Ever since interviewing Andrew Miner on Getting Things Done last year, I’ve been working on improving my own personal method of “Getting Things Done.” (If you don’t know what “Getting Things Done” is… go read the book, Getting Things Done, pronto!) I’ve pared down my projects to focus on what’s most important to me, and I’ve also made excellent progress on a slew of long-delayed mini-projects.
In the process, I’ve learned that I usually need to be very, very concrete about my task list. Every item in my task list must be a single, clear, delimited action — otherwise, when I have time to make progress on some project, I won’t know what I need to do next. So I don’t register “update archive generation script” or “clean and oil tack” or “post The Paleo Rodeo” as single tasks any more. Instead, they’re projects, each containing four to six tasks.
I was worried that doing that would make my GTD system more complicated, even unmanageable. Instead, it seems simpler because I don’t need to repeatedly re-think what I need to do to advance my goals. Instead, I can just chip away at the next action, again and again.
So if the tasks required to accomplish some goal aren’t crystal clear to you, then perhaps try taking a few minutes to figure out what actions you need to do to make progress. If you’re too busy for that, just add “plan project” as your first task! That seems to make a huge dent in my tendency to procrastination.
Lifehacker has an excellent article on how “Clearing to Neutral” can help you avoid procrastination. I’d recommend reading the whole article, but here’s the critical idea:
The main idea behind [Clearing to Neutral] is that you set yourself up for success. What that means is that any time you finish your activity, you do a little routine where you set it up so that the next time you start there is no friction. In other words, you setup your environment for next time.
Our friend … uses the analogy of cleaning a grill. In restaurants, the process of cleaning the grill is very important. It ensures the grill will last longer, the food will taste better, and you prevent any bacteria from growing. Before the restaurant closes, the cooks always clean the grill so the next day when they come in it is ready for use.
This is exactly the idea behind Clearing To Neutral and how you need to set yourself up. The reason we call it CTN is because whenever you finish an activity, you need to move everything so everything is in neutral position. When something is neutral, it is stale and you can do anything you want to it.
Now this is why the habit of clearing to neutral is so important: it prevents you from procrastinating in the future. By making sure you clean up your environment and toolkit, you ensure that the next time you need to use them there will be no friction at all. In other words, you make it easy for your “future self” to get started.
I’m not a neat and tidy person by nature, and I almost always prefer to move on to the next bit of fun rather than spend a few minutes “clearing to neutral.” Yet… it makes such a difference! I should, for example:
always clear out collected papers and other items from my bag when I return home
always put away tools and implements (scissors, superglue, pens) after using them
always put away books into their proper place after using them
Now that I think about it, I’m pretty fanatical about “clearing to neutral” in dealing with the horses — whether feeding, riding, or trailering. In those cases, I have a clear routine, and I feel like I’m cutting corners and burdening my future self unless every step is done. Developing those kinds of routines in the messier areas of my life could make a huge difference, I think!
Where do you need to work on “Clearing to Neutral”? Remember, if you clearly identify what counts as “Clearing to Neutral” in a given domain — perhaps even writing it down and posting it somewhere visible — you’ll be much more willing and able to do it when tired, distracted, or eager to move on to the next task. Make “Clearing to Neutral” easy, so that you can do it on autopilot.
A few days ago, I was riding my horse in our neighborhood arena while a father was attempting to teach his son to ride a bike in the grass. The father would push the son forward on the bike, and the son was supposed to pedal. However, even from a distance, I could tell that the son was getting scared and freezing. Instead of pedaling, he’d put his feet down into the grass and come to stop. The father had an excellent opportunity to talk to his son about overcoming fears.
Alas, that’s not what happened. Even from a distance, I could hear the father yell to his son in frustration, “If you’d only pedaled when I told you!” and “Why aren’t you listening to me?” Obviously, that didn’t help the boy pedal any better!
The father was making a very serious mistake in taking his son’s failure personally. He was seeing it as a failure to obey, rather than focusing on the son’s actual problem — namely, the difficulty of overcoming fears. As a result, the son was not only deprived of useful help about managing those fears, but also burdened with feelings of guilt too. Even worse, the father was telling the son that the son’s own judgment (including his fears) were not nearly as important as obeying the father’s commands. Oy.
