Getting Things Done QA

How to Overcome Your Procrastination Problem

Dear Justin,

I’m the master procrastinator. I only pride myself on this to cover up the frustration I have with myself. I have more on my plate and to-do list then I could ever accomplish and I find myself not only failing to finish things, but not even starting them in the first place. I have lists for everything but I rarely cross anything off these lists.

The Master

Dear Master,

You, my friend, are suffering from an age-old problem. The truth is, we’ve all felt this way. We have lots of items on a list, and when we finally get some time to “get things done,” we pull up the list and feel so overwhelmed we do almost none of it. For most people, the main thing they experience as a result of their to-do list is fatigue. Let me give you some ideas of how to remedy this at work and at home.

Plan to Procrastinate

Due to the sheer number of tasks that are likely on your list, there are some items I’m going to encourage you to procrastinate. Yes, that’s right. But I won’t call it procrastination—I’ll call it incubating. Procrastination is not doing something and then feeling bad about it. Incubation, on the other hand, is not doing something and feeling good about it.

There are a lot of items on your list you may want to accomplish at some point but you aren’t committed to any immediate actions or timelines. You should put these items on a separate list. In Getting Things Done®, we call this a “Someday/Maybe” list. You can call it whatever you want. But if you are going to decide not to decide about some items, you need to have a “decide not to decide” list or folder where these things reside. I would look at them about once a month to see if you are in a place to take action or have the mental capacity to take them on. If you aren’t or don’t, then your mind can let them go without you losing track of them. Saying “no” for now, doesn’t mean saying “no” forever.

Unclear Lists

Just because you have to-do lists, doesn’t mean you won’t procrastinate—as your question suggests. In my experience, the reason most people’s to-do lists are ineffective is because they are unclear. Therefore, it’s time to rethink your to-do list. In my last article, I shared some counterintuitive, but very efficient, ways to organize lots of actions. Let me explain.

If you look at most people’s to-do lists, they say things like: “Paint wall,” “Mom birthday,” “Oil,” “offsite,” “Cat Video Conference.” It’s great we’ve identified something we need to give time and attention to, but the meaning is muddied so our mental gears spin when we look at our lists. Instead of doing, we have to figure out what to do. It’s the difference between writing “Off-site” and writing “Email meeting invite to marketing team to brainstorm plans for 2018 Off-site.”

Remember this: everything on your to-do list is either attracting you or repulsing you psychologically; there’s no neutral territory. You’re either looking at something and saying, “Awesome! When can I mark this off?” Or, you’re saying, “Yuck! I don’t even want to think about this because there is so much involved it’s overwhelming.”

When you have a whole to-do list of these unclear, overwhelming tasks, you have a tendency to look at them again and again. Scientists have proven the reality of the term “decision fatigue.” The idea is that the more decisions we have to make each day, the more we diminish our brain’s ability to make decisions. This ultimately results in bad decision-making and a drained psychological fuel tank.

The solution is to only decide on stuff once. Meaning when you put an action item on a list, you clearly identify what the next action is—the very next physical, visible activity you need to take to move things forward. Your to-do list should be only next actions so that when you decide to do one of those actions, you can be confident it’s the right thing to be doing.

So, “Paint wall” becomes “Chat with my wife about the paint color for Ethan’s room.” “Mom’s birthday” becomes “Text my siblings to see what they want to do for Mom’s 70th birthday” and “Oil” becomes “Google search for oil mechanics near my house.”

Recently, a GTD® training participant asked, “But why be so clear? It’s not like I need to hand my to-do list to a stranger who needs to decipher the next steps.” While that may be true, I asked him how much time he wasted deciphering and remembering what really needed to happen next rather than actually getting things done. He quickly agreed he only wanted to make those decisions once. Also, if you don’t capture the details of the next action, you are likely carrying them around in your head. And as David Allen likes to say, “Your head is for having ideas, not for holding them.”

Good luck,

Kerrying On

The Best Career Advice Nobody Ever Gave

In the spring of 1952, Lydia, a woman who lived up the hill from our house, purchased the neighborhood’s first power lawn mower. Had the circus marched up 25th street while P. T. Barnum himself juggled flaming chainsaws, it would have drawn less attention. After all, Lydia was now packing a gas-powered, carbine action, rotary mower. Everyone showed up for the inaugural mowing. Several brought folding lawn chairs.

