2 March 2011

What's the next small thing?

Here's one small habit I adopted recently which had a big impact on my life in the area of procrastination versus getting things done. There's a lot of tasks --like repairing things in the home or doing one's tax declaration-- which linger on my To Do list way longer than needed. The longer things sit there, th harder I imagine them to be. Whenever I think of such an item on the list, the first thing that comes to my mind is "I don't even know how to start on this, how can I ever finish?"

Now the magic trick that helps me get unstuck in this situation is to simply ask myself the question: "What's the first small step that I need to do to advance this issue?" Here are some examples for simple steps: For the tax situation I might need to research a specific question on how to declare something. The small step could be to google it, or look it up in a book, or call the tax office. Or the small step could be to make an appointment with a tax consultant. In a home repair issue, the small step might be to buy a specific replacement part or to write down the exact measures of the part needed. Usually this small step seems minuscule and I might have avoided it because it seems like a lot of effort already just to make a small step. But if I verbalize this step and make it a To Do item of its own, then it will be easier to do, I will plan a time when to do it, and after doing it, I get the feeling of checking off an entire item from my list. After checking off this first small step, I'll feel more optimistic about the entire issue at all and might even be motivated to do some more work on it without planning the individual steps.

On issues that are truly hard, there will be several points at which I get stuck and won't get moving without some investment of self-control. In each case, I just ask: "What's the next small thing to get done?" and this item will provide me guidance on the larger part. It doesn't feel well to be driven by such small-scale To Do list items --I really would rather like to work freely and intuitively, which works really well for me, even on complex tasks. But for some issues, the intuitive way just doesn't work and then the small-scale items is exactly what's needed to get things done. It's not getting things done pleasantly, or creatively, or liberally, but it gets things done without the pain of high-fee overdue notices or looking at unfinished tasks for months. In fact, it is giving up a little bit of liberty ("Today I need to get this small thing done.") to gain a much larger liberty -- namely a life without big dreading unfinished items on one's lists, in one's life, and on one's mind.

I think the reason why this works so well is that it connects the benefits of the larger goal (getting rid of taxes, kitchen tap not dripping any more) with the small effort and quick accomplishing of the small step. I won't get done the large problem with a small step, but I can feel getting closer by my own effort. That feels good and is effective.

I have used this tactic several times in the past weeks after reading about it in the book "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard". It's a really good book, with many good lessons and I think this is only the first one with profound impact on my life.


Post a Comment