If you were like an octopus and you had eight hands, could you be more productive? Sure, it sounds like a great idea, but having more hands isn’t going to mean you’ll know what to do with the extra ones. How about if you could somehow squeeze 30 hours into a 24-hour day, would that make you more productive? Again, just having more time but not having productive habits isn’t going to magically help you to get things done. Bad habits lead to poor results.
If you struggle to use your time more effectively and get more things done, it’s only because you practice the behaviors of unproductive people. Bad time management is a habit. So is good time management. Whether you’re trying to run your household more effectively, or manage a business with multiple projects and people, there is one key behavior that most highly-productive people have. And you can make this easy behavior a habit.
Getting Things Done
While this simple behavior may not have been invented by productivity guru, David Allen, its importance was clearly outlined in his classic book (and one of my personal favorites), Getting Things Done. It’s a very simple behavior. But don’t underestimate how valuable it is if you want to be more productive in all areas of your life. And what is this simple behavior? It’s the habit of choosing “next actions“. We often procrastinate on things we need to get done, yet we don’t have a clue why. When we feel resistance while thinking about an unfinished project, or even a task we have yet to begin, it’s usually because we’re not clear on what to do. In a very broad sense, we may have a crystal-clear sense of what needs to be done, but that’s not the same as knowing the exact and specific next action. Here are a couple of examples.
Fixing the Lawn Mower
The grass is getting longer and your partner is starting to ask you why you haven’t fixed the lawn mower yet, especially since you keep saying it’s “an easy fix.” So now it’s Saturday morning, you’ve got the whole day ahead of you and all you have to do is put in a new spark plug, and the lawn mower you bought off of your neighbor will be good as new.
You’ve replaced a spark plug before on another mower, and you can see on this mower where it goes. The fact that the old spark plug is missing is a dead giveaway. Why, then, can’t you get yourself to run up to the store and pick up a new spark plug? It would literally take 2 minutes to install, and that includes opening the package.
The reason you’re putting it off is because you’re not clear about the exact and specific next action you need to take. Therefore, you avoid even thinking about it. Right now, you’re probably reading this and saying, “What’s the big deal? The next action is to get off your lazy butt and buy a spark plug. It’s so easy a pre-history homo erectus could do it.” But, you would be wrong. Even though you know how to hook up a spark plug, you’ve got a problem if you don’t know squat about lawn mower engines and spark plugs. If you already had the right spark plug, it’d be no sweat. But you might want to do a little research first to make sure you buy the right spark plug and so you don’t blow up the lawn mower.
So how do you search for spark plugs for your mower? You’ll probably need to write down the mower’s model number, but after a quick check when you bought it, you didn’t see the model number anywhere. So you might need to get the engine model number or something. Maybe you could look online for the owner’s manual. Oh…wait, you don’t know the exact model of the mower, so what won’t work. You could also call your neighbor to see if he was able to find the owner’s manual or anything that tells the model of the mower. Then you’d have to find his phone number again. Although, your brother-in-law is good with engines, maybe you should call him? Let’s see, what time does he get off work?
Something as simple as installing a new spark plug requires buying the right one and you’re not clear about the best way to determine this. There are many options swimming in your head and they’re all fuzzy. Without one clear and obvious choice available, you avoid even thinking about it altogether. But let’s look at something less complex.
Making an Appointment for Car Repairs
Your goal doesn’t have to be super complex in order for you to avoid taking action. For instance, let’s say you need to make an appointment to have some periodic maintenance done on your car. You have a note on your calendar to remind you to make the appointment and you see it every day. Yet, you still fail to make the appointment. What’s your next step? To call and make the appointment, right? Wrong. I know it seems that way, but that’s actually not the next, physical step you need to take. Which is why you keep putting it off. It seems so simple, but because you’ve misidentified your next action, you avoid it. Let’s look at one more example.
Planning the Picnic
Your boss asked you to be in charge of planning the company picnic. You’ve already handed out tasks to your team and your next meeting is coming up in a week. You’re going to plan the catering for the event. You’ve already decided to use the same catering company that you used for the last event. In two days, you’re meeting with the catering rep to go over the menu options you’ve selected. Only you haven’t selected them yet. The rep sent you a file to print out so all you have to do is check the boxes for the items you want for the event. But you’re procrastinating. What’s so hard about putting a check mark in several boxes? It would probably take 5 minutes to complete. So the next step is to print the menu options, or so it seems, but something is stopping you. So what’s the hold up?
There are times when a task seems very simplistic and should be a piece of cake to complete. But still, we procrastinate. The reason is because there is an obstacle or multiple obstacles you haven’t yet identified. If the task was as simple as printing a few sheets of paper, you’d probably wouldn’t be putting it off. So you’re going to need to identify the obstacles and address those first.
Real Next Actions
In the lawn mower example, it almost doesn’t matter which step you take next. You’re suffering from too many options. All you need to do is start moving forward by picking one action step (any one of them will do)…then pick another, and another. You can self-correct along the way. Stop, think, and act. You might approach it this way, “Well, I’ll start by double checking the mower to see if I can find a model number or information about the engine. If I don’t have any luck, I can always check in with my neighbor to see if he knows what kind of spark plug I need. So my next action is to look over the mower again.”
In the car repair example, it seems like the next step is to call the repair shop. But unless you have the phone number memorized, you’re going to have to look it up. So the next physical action you need to take is to look up the number to the repair shop, then you can call them and make your appointment. Something as simple as having to look up a phone number can be enough to delay making the appointment for days. And yes, I’m speaking from experience here. Sad but true. However, once you have the number, it becomes very easy to make the call.
In the picnic planning example, you need to print out the menu options. But first you need to find the file so you can print it. If you’re like most people, there’s no rhyme or reason to your email Inbox. You saved a copy of the file on your computer, but you can’t remember where you saved it. And you can’t search for the name because it had some kind of number or code for a file name–completely useless. So your next action might be to find a copy of the email so you can re-download the file, and that’s a problem. Your first few attempts to find the email have failed, you may have deleted it. So your real next action is either to call or email the caterer and ask them to resend the file or dig around in your email program and see where you are saving your downloads and look at the last few files you’ve downloaded.
Choosing Next Actions
If you want to be a more productive person in all areas of your life, the key behavior to practice is picking your next action step–literally, the next physical (or mental) action you need to take. Some projects might be highly complex and have many steps involved. Instead of thinking about the hundreds of steps required to complete the project, just think about the very next physical action step that you need to take. Be careful that you don’t misidentify your real next action. If you pick the right one, taking action is a simple matter. If you choose the wrong one, you’ll just go in circles.
This one key behavior–choosing your next action–is so simple, but very overlooked when you’re trying to make progress on a goal or to complete a task. You’ll get more done if you start thinking in terms of next actions. When you make a To-do list, try adding your next action to each item on the list and see if you get more things done even faster. So go ahead…right now, think about something that you’re procrastinating on and pick your next action. Is it something you can get done now? If so, go do it and see how you feel. Make this key behavior a habit, and you’ll be more productive in no time at all.
For more information about next actions or being more organized and productive with your time, check out the best-seller, “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” by David Allen.