After yanking on the starter rope for a couple of minutes, Lydia’s new machine finally roared into action. Within seconds, she was handily plowing through grass so thick that it would have caused a hernia had it been cut by someone using a traditional push-reel hand mower.

I desperately wanted a chance to operate the rotary beauty, but before I could say anything, I noticed that the chute that spit out the cut grass was becoming clogged with clippings. “I’ll pull out the grass!” I shouted as I worked my way across the yard. “I’ll just shove my hand into the . . . ”

As it became clear that I intended to thrust my six-year-old hand into a machine that housed a spinning, razor-sharp blade, the onlookers freaked out. It was obvious that Lydia was too occupied maneuvering the mower to see me approaching her left flank. And since the other adults were too far away to do anything, they felt helpless . . . so much so that they froze in place. That is, everyone except our neighbor Walter, the retired boatswain mate. He leapt to his feet and rushed toward me—eyes bugged, arms thrashing, and mouth screeching something I couldn’t make out over the thundering engine.

Fortunately, Walter’s frantic movements were so startling that I paused to take stock of the situation. I didn’t stop for long, but apparently for just long enough, because at the very moment my hand approached the treacherous blade, Walter crashed into me and knocked me to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. A full-grown adult had sprinted across the lawn, hurled his body through the air, and pushed me, a seventy-pound first-grader, down the hillside.

“Why’d you knock me down?” I asked as I scrambled to my feet.

Once the mower came to a complete stop, Walter tipped the machine onto its side, pointed out the steel blade hidden within, and explained how I had come very close to getting a “really aggressive manicure.”

Not sharing in Walter’s humor, I fell to my knees and burst into tears.

“What were you thinking?” the retired navy man asked.

What was I thinking? I was a kid. My intentions were simply to be helpful.

Oddly, the part of this incident that I most vividly recall isn’t Walter’s acrobatic dive-although it was pretty memorable. The picture that’s still etched in my brain is the expression on the faces of the adults who remained frozen in terror as they watched me approach the deadly mower. They knew I was headed for a disaster, felt helpless to do anything to avert it, and stood frozen in place. Except for Walter, the newly crowned hero of 25th Street.

Now, you’d think this sort of incident would happen only once in a person’s lifetime, but it happens to me all the time—not with a spinning blade—but with something quite menacing in its own right. Allow me to illustrate.

I live in a town that houses more than 60,000 university, tech, and trade school students. Between their classes, workshops, and practicums, these budding artists, nurses, and big-rig mechanics sell me movie tickets, cook my fast food, and hand me my dry cleaning. And every time I run into one of these art-history ticket takers, or social-science burger chefs, I refuse to remain mum. I brazenly ask them what they’re currently studying to prepare for their real career. More specifically, I ask them if their training will lead to a viable job that will pay the bills.

It turns out that most of the young people I talk to know precious little about where their educational efforts will actually take them. And, why should they? They aren’t required to talk to individuals approaching graduation (who know the current job market). They don’t interview previous grads to see how satisfying the profession is. They may know little of their major’s average income, or their chances of ever finding a job in their discipline.

Granted, not every person in search of a career runs off half-cocked and clueless. And I’m certainly not arguing that if individuals don’t go to Yale Law or some other ivy-covered brick institution, they’re doomed. What I am suggesting is that whatever career path one takes, it’s best preceded by careful study. Never before in the history of education have there been more learning options, methods, and topics—and along with it, uncertainty. Consequently, if people don’t do their pre-work, one day they may end up facing the spinning blades of corporate reality.

Check the record. If you assume any member of the workforce you encounter doesn’t care for his or her current job, you’ll be correct over 70% of the time. The average employee’s pay is so anemic that it takes two or more jobs to keep most households afloat. In the end, your typical couple will set aside less than $5,000 by the time they retire, forcing many of them to live out their “golden years” in their children’s basement. It’s hard to imagine that this is the future most students have in mind when they start down their chosen career path.

Fortunately, there are people out there who play the role of Walter. Perhaps you’re one of them—a caring individual who explains how to find and interview people who have recently graduated and have a realistic view of the job market. You may even take out your smart phone and look up salaries by career specialty or explore (and then share), national job postings. This may sound rather aggressive, but it’s hard to remain quiet knowing that, more often than not, the only people talking to students about the viability of the field they’re studying are the instructors whose livelihood depends on students continuing to take their classes.

