prioritize “done” over “the best proposal ever written in this profession.” This isn’t about embracing mediocrity (although sometimes mediocrity really is fine). It’s about recognizing nothing is perfect … and unfinished is most definitely not perfect anyway. Completion is a gift, and you deserve it, as Jon Acuff writes in his book Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done.

As you think about these issues, you will start to recognize your own patterns of resistance, which will enable you to unravel them. One of my own specialties is a little something I call “hardifying” – taking a relatively straightforward task and complicating it so that it takes more time, effort and – this is the fun part – technology. This is a pretty powerful noble obstacle in my life, but because I am well aware of it, I can see it happening, pause to chuckle to myself, and then I rein it in.

Recognizing your patterns will allow you to start distinguishing from noble obstacles like hardifying and work that is actually necessary even though it is difficult. You can even have a little fun with your noble obstacles – offer them a seat at the table, ask what’s really going on, and reassure them that you can handle whatever you have been asked to deliver.

Achieving your goals

Then, it’s time to get real about your goal so you can actually achieve it. Going back to my hypothetical proposal example, my excessive research could have been a tactic to postpone a project that overwhelmed me. The solution, then, is to break down the goal into a less overwhelming series of steps.

I urge clients in this situation to focus on the VNA – the Very Next Action they must take to move toward their goal. These are bite-sized tasks that are concrete and manageable, rather than nebulous and overwhelming.

The VNA can also be a way to break the inertia of procrastination. You don’t have to run a marathon today, just run around the block to start and see where it lands you. You don’t need to write your book today. Just write a few sentences, and see if anything ignites. Give yourself permission to work incrementally, and you might surprise yourself by doing more. You may also stick with your incremental progress, which is just fine. You did something!

Resisting the resistance

Noble obstacles, less noble distractions, procrastination, resistance to the creative process – they will all come back. I have had to resist my hardifying tendencies more times than I care to count. But I get better at recognizing my noble friend every time, inviting her to take a seat at the table so I can learn what’s really going on, then promptly dismissing her from the office for the day.

And I have seen the value of giving myself grace. This is how humans are made. We all do this. With time you will learn what it takes for you to move beyond your own resistance. In the meantime, know that you’re in very good and abundant company.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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