Over 1.3 million of us annually ask Google how to get things done. Productivity, personal effectiveness and time management are concerns which hang over modern humans like a mild, but persistent headache. Commentators blame the increasing pressure on information overload; the always-on, hyper-connected nature of modern communications. Others point the finger at the requirements of the 24/7, 365 business world.
Unfortunately the answer may be far simpler, but the implications create a far more difficult problem to solve.
We are emotional creatures that have developed a consciousness through evolution. This means that our emotional filtering and weighting of all stimuli tends to lead our response before we apply rational thinking. Our conscious brains appear to work on an automatic pattern basis, endeavouring to recognise a stimulus eg. a red stop light, and respond according to the pattern programme i.e. we stop because we know to stop at red lights.
We procrastinate and end up with ever-growing to do lists containing the important stuff because of how we have emotionally weighted the items on the list; and probably even because of the existence of the list itself.
In simple terms we don’t get things done that we feel resistant to. Obviously we feel resistant to either hard or unpleasant things – like a tax return. But also to things that we do not have a pattern for; the things that are new or strange like writing a report or starting a new project at work. We take on, or are given, tasks without knowing how to do them. Equally, we just take on too much and feel resistant to the sheer volume.
This emotional resistance only becomes counter-balanced when we hit a deadline to do the task. Invariably we then do it – and marvel at how easy it was.
So the problem with the information overloaded, hyper-connected world is that it throws us more things that we want to do, read, buy, explore etc. These all go onto the mental or physical to do list and fuel our resistance to the list.
The activities that are labelled as our diversion or avoidance tactics – emails, social networking or doing the things we know how to do – are often our attempts to get something done so that we can get the pay-off of completion rather than procrastination.
So, what to do?
Again, the logical answers are standard and simple, but there’s a ‘gotcha’ after the list:
- Break the tasks down into smaller ‘do-able’ sub-tasks and start with a small ‘baby-step’. Repeat the baby-steps until the task is done
- Trick yourself into acting: tell yourself you’re just going to fill in the bits of the tax return you can; you’ll just put together the headings of the report. You won’t. As soon as you’ve started the resistance dissolves and you’ll get on with it
- Don’t accept items. Be realistic with how much time you have and don’t overload your task list with things that will never get done. If you’re being asked to do something that you can’t do, don’t be a martyr: say ‘no’ (nicely)
- Pretend you were getting someone else to do the task. Write out a list of instructions for them of how to go about it. Then do it yourself instead
- Set yourself a time limit: do as much of the task as you can in fifteen minutes. Even though it’s rarely you’ll get it done, under pressure you’ll have worked through what needs to be done and feel less resistant to it
- Talk through your task list with someone, anyone. Tell them you have to prioritise and see what their view is. Invariably they won’t understand, but in arguing why they’re wrong you’ll achieve the right prioritisation
- Time block slots to complete the tasks and ‘fire wall’ all the tasks that hit you today to be processed and time slots blocked out tomorrow
So you look through these and think you have the answer. Well, you do and you don’t. Because we’re emotional creatures that have developed a consciousness through evolution you’ll probably end up successfully trying a technique above. It may work a few times, but then you’ll start to slip back into your old ways again because even the act of doing something in such a structured way over time feels like a threat. The emotional resistance comes back and sabotages our best endeavours.
A reason to be depressed? A continuation of the mild, but persistent headache of not getting things done? Well, it would be if the above weren’t also a trick: tell yourself it’s not going to work and you might just find yourself accidentally forming a productive habit. Simple.