How to Overcome Procrastination with a Question
Maybe it is because I consider myself naturally inquisitive. Maybe it is because our brains respond to questions instinctively. Maybe it is because it was written down once in a David Allen book somewhere. For whatever reason I have found that I can achieve a very focused state by simpling reframing a task in the form of a question. This sounds trivial, but the realization alone has allowed me to get things off my task list much sooner. Consider the following example.
I have an item on my task list.
Research keeping depreciation off personal property in a personal holding company.
This item has been there for too long and I need to get it resolved because it is important to a client of mine. It could also mean more business for our firm. But the task of “research” is daunting. When it comes to getting things off your to do list Allen recommends breaking items down into their next physical task. That works great for cleaning out the garage or packing for the family the vacation. But knowledge work is more nuanced. Instead of the next physical action I would be better off to consider the next mental action I need to take.
This is where asking questions allows knowledge workers to kick productivity into high gear. GTD afficianodos know that the process of breaking next actions into more granular activities can get obscene. There is a law of diminishing returns. Getting so detailed as “squeeze the toothepaste for .6 seconds” does not add meaningfully to your quality of life. But in the area of knowledge work not only do we fail to consider the mental action over the physical, we also take on projects large enough to choke an entire hemisphere of the brain. By asking questions and getting more granular we can increase productivity and overcome pracrastination at the same time.
I have rewritten my task as a project and have broken it down into a few more mental actions.
Client xxxxx research project
Is there such a thing as non-business corporate property?
Is depreciation required for non-business corporate property, citation needed?
What documentation is required to substantiate personal property? Business property?
Is the allowed vs. allowable language going to kill us no matter what we do?
Ultimately, is there a way to preserve the basis at original cost for a number of years?
When I reframe the research task in this way I find that my brain is just itching to answer the first question. In the process of thinking about what questions need to be answered you actually start in on the task and that little bit of headway seeems to push through the procrastination bottlneck.
What does this have to do with running your business better? Whether we are working with a business that does something very tangible (manufacturing) or very intangible (law office) the process of working on the business tends toward the intangible side of the spectrum. When we work with business owners stuck in the tangible all day, every day, this switch to the intangible creates a very different to do list. For example, in the course of planning we might decide to “map the service delivery workflow and eliminate redundancies.” More than once I have left a management team with this sort of task on its to do list only to come back a week or a month later and find it still sitting there. But notice the difference an extra five minutes of planning can make. Let’s reframe the task as a question and break it into smaller parts.
What can we do to elminate redundancy in our service delivery?
Who are all the people directly involved in service delivery?
What does each person do?
Are their activities running parallel or sequential?
How long does each activity take?
Why is each activity there?
Are there any we can get rid of?
Do they have to happen in the same order or is there a better way?
Who isn’t involved in service delivery that should be?
These are not tough questions to ask. Answering them may be more difficult, but unless you ask them the task of “mapping workflow” and “emiminating redundancies” can get overwhelming in a hurry.
The reason this type of on-the-fly planning isn’t practiced is the same thing that makes it so effective. It only takes minutes, literally. It doesn’t require a new piece of software, a weekend retreat or the latest tactics from a time management best seller. If you want to take knowledge work to the next level do this:
- Buy a stack of 3x5 index cards.
- Place your stack directly underneath your computer monitor.
- Any time you are about to begin something that will take longer than 30 minutes pull out an index card and write the task across the top.
- Spend 3–5 minutes listing all the micro steps required to complete your task.
- Plunge ahead and get it done.
All we are talking about is 3–5 minutes. Brian Tracy famously said for every one minute spent planning we save twelve in execution. That may not hold true for a 30 minute project. Then again, how many times have you looked up after 90 minutes and thought “holy crap, why did that take so long?” Give it a try, you might be surprised.