All posts by Justin Hale

Getting Things Done QA

Is Your To-Do List Keeping You Up at Night?

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

Dear Justin,

The worst feeling is waking up in the middle of the night in a panic, worried I’ve let someone down or dropped the ball. Unfortunately, this happens far too often to me. I’m pretty good at managing my time, but the demands of work and family are so intense that the fear of dropping the ball keeps me up at night. How can I better manage that stress and ensure I’m really getting it all done?

Sleepless and Stressed

Dear Sleepless,

I couldn’t agree more. There are few things more frustrating than recalling unfinished tasks when you’re in no position to resolve them—like when you’re lying in bed after a long day. What’s more, these recollections are often soon forgotten again so we fail to act on them when we’re in the position to do so. For example, the other day it occurred to me to pick up something at the store—while I was in the shower.

Let me provide a little background on why this happens as well as simple steps you can take to clear your mind and alleviate stress over all your to-dos.

In the 1920s, a Soviet psychologist named Bluma Zeigarnik noticed an interesting phenomenon as she ate breakfast at a local café in Berlin. She found that waiters could remember vast amounts of information for unpaid orders, but very little about orders that were paid and closed. She and her colleagues studied this further and discovered what came to be called the Zeigarnik Effect. To summarize their discovery, our brains easily release completed tasks, but when we leave tasks unfinished our brains will not let them go. We are literally wired to get things done, and we can’t rest easy until we do.

Now, this can be stressful if you have even five to ten unfinished commitments in your life, but the typical person is beholden to dozens if not hundreds of tasks on any given week, many of which don’t get completed. As you can imagine, such mountains of uncompleted to-dos cause the mind to constantly whisper, “Don’t forget to . . . ,” or, “Hey, you still need to . . . ,” or, “You haven’t taken care of . . . ” This buzz in our heads saps our focus and prevents us from being present with the people and moments we care about most. Unfinished commitments, in other words, own a piece of us. And this involuntary self-nagging over all we HAVEN’T done results in anxiety. David Allen says, “Much of the stress people feel doesn’t come from having too much to do. It comes from not finishing what they’ve started.”

Case in point, I bet that as you’ve been reading this, you’ve thought about some task or commitment you need to take care of. And yet, you’ve taken no steps to actually move it forward. This demonstrates how we waste time and mental energy when we’re preoccupied with life’s “open loops.”

Sweep Your Mind

One simple way to begin decluttering your mind is to perform a mind sweep. Clearing the mind is crucial to cultivating a creative and unworried mental space. As David Allen says, “The mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” I recommend committing this truism to memory.

Here’s how to start. Grab some paper and a pen and set a timer for 5 minutes. During that 5 minutes, write down everything that’s pulling at your attention, any “should” or “ought to” items in your work or personal life. These might be errands you need to run, calls you need to make, emails you’ve been meaning to send, projects you want to start or finish. Don’t worry about quality, go for quantity; write down as many items as you can. Most people scratch down a list of 20-30 items, but this really only touches the surface. There is so much more we hold in our heads.

At any rate, review what you’ve written down. How do you feel about those ought-tos and to-dos now that they’re on paper? You probably feel a little better. You may have a sense of greater control or feel a little less stressed. Why? Did anything about those items change? Did you complete the tasks? No. You merely shifted how you engage with all that stuff. You are no longer juggling mental debris.

Capture Things in Buckets

Mind sweeps can empower you and enrich your life, especially when done daily. A clear mind is able to do what it does best—originate and consider ideas. As you develop the habit of sweeping your mind, continually write down new items that land on your agenda and fresh ideas that occur to you. And write them where they’re easily accessible. David Allen carries a notepad in his wallet. I like to send myself a quick email. You might keep a pad of paper by your bed or on your desk at work. You might use a note-taking app on your phone or tablet. These tools serve as buckets for capturing ideas. Using them keeps your mind open and free, so you can continually receive ideas and better live up to your ongoing commitments. But be sure to limit the number of tools you use. The fewer tools you use, the fewer buckets to empty each day. When people tell me they are “dropping balls” or things are “falling through the cracks,” it’s usually because they capture inputs and ideas into too many disparate locations, or buckets. Or, worse, they don’t capture them at all.

Now, knowing how best to execute your commitments and manage the items in your bucket requires another discussion (see future posts on clarifying and organizing your inputs). Until then, this is a good place to start.

In short, your time and mental space is too precious to be preoccupied with what you’re not doing. If you better handle what holds your attention today, you’ll free up more of that rarest of gifts: your undivided attention. Which you can devote to people you cherish and activities that matter.

Best of luck,

Trainer QA

Trainer Q&A: How do I keep things going for learners after the formal training?

Justin Hale

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.


Q How do I keep things going for learners after the formal training?

A Here are a few things to consider:

Read David Maxfield’s article. This provides an excellent explanation on how to keep the skills alive in your organization.

Hold regular practice sessions. This can be a 30-45 minute meeting. Ask people to come with a situation they are dealing with, take the first 5 minutes to quickly review the skill they’ll be practicing, and then spend the rest of the time on practice and feedback from a coach. If people don’t come with scenarios, hand out 3×5 cards and ask them to write down a few relevant situations they deal with. Then go through all the cards and look for trends. Find 3-5 common examples and use those for practice.

