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Anything you say before “but” is not worth saying. Tyrion Lanister
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Discussion Forum > Sidetracked and hijacked

I’ve been taking note recently of how I get sidetracked and hijacked instead of only doing the next task that I’ve chosen.

Goal: I had arranged to meet a friend for coffee at 10am one morning.

I was dressed at 9am and all I had to do in order to achieve my stated goal was to complete the tasks “have breakfast” and “wrap my friend’s birthday present” (which, I admit, I should have done the previous evening), and leave the house at 9.45am. 45 minutes was ample time for that. However, I ended up in a last-minute rush to get there on time.
The reason was that I allowed myself to be sidetracked and hijacked, getting distracted at every turn, when I should have focused only on the next task.

After getting dressed, I should have gone straight to the kitchen to have breakfast. Instead, I picked up some pieces of laundry that were lying on top of the laundry basket. I went to the washing machine to put the laundry in the machine, and noticed that the previous day’s laundry was dry so I folded it and took it back to the bedroom. While there, I picked up my face-cream from the bedside cabinet and returned it to the bathroom. While there, I noticed that the toilet roll was nearly finished so I went to the store cupboard to get a new one. There were only a couple left, so I went to the kitchen to add toilet roll to the shopping list pinned on the fridge, then took the toilet roll back to the bathroom. I noticed that the bathroom bin needed emptied so I took it back to the kitchen. I noticed that the kitchen bin needed emptied so I changed the bin-bag. When I took the full bin-bag out to the garage, I noticed that the bird-feeders were empty, so I filled them. I noticed that the wind the previous night had knocked over two small plant-pots, so I cleared that up.

I still hadn’t had breakfast, but at last I started to make it. I put bread in the toaster, and went to the fridge to get milk and butter. While I was there, I decided to take something out of the freezer for that night’s dinner. Thinking about dinner, I went to the store cupboard to check my supplies, and back to the fridge to add more items to the shopping list. By this time the toast had burnt and I had to start again.

When I had finished breakfast I went to wrap the birthday present. While I was getting wrapping paper from the drawer, I noticed an unpaid bill that I could easily settle while I was out in town. But to do that I had to get some other paperwork I needed so I went back to the bedroom to search for that. Then I wrapped the present.

By this time I was running late, and only just made it on time to meet my friend.

This is a very basic example of how easily I get sidetracked. Unplanned tasks that pop into view only take a few seconds or a couple of minutes, but they add up and detract from achieving the stated goal. None of the little unplanned tasks had to be done before I had breakfast and wrapped the parcel (apart perhaps from replacing the toilet roll). They could have been attended to all in good time, and would themselves have been part of later tasks called “Tidy the house” and “Laundry” and so on.

That goal of meeting a friend for coffee was small-scale, but it showed me that I do a similar thing with large-scale goals, getting sidetracked and hijacked by nice-to-have, but non-essential, tasks instead of concentrating on the essentials first, and only moving on to the non-essentials once that’s done.

My utltimate aim is to make myself work in a timely manner, using little and often. I know from many years of following Mark’s work, and my own experience, that most of my problems arise from not taking timely action, not using the little-and-often method to prepare for events in the near, middle and distant future. I am working on that and have vowed to myself that in 2017 I will not repeat the mistakes of previous years.

A recent example is that although I knew I was going away on 15 December for 3 weeks over Christmas and New Year, and I knew what I wanted and needed to get done before the deadline arrived, I didn’t start preparing early enough. In addition, during the last week before leaving, I caught cold and was confined to bed for a few days. So 2 days before the departure date I found myself in my usual state of last-minute panic at the thought of everything I had to do, but then I had an insight that changed the way I saw my situation.

I had the following tasks and knew it would be a nightmare trying to get it all done.
Finish Christmas shopping
Wrap Christmas presents
Deliver local presents
Write Christmas cards
Give key to neighbour
Packing

Then I had the thought “What’s stopping me getting away as planned on 15 December?”
And I realised that the only tasks that were ESSENTIAL to me achieving my goal were:
Give key to neighbour
Packing

The other tasks were *nice-to have” but non-essential to actually achieving the goal, i.e.
Finish Christmas shopping – I could do that on holiday.
Wrap Christmas presents – I could do that on holiday.
Deliver local presents – (I wouldn’t see the recipients until I came back, and could catch up with them then).
Write Christmas cards – I could do that on holiday.

So with that realisation, I could relax and just get on with the packing and giving my key to my neighbour.

This was such an eye-opener for me, and I have been using the question “What’s stopping me?” for various deadlines, goals and tasks in order to sort the essentials from the non-essentials. In most cases the non-essentials also get done, but only after the essentials are complete. In combination with not letting myself get side-tracked at a micro level (as in the first example I gave) from the next task I want to get done, this is feeling very powerful. As I said, I’m working on my refusal to take timely action but in the meantime this method is helping a lot.

