February 11, 2015

How to do things on my own?

Board Walk

Children have a natural running style, a fearless run down the hill abandon that gets them where they want to get, more thrilling and faster than standard. Wouldn’t it be lovely if everything in adult life was the same? Just lift your head up and run to where you’re going.

But it’s not. We still want to go places but if there ever was a fearless getting-things-done natural style it’s been pretty much knocked out of us by schools/parents/bosses/conformity until most of us struggle to get moving. I know I do.

I guess it’s possible there is no natural style. Maybe we’re trying to shoehorn a race of loaf-around-until-you’re-hungry humans into a hamster-wheel of activity and it will never come naturally. No matter. Even if work can feel like the efforts of Sisyphus as we push rocks uphill, it’s still worth looking for the path of least resistance.

With a team, we push each other. The challenge is cohesion, not action.

On my own, whenever I have to do something difficult – by which I mean anything that uses more brain power than the basic mechanic of watching sport on TV – it’s a different story. I need tricks to find the path. I need management to stay on it.

I’d beat procrastination if only I’d … start.

This blog is one coping mechanism, but before getting to why, I’ve been thinking about how procrastination fits inside the bigger question, “why don’t we do what we know to do?” The conclusion I’ve come to: procrastination is one part laziness (about putting myself out), and two parts fear of making a fool of myself. I’m not really lazy and apart from my fear of finger pointing ridicule, I’m not that risk averse. But the more difficult the work, the more the procrastination demon turns up the dial and makes me act like I’m in his power. And ignoring him just makes it bigger, so how to get thing done?

An aside on procrastination: Laurie Anderson said-sang of walking, “it’s like falling, and not falling, at the same time.” The takeaway: to move forward you have to take the risk. This blog is my strategy to get over my fear of finger pointers. To look them in the face, to hit GO anyway, and let things out into the world no matter what people think.

A few years ago I found Born to Run by Christopher McDougall which says we have a natural running style that most running shoes try to squash. But it’s still inside us. If we allow ourselves to run like children, we go further and faster with fewer injuries and lower stress than when we’re managed by £100 running shoes that stop our feet doing what evolution designed them to do.

In other words, reduce the technology and let your body work out for itself how to get things done.
I’m trying to apply the same idea – finding my natural running style – to my work. I’ve paid attention to process, looked at times of more or less productivity, and found different work-flows for different work types.

The Five Minute Rule – this one’s simple, if a job looks and feels like it’s going to take five minutes or less – get over myself and get it done. If not now, because I’m in the middle of something else, then as soon as I’m done.

Conveyor Belt Rule – I love building spreadsheets. I love the discipline of turning everything into numbers, and I love the insight of finding the levers in the model. I don’t love knowing it always takes longer than expected – and I convince myself I don’t have the time. It’s the iterations. There are so many “this means that” loops in building things from scratch. It’s the same for a legal contract such as a memorandum of understanding. You need discipline and structure to think your way around the houses, to see the edges and corners and finish each thought.

Sure I’ve got templates and models, and I’ve been through the hoops before, but the thinking part is always new. What if? What if? Again and again.

The idea of starting with a blank sheet can be daunting but I’ve learned that when I get even half an hour into it, the clock stops ticking. Time just slides along and it’s no effort to double down the effort – in fact, I can’t wait to get back to it if I’m interrupted.

So the Conveyor Belt Rule works brilliantly for anything up to about eight hours’ work and is also simple. Commit to putting three or four paces into the work – say, “I’ll just look at it for half an hour before lunch.” And then I’m hooked – what niggled me for days becomes something I can’t wait to finish. And if I really do have only half an hour, leaving it unfinished feels like running out of a movie just as Bruce Willis is running over broken glass; gotta get back in there.

Once I’m on that conveyor belt, come rain or the bright belt of Orion shining through my window, I’m going to the other end.

The Elephant Rule – I hate decorating. Yet I’m decorating my home office myself. It’s a bunch of work. It’s boring, and tiring, and without the radio I’d be mash potato-head by now. But it has to be done, and for one reason or another, it has to be done by me. Did I mention I hate it? So in best David Allen Getting Things Done tradition, I’m eating the elephant one bite at a time. I’m half way through the woodwork and I can almost convince myself to get all Mr Miyagi about it, Daniel-san.

The Elephant comes out when I know all the steps, know they take a bit of care but they’re not the most challenging – more National Trust path than attempting Everest. I need a broad outline and a step-by-step attitude. I know that starting is the hardest thing to do but I suck it up, get off my arse, and start moving forward. Never exciting, but work to be done eventually turns into work that’s been done. Polish on, polish off.

Almost everything I do on my own fits one of these three rules. Sometimes they’re Russian dolls, one inside the other.

However, for really big projects they’re all outmatched and I need another level.

The Yoda RuleThere is no try, only do.  I’m extremely objective oriented so the trick for big, scary and especially long-term projects is to have clear goals and to find a way to make the work a habit.

I need a firm commitment and a reasonably audacious goal – like 100 blog posts in 100 days, or completing an ultra-marathon, or writing a book. None of these things happen because I want them to, they only happen when I make them. And for me, the only way to make big and scary things happen – to battle the twin demons of laziness and fear – is to give myself no choice.

A silly example: cycling to work – if I leave myself an out, I’ll take the easy road and drive the car. So I don’t look out of the window, I don’t hum and ha about the rain or my meeting schedule or the risk of punctures. I just dress for the weather, and turn the pedals. Habits mean not relying on good intentions, only actions.

It takes a few weeks for something to become embedded – that’s why free trials last three weeks, and why food delivery companies lose most customers when we abandon our habits by going on holiday. Keep moving forward, even baby steps, no let ups.

It’s not something I’ve tried before but another way to remove choice is to make a public statement and ask friends to hold you accountable. For the sake of the experiment:

  1. Commitment 1: To blog 100 days straight – this is day 11
  2. Commitment 2: To complete an ultra-marathon by the end of 2015
  3. Commitment 3: To rewrite Skip to Market as a workbook

The Yoda Rule then is to have audacious goals, make public statements and find accountability if I think I need it, and make the work a habit.

The wooden clogs of project management aren’t flexible enough and don’t fit me. These four rules are the running shoes that suit my style and make me faster.

One final thought. When I get stuck, I remind myself that getting stuck is ok and that I can get going again by taking a rule out of my bag, sticking it in my sightline, and lacing my shoes for another run. Or as John Wayne said, just get back on the horse.

Skippy Strategy: This takes four minutes so no excuse for not doing it right now. Spend two minutes mapping out on paper the types of work you to do on a typical day. Think three or four categories. Now – no word-smithing allowed – jot down a one sentence strategy to get each type nailed. Last step, stick the paper at eye-height on your bench/desk/tractor visor or wherever you work. Next time you need a way to kick start the doing part of the day, lean back, look up, and the answer is staring you in the face.

Keeping Promises Leading