With my own offspring, I speak up. I talk to them about the people who hold the jobs they might be interested in and the paths those people followed to get there. I teach them that financial independence and job satisfaction bless those who follow a career path that leads to what I call the “golden trio.” More specifically, (1) the skills they learn are rare, (2) in high demand, and (3) enjoyable to perform.

Naturally, preparing yourself to land a job where your talent is unique, in demand, and gratifying isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. If you don’t carefully explore your career alternatives (and as a result, if you fail to uncover the dangers that lie ahead), one day you may find yourself being blind-sided by an airborne boatswain mate doing his best to save you from your good, but naïve, intentions. Nobody wants that.

Getting Things Done QA

Help! I Have Too Many Meetings to Get Things Done

We’re excited to welcome David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, as a contributor to The Crucial Skills Newsletter.

Dear David,

I can’t help but realize that I never get any of my long-term stuff accomplished. I spend so much of my time in the weeds, trying to put out fires and get through my daily tasks, that I rarely think about, let alone find time to accomplish, the goals, vision, and purposes I want for my life. How in the world will I ever really achieve what matters most to me when all that seems to have my attention is email and meetings?


Dear Floundering,

Welcome to a very big club! Most everyone I know, especially those involved in a busy, professional world, easily fall victim to the “latest and loudest”—those things that are yanking our chain and hijacking our attention. Email and meetings are two especially prevalent culprits in this regard.

Now, email and meetings are extremely important tools for most of us, and can be highly effective for getting things done productively and efficiently—let’s not “shoot the media.” But, what’s the real problem? There are at least two:

1. The purpose of emails and meetings is often unclear—maybe even unnecessary.
2. You have not made your higher-horizon commitments adequately operational, which promotes getting sucked in to #1.

Problem #1 is pervasive, for sure. Emails are often spewed out (especially if you’re in the cc: group) to “keep everyone in the loop” when in fact, the reason is due to a lack of clarity around who’s really in charge, who really needs to know, and when action should take place. The same applies to meetings. Too often, groups of people are brought together to address something that could have been handled if responsibilities and their ownership were clear. Bad meetings lead to bad emails, which lead to bad meetings, ad nauseam. (This is a topic for another newsletter, for sure.)

Problem #2 is the real culprit, and there are multiple aspects of this issue. First of all, do you have a clearly articulated inventory of your goals, vision, and purposes? If not, that’s your first job. If you haven’t yet, get pen and paper or your computer and write out your best guess at your life purpose. Then, craft an ideal scenario (in several paragraphs) about what future “wild success” would look, sound, and feel like for you. Finish by identifying the key things you would need to accomplish in the next year or two to make that happen.

Once that’s done (and perhaps you’ve done that already), the key question to ask and answer for yourself is, “What’s the next action to make any or all of that happen?” If you had nothing else to do in your life right now but take a very specific, visible, physical action toward your desired outcome(s), what would that action be? Sending an email? Conducting a web search? Holding a conversation with a partner? What?

See, long-term for most people means, “Someday, I might really want . . . ” Whereas a really committed-to outcome is a now thing. It’s a goal you do something about now that just might take longer than some other things to be completed.

Without those specifically defined next actions, you will fall prey to all the distractions of your everyday work and life. That’s because it’s easier to let these daily agenda items give you a structure and stability and a short-term sense of productivity (as sub-optimal as it is), versus having to really think and decide what you actually need to do to make your vision a reality.

Once you are clear about where you really want to go, and precisely the next action(s) you need to take to get there, it becomes much easier to assess the value of the bright baubles in your world that can be so distracting. That doesn’t mean you can avoid meetings and email. You’ll just have a better handle on how much time and energy to give them, and trust that you’re still moving the needle for yourself in the right direction.

I can’t help but also suggest that one of the greatest obstacles to what I have suggested above is the lack of capturing, clarifying, and organizing all the things that have your attention now—little or big, personal or professional. This creates a mental backlog, which in turn makes you feel overwhelmed. This, then, greatly reduces your inspiration and ability to reflect on the relationship between your bigger game and your day-to-day realities. Once you implement the GTD® methodology, it is a lot easier to integrate and navigate all of those commitments.

Best of luck in reaching your big-picture goals.

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