Best wishes to everyone.
January 27, 2017 at 9:23 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
Margaret1:

Outstanding post. Everyone struggles with this at times and for many, much of the time. This is one of the reasons I dislike David Allen's 2-minute rule. That approach to our environment trains us to flit around like a butterfly from leaf to leaf simply because we see a task that might take two minutes. Those two minute tasks add up quickly, Dave! And they usually take longer or draw you into something else that takes longer.
January 27, 2017 at 11:11 | Registered CommenterMichael B.
Margaret, that's a great question: What's stopping me? The list is usually very short.
January 27, 2017 at 20:09 | Registered CommenterCricket
Margaret1

I was very impressed by the number of minor tasks you got done in 45 minutes while still managing to meet your friend on time!
January 31, 2017 at 15:18 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Thanks Michael B, Cricket and Mark!

As a follow-on from my earlier post I decided to use the “What’s stopping me?” question to get to the bottom of my refusal to take timely action. This is a different use of the question: up till now I’ve used it to tease out the essential steps to achieve a goal, but it can also be used to tease out the psychological barriers to reaching a goal.

Going back to my example of preparing to leave on 15 December on holiday, I knew in early October that I would be doing this, so I made a list of tasks which I intended to have completed in order to avoid last-minute panic the week before Christmas: Xmas shopping, Xmas cards, deliver presents, planning Xmas dinner, planning what to pack. If I had asked in early October “What’s stopping me?” from doing these tasks in a timely fashion, the answer would have been “Nothing” and I could have started work on them using little-and-often. But I refused to take action.

If I had then used the question “What’s stopping me?” to tease out the psychological barriers that were making me procrastinate, the answers would have been: complacency and laziness – complacency because it felt like I had more than two months to complete them so what was the hurry to start, and laziness because some other interesting activity presented itself as more appealing. I was also spending time in last-minute panics as other events I had failed to action in a timely way were racing towards a deadline, so it seemed to me insane to do any little and often work towards a deadline that was over two months away.

In other words, the only thing stopping me from being well-prepared for my goal of leaving on 15 December was procrastination. Work on all of the nice-to-have goals could have been started immediately, in early October, but I refused to start. With the luxury of over two months to complete the tasks, I could have avoided the scenario of last-minute panic.

As I said in my last post, the “What’s stopping me?” question served me very well in highlighting the only two essential tasks stopping me from leaving on 15 December (packing and give key to neighbour) and allowing me to focus only on getting them completed, which calmed me and gave me the breathing space to get through a panicky situation. But this method is only a sticking plaster on the bleeding wound of last-minute panic caused by refusing to use little-and-often. By postponing the non-essential tasks until I was actually on holiday (Xmas shopping, wrapping, and Xmas cards), I was then in a situation where those tasks were the essential tasks that had to be done before Christmas Day, heralding another week of frantic activity that could so easily have been avoided if I’d taken timely action during the previous two months.

Drilling down further, I know that in my experience there are multiple causes of procrastination as it relates to working little-and-often on goals with a deadline some time away in the future:
- Fear of failure (will I be able to carry out each task to the appropriate standard);
- Fear of boredom (there are more enticing tasks and activities that I would find more appealing);
- Not feeling fully engaged with the goal because it’s something I’d rather not do, but it’s a necessary part of the process of achieving a bigger goal (i.e. responsibility to family, to local community, etc.);
- Complacency (why start work on this now when there are closer deadlines looming);
- Conflicting priorities (it’s such a lovely day and one of my ongoing goals is to make the most of good weather when it’s there, so I should really be going for a walk instead of working little and often on this task);
- Rigid all-or-nothing thinking (if I fail to work my daily list in the ‘correct’ order, and refuse to work on a certain task, then I’m not allowed to work on a task further down the list, such as Xmas cards, even though it would be worthwhile).

So all this is a rather long-winded way of saying that using the question “What’s stopping me?” is helpful in the short term but should be unnecessary if only I would work little and often on my commitments to myself and others!
February 7, 2017 at 15:05 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
If I remember correctly, in one of his books Mark suggests to "work on the least urgent tasks first"...

I recognise some of the situations and reactions you describe, unfortunately :)
February 8, 2017 at 10:06 | Registered CommenterMarc (from Brussels)
Thanks, Marc. I adore the idea of working on the least urgent first, but that doesn't mean I'll manage to do it. Mark's systems contain fantastic ideas such as this - it's the system operator that's at fault! I need someone with a huge stick threatening to wallop me.
February 8, 2017 at 11:21 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret1
Margaret, it took me years to learn that forcing myself to do things in the order I'd planned is a recipe for procrastination. As long as it's on the list for the next few days, (and nothing critical is at risk) it's not just allowed, it's encouraged, including things just for me. Otherwise, I'll spend just a few minutes warming up by doing something not on the list at all. Doing things in the order that feels right at the time takes advantage of the type of energy you have at the moment.
February 14, 2017 at 18:54 | Registered CommenterCricket