Happily though, the father seemed to muster some better control over himself after that burst of anger. He stopped yelling, and the tension seemed to ease. Hopefully, he realized his error. Hopefully, he’ll stop himself sooner next time.
I’m not immune from the error of atttemping to dictate others — whether children, animals, co-workers, friends, or husband. I suspect that I’m not alone in that! So here are a few suggestions, which you can take or leave:
When you find yourself growing frustrated by the fact that other people aren’t doing what you’ve told them to do, remind yourself that they’re not likely attempting to spite you. Perhaps you didn’t give clear instructions. Perhaps you’ve asked too much of them. Perhaps they saw problems with your plan that you missed. Perhaps their goals don’t mesh well with yours.
Instead of stewing over their failure to obey, consider how you might be genuinely helpful. You might want to ask them if they want help. You might want to clarify your instructions. You might want to just keep your mouth shut.
Whatever the circumstances, acting like a petty tyrant is always the wrong answer. Nothing alienates rational thinkers — young and old — more quickly.
Just this week, I had my third horseback riding lesson with my new three-day eventing trainer. Lila (my horse) and I have made remarkable progress in just these three lessons, and my trainer has definitely noticed that. Hooray!
The main reason for my progress is that I’ve been ruthlessly purposeful about my training. After each lesson, I’ve taken notes on the main problems and exercises that we covered. (It’s a bit hard to take notes while on horseback!) Then I deliberately work on some of those issues every time I ride. Lila and I aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but we are making very speedy progress. That steady progress makes my riding and my lessons so much more enjoyable and satisfying. (Ideally, I’d like to find a way to video record my lessons, as that would be even better than notes.)
So if you’re spending your valuable time and money on learning any kind of skill — whether via dance class, dog training, or a sports clinic — make the most of it! Take good notes as soon as you can. Then practice the advice in those notes as often as you can. You’ll likely notice vastly better results in very short order.
Here, I offer you three tips on managing e-mail, partly inspired by the awesome podcasts of Manager Tools. (As with all such advice, your mileage may vary.)
(1) Don’t leave your email opening and running all day. It’s a major distraction from your work, and it leaves you feeling like all that you do is email. Instead, schedule blocks of time in which to process your email — and do nothing else. That focus will improve the quality of your emails, while decreasing the time required. (GAH. I need to start doing this again… and closing Facebook too!)
(2) Be willing to give very short replies to emails — or no reply at all. Just because someone emails you doesn’t give them a right to your time. Make sure that you’re not sacrificing what matters most to you in responding to other people’s emails.
(3) Make the purpose of your email clear to the recipeint at the outset: give the summary of what you’re telling or asking at the very top to set the context. Yesterday, I received a lovely email from a fan of Philosophy in Action. Alas, it began with two big paragraphs of personal history (700 words), and the request for an interview was left to the bottom. Not only might I have missed the request if I’d just skimmed the email, but I didn’t understand the relevance of any of the personal history as I was reading it. Putting the interview request at the top would have helped me understand the email better.
In essence, be focused, selfish, and purposeful in your emails!
Today, I found this delightful tidbit from the Manager Tools Newsletter (free to registered members) in my inbox:
Sitting at my computer this morning, I wished for one of those movie montages. You know the ones where the cool music plays, and several hours or days or months pass, and magically the protagonist has written a book, found love or become fit enough for a marathon.
If there was a montage of my office this morning, 300 words would magically write themselves, with a quick intercut scene of me tearing out my hair and drinking more coffee. Then, we’d switch to my screen, where windows would open and close as I add the different elements to the newsletter. And in 2 minutes, it’d all be done, and I’d be out with my friends in a bar celebrating the amazing open and clickthrough rates.
Ah, real life. Real life entails of consistent action. Day after day I collect ideas. Day after day I write something, anything, to practice writing effectively. Day after day I start with a blank page and wait for a combination of inspiration and perspiration to write.
We’d all like montages. But as Manager Tools says about management, it’s boring. One on Ones every week. Feedback every day. Consistent Coaching. Persistent Delegation. Career success is relationships, relationships, relationships with results and transitions. What gets results? Day by day minor progress.
