The carry-over task and fear of success

The to-do list, whether digital or analog, we’ve all got ’em.  We cross things off and put things on (mostly the latter); the list evolves – it’s a living thing.We put energy into adding things, tasks, action items. (You can’t go to a meeting without collecting one of them.)

But most telling to me are the tasks that stay on week-on-week, the carry-over tasks. We never do them, but we never take them off the list. What are they? Why don’t we do them? Why don’t we just take them off the list?

For tasks we complete, the fundamental motivating force is fear, fear of not getting them done, the consequences of failure.  The deal is clear: we don’t complete the task, and something bad will happen to us. We know what will happen to us if we fail, we know the consequences of failure.

But the carry-over task is altogether a different beast.  It’s an uncompleted task where the fundamental motivating force is still fear, but this time it’s the fear of getting them done, the consequences of success.  The deal is absolutely unclear: we complete the task, and something good will happen to us.  Though, this time we don’t know what will happen to us if we succeed, we don’t know the consequences of success.

With the carry-over task, we must supply our own motivation, our own energy, to overcome the consequences of something good happening to us us.  Strange, but true.

With success comes visibility; with visibility comes judgement; with judgement comes fear, fear of being un-liked. We will be seen for what we are, and we’re afraid of what people will think.  Some won’t like us, and that’s scary.

The fear of success is real, and it’s a tough nut. Some many not want to crack it, and that’s okay. For those that do, consider this: today, as you are, some don’t like you, so how could success be worse? With success, at least they’ll know why they don’t like you: because you succeeded.

6 Responses to “The carry-over task and fear of success”

  • Great post. I agree totally.
    When I see those carry-over tasks, I’ve learned to break them down to a ridiculous level of granularity. What’s the absolutely smallest step I could take towards completion of that item? Then I replace the item with that. Anything to get the ball rolling.

  • Al Dickinson:

    Had to read this one twice, Mike. Can you post an example from your experience?

    Looking forward to meeting you at the conference. Just buttoned up our paper this past weekend. Making the rounds for approval.


  • Jon Titus:

    I have lots of “carry-over” tasks on my lists. Feeling good or bad has nothing to do with having them carry over from list to list. Some tasks have a low priority and might fit in as I have time available. Others might require a lot of preparation and so they serve as reminders rather than specific goals. Years ago I heard a story about a teacher who gave a demonstration. He had a large jar and he first filled it with rocks. They he filled the spaces with gravel. Next he added sand to fill any remaining gaps. He asked the students, “What does this show?” One of the students answered it illustrated there’s always room for more “stuff.” “No,” said the professor, “It shows you have to get the big things done first.”

    Setting priorities minimizes the carry-over items to low-priority tasks.

  • Mike:

    Jon, I’m not talking about low priority tasks that simply don’t get done. I’m talking about important tasks that create new things, that somehow you had the courage to put on your list, but cannot bring yourself to do them because they might actually work, might change the game. You don’t take them off because they are meaningful, but you don’t do them because they could make meaningful change.

  • I do agree with Jeff Waters that sometimes it’s better to break down the carryover task into smaller components and do at least one component. This way, one generates some momentum. Another approach is if you see these carry over tasks keep emerging from week to week, ask yourself why it hasn’t gotten done. Is it that it is a low priority or is there something subconscious that is preventing you from getting to doing it. This might require some reflection.

  • Mike:

    From Sanj: I do agree with Jeff Waters that sometimes it’s better to break down the carryover task into smaller….

    Sanj, your last words capture the thinking I described in my post — that reflection is needed to understand why carry-over tasks (other than ones with low priority) are not completed. Yes, this requires reflection, yes, this is subconscious, and, yes, it’s important to understand why.

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