“No matter how good your intentions may be, you’re going to have the world come at you faster than you can keep up.”
Chances are that this article has just interrupted you.
There you were, nicely chugging along on your world-beating train of thought. All of a sudden, a notification for this blog derailed your progress and encouraged you to accelerate down an extended metaphor towards an unknown destination.
Interruptions are everywhere. They consistently derail the very best of our intentions.
So I’m going to ask something of you. Don’t read this now. Set it aside. Mark it up. Come back to it when you want to read a new idea or you’re seeking some new input. Actively fight back against the sugary temptation of flitting from task to task.
Put this article in your ‘ponder pile’.
With so many distractions in the modern world, our brains are woefully ill-prepared for the challenge of staying focused.
Developing a method to absorb the barrage of interruptions, sift out what may be valuable and dismiss others is one of many important lessons we’ve recently gleaned from David Allen’s book - Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. If we don’t actively consider how to manage the distractions that assail us from all angles, our productivity will continue to suffer. We need a system.
A ‘ponder pile’ - a place to store potentially useful ideas and return to them at a suitable time - is one such system.
It’s well documented that so many of us feel a constant sense of overwhelming dread. Society’s shift towards knowledge work has exacerbated this feeling. Projects are unending, ever changing. Our documents can always be improved. Perfection and completion remain forever out of reach.
At home, we are encouraged to always “improve ourselves”. We feel guilt in the moments when we are simply sitting. We feel a gnawing anxiety that there’s too much to do, and we’re not doing enough of it.
Daunting experiences loom over us constantly, in work and life. Projects can seem too big, too complex and too overwhelming to start. So very often, we simply don’t. The paralysis is infectious. Lack of progress breeds stagnation.
Getting things done cannot happen in this state. As Mr Allen states - “you must use your mind to get things off your mind”.
A LEAP OF FAITH
With this in mind, I’d like to share my recent experience of deciding to move house. As it is for anyone, this was a big decision. The thought of changing schools, getting valuations, finding somewhere new to live, the process of getting a mortgage, the lack of time, engaging solicitors, packing, calculating, investigating, spending and tedious, unending waiting seemed like a foolish thing to actively invite into our lives.
The parallels with modern work are stark. Whether it’s a personal job, a work project or a major life decision, considering a task in its overwhelming entirety can be paralysing. That’s the time when we should invoke the wisdom of Mark Twain.
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
So invite it into our lives we did.
Moving house is hard. But calling an estate agent for an evaluation isn’t.
Moving house is hard. But going on RightMove and making a list of schools within a 3 mile radius isn’t.
Moving house is hard. But spending an evening searching for your house deeds...actually that’s a nightmare...
You get the picture.
Moving house is frustrating, uncertain and stressful. The summit seems too far away and its scale alone provokes inaction. Yet the moment you break the journey down into smaller acts, the fear starts to melt away.
STUFF YOU CAN SEE
When asked about how our move is going, I’ve found myself repeating that the aim of each individual day is simply to make something concrete happen. We’ve been trying to take the nebulous process of ‘moving house’ and transform it into a series of tangible steps.
Sending our financial information to the mortgage broker.
Taking unwanted clothes to the charity shop.
Small steps. Constantly moving forward. Actions to make things happen.
The more meetings, catch-ups, check-ins, calls and gatherings we have, the more we erode our sense of individual responsibility and progress. We drift off Zoom calls or out of meeting rooms with a vague sense that we spoke a great deal but agreed nothing. A meeting can’t simply be a discussion followed by an assumption. We need to work harder than ever before to instil a little clarity into our days.
“The world is too unpredictable these days to permit assumptions about outcomes: we need to take responsibility for moving things to clarity.” David Allen
There is a graceful, simple solution. Two questions at the end of each discussion to generate momentum rather than stifle it.
What’s the next action?
Mine or yours?
Nothing can be assumed. Roles are set in stone.
These questions have propelled our house move forward. Particularly ‘mine or yours’. Those 3 simple words work wonders on your ability to get stuff done.
Instruct the solicitor. Mine or yours?
Order the packing boxes. Mine or yours?
Call the headteacher. Mine or yours?
Mine or yours? A simple, powerful question that shifts ambiguity to clarity.
Whether it’s moving house, dealing with personal stuff or tackling modern work, we all need to devise a plan to get things done. To summarise the three key elements:
Manage distractions with useful lists, such as a 'ponder pile' to return to later
Start a project by taking the first step
Ask yourself ‘what’s the next action?”
Good intentions alone will not save us. The world will continue to come at us faster than we would like. Yet if we’re more mindful of the impact of distractions and we have plans in place to help turn chaos into action, we might just stand a chance.