Benjamin Franklin famously had a list of 13 virtues which he worked on from age 20 until he died aged 84. Every week, he worked on one of the virtues. Sixty years is a long time to think about (and definitely requires a montage). But if you spent one week, and every day worked a little on that project you’ve been meaning to get to, how far would you get?
Wowee, I desperately want a house repairs montage… you know, the kind with snappy upbeat music and where the video sped up so that everything happens in a few seconds. I can’t do that — the whole process involves an unbelievable amount of decision-making, coordination, and little tasks. The good news is that I’ve been able to effectively use GTD to manage the work… and tons of progress has been made in the last few weeks, as you can see here:
Alas, in repairing some warped baseboards in the laundry room and exercise room, we discovered a whole lot of wet and mold, thanks to water coming from the boiler room. At first, I thought that our boiler might be leaking, but then I recalled that the kitchen sink backs up into the floor of the boiler room. That’s sheer insanity, on so many levels, but apparently that was common in the 70s. (I blame drugs.) That happened once before a few years ago, and the water flooded into the office immediately, and it took the plumber hours to figure out what the heck was the problem. This time, the clog was partial, so that area had been flooding just a bit… for many weeks, I think. UGH.
The result was that the drywall under the baseboards was sopping wet and moldy. I’ve been spraying the drywall on all sides twice per day for the past few days, and it seems to be drying out and clearing up nicely. However, after SnowCon, I’m going to cut into the drywall under the baseboard to see what’s behind the wall. We might need to tear out the drywall and reconstruct that area. Let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to doing that, so I hope that’s not necessary.
But, if necessary, I know that I can do it given all that I’ve done already. Plus, once SnowCon is done, I won’t nearly as stressed as I am now. Still, I hope that everything dries out nicely, so that we can just slap the baseboards back on. That would be really lovely.
The super-awesome Manager Tools offers a really good newsletter to registered members with useful tips for work. They’re not always relevant to me, but many are indispensable gems that really make a difference in my productivity. To wit:
There’s something magic about the number three. The idea that you can get three things done is not overwhelming but feels like progress. Three (of course) ways you can use three to things done:
One: Pick the next three things you need to do. Write them down on a post it or a piece of scrap paper. Do them. Every time you get distracted and think – what was I supposed to be doing? – go back to your short list. When you’ve done the first three, do another three. You’ll be amazed at how many completed postit notes you’ll end up with. I find this helps on days full of interruptions or when I’m feeling a little High I.
Two: At the end of the day, pick the most important three things for you to do the next day. Write them down. Do those things FIRST, before email, before phone calls, before any meetings. If you use this technique, you’ll always be working on your priorities.
Three: If your list is very long, pick three like things, and do just those. Three phone calls, three emails, three pages you need to print, three pieces of filing. If you like stability, do three more of those things until all that group is done. If you like variety, do three of something different.
None of this is rocket science. It’s all about overcoming inertia, often caused by overwhelm, and getting moving. Once you’re moving, things become much easier – you’re buoyed by the progress you’re making. It doesn’t matter if you’re entry level or the CEO, some days we all need a little help to get past our own flaws. Try a little three today.
I’ve begun implementing this technique this week, and I’ve found that I’m far more focused and productive. Right now, in fact, the three things on my list are:
Process inbox (that’s emptying my email inbox)
Wednesday Radio, Step 2 (that’s promoting the upcoming live broadcast)
Sunday Radio, Step 4 (that’s promoting the posted podcast)
Right now, I’m on the first task. The newsletter was sitting in my inbox, just waiting to be blogged. And now I can delete it and move to the next email. Hooray for getting stuff done!
You can find all the past newsletters of Manager Tools here. You can register with them — it’s free! — here.
The person with a high D DISC profile is associated with adjectives like decisive, strong-willed, goal-oriented, and bold. Many things that others might allow to become subjects of procrastination, the high D won’t because of a behavioral bias toward decisive action. If something is not moving toward a goal it is likely to be dismissed, or delegated to another to accomplish. If it is moving a goal forward then it will probably be acted on immediately – the fear and doubt which may cause others to stall on a task isn’t usually a problem for the bold D. However, if a high D is avoiding something due to an emotional conflict or a misalignment with personal motivations, he or she is more likely to displace the task with other activities than to stall out and do nothing.
