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« The Hidden Power of Procrastination | Main | The Invisible Clock »

How to Phrase Task Items

Steve Wynn has posted a useful tip on the Do It Tomorrow group at Yahoogroups about how to phrase items on a Task List. I quote it with his permission:

I had a report to write, so in typical fashion I plonked the action ‘Write Report xyz’ onto my Task Diary for the following day. Satisfied that the day would yield enough time, as it stood, it gave me no further concern.
The following day, I looked at ‘Write Report xyz’ and I noticed a strange thing happen.  In my mind’s eye I played out as sort of mini film, which showed me writing the report, checking the report, formatting the report until eventually it ended with the completed report.  I saw it as a whole and immediately I built up resistance to the act of writing the report - because it looked like a lot of work and I didn’t feel like doing it.  I tried to focus on just getting the file out, persistent starting - but by that point it was too late. Resistance had just set in, the task in itself had just morphed into something more than it was overall. So I decided it was pointless to even attempt the task, I cancelled it for that day.  
When placing it on the next days page, I took some time to think about it a little and what had just happened. I obviously didn’t want the same scenario the next day. So I thought about the ‘just get the file out’ concept, and I thought to myself I will add the item but write it slightly differently. I put it on my list as ‘Start to write report xyz’.
Now this had a completely different effect when it came around.  ‘Start to write report xyz’ wasn’t a threat at all, I was only going to start. By definition that didn’t mean anything, it just meant perhaps at a minimum I could create the document, name it and save it. Do something the following day.  It didn’t any longer feel like a lot of work, that mental movie didn’t play as before. This time it just showed me opening a document. No threat - no sense of of volume of work.  As it turns out I actually wrote the entire report from the basis of that action.
This got me thinking that perhaps I should be a little more careful about the way I phrase things on my Task Diary. Here is a very subtle difference but it made a considerable difference to the outcome.  Just by telling myself to start, to get the file out, reduced the threat associated to the action. I could accomplish that action easily.
So if you find yourself resisting an item on your Task Diary, action list etc, then perhaps it might be worth just looking at how you have phrased that action.  Perhaps by altering the phrasing you can alter the meaning and make it easier to complete.

Reader Comments (4)

Mark, I found this site via a review of "Do It Tomorrow" by the Simple Dollar blog ( ) . In just a few days of reading your blog, I have gained a lot of insight and it has started me thinking. Thank you. I also appreciate that you shared Steve's tip. It is amazing how even small changes can overcome our resistance!
October 3, 2008 at 22:26 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thanks for drawing my attention to the Simple Dollar review of my book. And I hope that you find plenty more of interest on my website.
October 3, 2008 at 23:04 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
I couldn't agree more with this. A useful trick I have found when I need to read and comment on documents is to break it down into several steps, with the first one or two being trivial, for instance:

Download document
Print document
Read document
Comment on document.

I often find that as soon as I have printed it, I read and deal with it automatically. If I simply had the single entry "Comment on document", then exactly the sort of resistance that you describe builds up, and I keep on putting it off.
October 13, 2008 at 17:48 | Unregistered CommenterJaroslav Stark
Yes, I find that if I need to write a business letter and am feeling resistance to doing it I overcome it by writing in my task diary open a new word document, complete address details and save file with appropriate name - rather than just listing 'write letter to X'.

I find that 99% of the time this gets me started and that's all I need to complete the whole letter. On the odd occasion that I only complete the task as listed I can still feel satisfied that a) I have made a start and b) I realise that there must be something more creating the resistance and once I identify what the cause is then I usually have no trouble in overcoming it by breaking it down still further until it gets done.

It's amazing how these little tricks of phrasing can have a real effect on overcoming resistance, but then the mind is an incredible thing...
October 14, 2008 at 20:56 | Unregistered CommenterHannah

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