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« The Time Timer | Main | Revisiting "Get Everything Done" »

Effortless Action

Something I have often mentioned on this blog is that when I am totally on top of something then I have energy to do that something. This applies even if it’s something I don’t particularly like doing.

A classic case of this is doing the dishes. If I allow the dishes to mount up for a week, then the energy for finally doing them is going to be conspicuously lacking. What’s more, the very thought of them is going to be draining my energy for other work. If on the other hand I tackle them immediately after each meal, then the energy is there and I can put them out of my mind until the next meal.

Like me, you may have many “trouble spots” which you find difficult to keep organised. For some people it’s keeping a tidy desk. For others it may be things like filing or dealing with email. And for a lot of us it’s all of them!

There’s a two-step process which will keep you on top of tasks like these:

1. Increase the frequency at which you deal with the task.

2. Work all out to get on top of the task (it may take several sessions to get there)

3. Once you are on top, aim to stay there by completing all the task each time.

So let’s take as an example the task of keeping a tidy desk (one very dear to my heart!). In theory I tidy my desk once a day, but in practice it often gets missed out because I’m too tired at the end of the day. A vicious circle then develops because the more effort it’s going to take to tidy the desk, the less likely I am to summon up the effort to get the task done.

So looking at the three-step process, what can I do to solve this? The first step is to increase the frequency at which I tidy the desk. So I could have a rule that I tidy my desk every hour on the hour. Each hour I put away everything on my desk, except the stuff I am currently working on. Since not much is going to have built up in an hour, this tidying will usually only take me a few seconds. Problem solved!


Pick some minor annoyance in your life like an untidy desk, and carry out the three-step process. Once you’ve solved that problem, ask yourself what else you can use the method on.

Reader Comments (7)

Doing The dishes is indeed a classic example - especially when the next meal requires them, and I'm the one who's inconvenienced eating off the table top ;-)

A system for keeping a (relatively) tidy desk can work as you say with regular repetition of key tasks. One thing that helps me is having all the papers and books for the set of projects I am most involved with at no more than arm's length.

Couple that with some file trays for storing relevant papers and documents and the system pretty much runs itself. I keep my in-tray just beyond reach so that I have to get up and (in theory) sort through the contents there for further processing.

That is supposed to happen daily but definitely gets done when the in-tray is full (at approx a six inch stack!)
October 18, 2008 at 12:40 | Unregistered CommenterMark McClure Coaching
I've been applying this approach to the washing up for the last few days, and it's been working wonders. Before I was aiming to do them once a day (the ones that can't go in the dishwasher), but often I'd end up putting them off, letting the pile get bigger, etc. Now I do the few non-dishwasher dishes after every meal, and it feels so much easier. I'm even taking some satisfaction in having a clean sink and counter all the time....
October 20, 2008 at 17:38 | Unregistered CommenterMartin
This is exactly why is so successful. You clean MORE often than necessary in short bursts to keep it simple enough that you don't procrastinate.
October 21, 2008 at 3:58 | Unregistered CommenterMel
Mark, would you advise applying this to big projects also? For example, to an academic paper that needs to get done?
October 21, 2008 at 18:31 | Unregistered CommenterAcademicEast

It's not quite what I was envisaging in the article because the idea is completely to clear the task each time (after the initial getting on top). But I don't see why it wouldn't work - you might try working a series of timed bursts on it, which is a technique I definitely know does work!
October 22, 2008 at 12:24 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
When forcing yourself ask "why?"

Take the idea of water - even at rest it has great potential energy and power. When it takes action it follows the natural forces (of gravity and contours). It does not struggle. It's direction and trajectory are part of what is natural - "downhill" movement.

PAUSE between activities to regain objectivity and enthusiasm - and to dissipate negative feelings like guilt or negative thoughts like "should". Not over-reacting from guilt or fear or under-reacting from apathy (disguised fears). Let go of focussing on outcomes and be open to other paths to flow downhill with. Slowing down to doing LESS helps to see these paths.
July 7, 2013 at 11:22 | Unregistered Commentermichael

I'm not sure that water is a very good analogy. Water doesn't "take action". It simply does what water does.

In the same way humans do what humans do. And what humans do includes a great deal of struggle and negativity. That's how we progress. It's no more use trying to get humans to behave like water than it is to get water to behave like humans.
July 8, 2013 at 15:32 | Registered CommenterMark Forster

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