A person whose DISC profile indicates a high I is associated with words like flamboyant, gregarious, pleasing, political, enthusiastic and superficial. Distraction is often more the cause of lapses in productivity for this individual rather than procrastination, however, if a task requires working alone, in seclusion, or is something that is perceived of as not fun or popular, then it is far more likely to be avoided by the high I. When confronted with an undesirable activity the high I will often seek comfort through interaction with others, which can cause a losing track of time – a form of unintentional avoidance. The high I will almost always procrastinate when it comes to chores like giving people bad news or disciplining others – they avoid things that might cause the other person to have a negative reaction to them.
Words like persistent, patient, modest, predictable and resistant to change are associated with the high S DISC profile. That means an S is more likely to resist activities that disrupt familiar routines or threaten the balance of established relationships. The high S person can be very productive if the routine of activities aren’t prone to rapid change or disruption, she thrives on steadiness not chaos. Procrastination brought on by emotional stress or intimidation may not be outwardly obvious – the high S can have a relaxed, even phlegmatic demeanor – they are unlikely to rebel vocally against an undesirable task, so a manager may not realize they have given the high S an assignment that is distasteful. Of the four categories, the high S is the most susceptible to procrastination – slipping into the mindset of hoping that the situation will go away if ignored, or that “time will solve the problem.”
The high C DISC profile is associated with perfectionism, meticulousness, and being strict about rules and procedures. The high C is typically very disciplined and detail oriented – tasks that other DISC styles might avoid because they seem dry, procedural or tedious, may actually be well-suited to the high C. Additionally the high C may have a lower empathy for procrastination by others because it can threaten processes and carefully architected systems. When the high C falls off in productivity it is more likely to be because they have let perfectionism get in the way than because they are avoiding a step in the process. Unlike the high S, when faced with a task that breaks compliance with procedure, the high C is likely to express the displeasure.
My tendency is definitely a mixture of the High D and High I. I procrastinate by doing a bunch of other tasks, usually not of any particular importance at that very moment, rather than do the task that I’m uncertain or conflicted about — or the task that I find boring.
Are these descriptions apt for your DiSC type? Tell us in the comments!
I love a bit of silly, including in work. That’s certainly reflected in my own style of webcasting and blogging. Happily, lots of people enjoy that: I routinely receive e-mails expressing delight that I make exploring ethics and philosophy enjoyable, as opposed to feeling like a burden or a chore.
Recently, I discovered that MailChimp takes their form of silly to a particularly high level of awesome. Let me explain.
MailChimp is an e-mail newsletter service, and I use it for my weekly Philosophy in Action Newsletter. (Not yet subscribed? Gack! Get yourself subscribed today!) I’ve been really pleased with their offerings and prices. (They’re better than Constant Contact, particularly on price.)
I’ve also been entertained by their little touches of irreverence. So in their header, they’ll have their chimp logo say and link to something amusing. For example:
It gets even better than that, however. In my settings, I found this switch for “Party Pooper Mode.”
So yes, you can turn off the bits of humor in MailChimp. But if you do that, they’re going to poke a bit of fun at you, just one last time. I love it!
Some people, I’m sure, find such humor quite offensive. I’ve noticed that some people seem to think that a person can’t be doing good work unless dead serious. Yet a bit of observation easily proves that false. Particularly in customer service, a touch of humor can brighten a person’s mood and create goodwill. (Think Southwest Airlines!) The same is often true for dealing with co-workers, clients, suppliers, and the like: a touch of benevolent humor can make the work so much more enjoyable.
With the use of humor, a person must aim for that Aristotelian mean — meaning using humor “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way.” That “mean” may depend on the individual too, as people differ in their senses of humor — often purely as a matter of personality, not morality. Of course, it’s good to be sensitive to the preferences of others.
So if you think that philosophy or business or politics or romance or sex or parenting or almost any other pursuit in life is TOO IMPORTANT to ever be lightened by benevolent humor… think again. Heck, even dour-faced rationalism can be funny!