Drill and Scrimmage. As with sports, there are two types of practice: drills and scrimmage. Drills are meant to isolate one skill and focus on a lot of repetition. Scrimmage is meant to simulate a real situation.

Drills—Isolate one skill (like STATE) and have people practice with 4-5 scenarios (almost to the point that they start to hate it :)). Make sure they’re in pairs and have one person practice the skill and the other give quick feedback after each practice (the second person should just be offering feedback, not role playing). You can also walk around give feedback on the nuances of the skills. People will start to become more confident and competent with this skill.

Scrimmage—Put people in triads (initiator, respondent, coach) and have them “scrimmage” a real situation. The initiator will begin the conversation by stating his or her path and then the respondent will respond in a way that closely simulates what a real conversation would be like. The initiator can then incorporate more skills (contrast, AMPP, CRIB, etc.)

So remember, if you are going to get learners together after the formal class, try to focus more on practice than review. Make sure they have the skills down (drills) before you throw them into the real deal (scrimmage).

Good luck!
Justin Hale

Trainer QA

What if the other person doesn't change despite my efforts to use the skills?

Justin Hale

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.


Q What if the other person doesn’t change despite my efforts to use the skills?

A Great question.  I hear someone ask this almost every time I teach. While it’s true that Crucial Conversations skills don’t fix everything, there are a few things I have found helpful when feeling at a loss on how to improve a relationship with a challenging person:

  • Don’t forget motive — The best place to start when the conversation goes badly is with our heart, our motive. What is that you REALLY want? Do you want the other person to “change?” Or do you want to stay in dialogue and build a relationship? If you are hoping, wishing, and praying for the other person to change (believe me, I’ve been there), chances are your behavior might become more forceful, coercive, and maybe even manipulative (I’ve been there too).  When we can focus on good goals (dialogue, results, relationships), we’re more likely to have a more open approach to others, which in turn allows us to get what we really want.
  • It takes work — a lot of work. Not too long ago I asked a Crucial Conversations graduate what she had learned from the course and how she’d benefited. Her answer changed my perspective completely. She said, “I had a thirty-year-long relationship that was struggling significantly. I learned the skills and went to work on it. I worked and I worked and I worked . . . and I can honestly say it’s gotten better.” Isn’t that interesting? What she didn’t say was, “The other person is finally fixed,” or, “Everything is perfect now.” She saw progress for what it was—progress. She wasn’t looking for perfection in the other person but for improvement. Often we need to shift our expectations of what “progress” really looks like.
  • Make it safe — I’ve come to realize that creating safety can take time . . . a lot of time. Sometimes safety is created quickly in just one conversation and other times it requires more effort over a longer period of time. When we think of safety as more than a few quick-fix tactics and see it as a true principle of creating mutual purpose and mutual respect between two people, we realize how much time (and work) it really requires to establish a safety zone that allows for healthy dialogue. As much as we’d like situations that are causing us pain, grief, and frustration to be resolved overnight, that’s not always the case. These things take time, so remember safety is conversational and relational.
  • If all else fails — Sometimes we give a relationship all we’ve got and things still don’t improve. That’s the reality of life. In cases like this we may choose to end the relationship (personal or professional), and move forward with our lives. Sometimes that means moving departments  or not interacting anymore with a friend; either way that decision is personal. I find that if I care about the relationship at all, even if things are not going well, I owe it to myself and the other person to come back tomorrow and give it another shot…hopefully a better shot.

Best of luck,

Trainer QA

When using the STATE skills, is it okay to use facts from a third party?

Justin Hale 

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.


Q When using the STATE skills, is it okay to use facts from a third party? For example, suppose your friend tells you that your manager has taken credit for three of your great ideas in the project team meetings that the friend and the manager attend. Would you share facts such as, “My friend told me that you have taken credit for three of my ideas at the project team meetings?”

A This is a great question and one we get often. We need to be careful sharing someone else’s experience as a fact, because when your friend shares an experience, his or her story may also include some bias as to what he or she actually saw or heard (turning facts into a story). If you want to use a third party’s witness to share facts, you would need to do it tentatively (or not at all, until you can verify it yourself “through direct means.”) In essence, consider sharing what your friend shared as a story rather than a fact. I would also try to include any real facts that you may have.

Here are some ways you might consider sharing the third-party details:

  • “I have some concerns I want to discuss with you. Some members on the team have come to me and have stated that they perceived your comments in the meeting as_____. I’m not sure what to think, and I wanted to talk to you directly to know more.”
  • “I wasn’t in the meeting last week, but some individuals have approached me regarding your presentation. Their perception was _____. I have noticed _____ and _____ behaviors and wanted to come to you directly to ensure I am not missing any key facts.”
  • “I have some concerns and I need to be candid that I don’t have facts from personal experience, yet I am feeling a little concerned and I want to check out some things with you. I’ve heard from some colleagues _____, and I’m not even sure these stories are accurate, but I wanted to discuss with you to get clarity between the two of us. Can you please share your perspective and help me understand?”

To sum things up, you may share these elements when Stating Your Path, but you need to be transparent about where the information has come from and what your intent is in using the information in your conversation. We need to remember our motive. If your motive for sharing the third-party information is to confront them with a “got ya,” then you need to get your intentions in the right place before you ever open your mouth. These situations are never easy, but we do believe the Crucial Conversations skills may help you have an effective conversation when such concerns are brought to your attention by others.