All posts by Justin Hale

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.

Help!
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,
Justin

Getting Things Done QA

Tips for the Forgetful

Dear Justin,

I can’t be the only one who makes trips to the grocery store only to kick myself when I get home because I forgot half of the items I needed. This same problem happens at work, too. I’ll have important items to discuss with my boss and forget to bring them up during my hour-long one-on-one meeting. Why can’t I seem to remember the important stuff in the moment that it matters? I chalk it up to being forgetful, but there’s got to be a solution. Please help.

Signed,
Forgetful

Dear Forgetful,

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. This sort of thing used to happen to me all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled up to the grocery store, walked in the front door, literally stopped in my tracks and thought, “Why am I here?” It’s not only unproductive, it’s frustrating. Let me share two things that I’ve found contribute to this problem as well as a pretty counterintuitive solution.

1. You haven’t written the items down.
Perhaps the most important advice I could give you is that keeping track of stuff in your head is the last place you should keep track of it. David Allen likes to say, “There’s usually an inverse relationship between how much something is on your mind and how much it’s getting done.” So, that’s the first hoop to jump through. Be sure that when an errand comes to mind or someone asks you to pick something up, write it down or record it some place you look at regularly. I won’t get into too much detail here, but you can read more about it in my last article.

2. The way you organize your to-dos makes it hard for you to see that errand in the right moment and at the right place. The way people typically organize to-dos and tasks is either in one big list or by topic. The problem with the first approach is that I’m guessing you don’t just have 25 to-dos. If you did, then one list would work. Rather, I’m guessing you have 100 to 150 to-dos in your personal and professional life—maybe more. So, when it’s time to get things done, you end up spending more time sifting through the massive list to figure out which task to do in the moment considering your location.

With the second approach of organizing by topic/project, we run into the issue of context and resources. What I mean by this is: if you’re jumping into your car and the only work you could reasonably do is to make a few phone calls, you’d have to sift through all your different topic/project lists to see what calls you could make considering how much time you have. We’ve found that those who are the best at getting things done don’t organize in one big list or by topic/project, instead they organize by context.

Here’s the principle: make it much easier for you to see tasks you need to accomplish. Organize them not by project, or even a running list of to-dos, but rather by the location you need to be in, or the resource you need to be connected to, in order to complete the action. For example, have a list of calls to make. That way, the moment you jump into your car and have a few minutes to make some important phone calls, you can glance at this list and know exactly what you can accomplish in the time you have available. A few of my own lists that fit this structure are @Home, @Office, Errands, Calls, @Christina (my wife), @Work computer. Other helpful lists might be things like @Grocery store, Anywhere, @Airplane, Offline.

What this system allows you to do is get the right things done in the right place with the time you have available. You don’t have to waste time recalling why you’re on that specific errand or combing through to-do lists to find that item you wanted to chat with your partner about. Instead, when you jump in your car to head to the store (or when you arrive at the store), you can take 15 seconds to review your “errands” list to make sure you don’t miss anything. When you sit down with your boss for your weekly 1:1, you can open your agenda list (@Manager) that has all the items you specifically want to discuss with her.

Now, you might be thinking: “Justin, what if I forget to look at my list?” I knew you’d ask that, because I had the same question. Many apps now use geolocation technology, a great feature that solves this problem. This allows your phone to notice your location and whenever you get within a certain radius of your preferred store, for example, it will notify you of your errands list.

The approach of organizing by context was very counterintuitive for me, but once I tried it out with both feet in, my productivity was never the same; I’m convinced I’ll never go back to organizing by project, topic, or one big list.

When you organize by context or resource, your focus is on the actions you could take, not on sorting and sifting . . . and that’s really the point of getting things done.

Good luck,
Justin

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?

Sincerely,
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,
Justin

Trainer QA

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Hale

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.

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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?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Hale

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.

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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,
Justin

Trainer QA

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

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin Hale 

Justin Hale is a Master Trainer and Consultant with VitalSmarts.

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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.