How to speak to your brain when you want to get more things done - Next Action Associates

When setting out to do work, how we define our projects and tasks has a huge impact on whether we’ll make good choices in terms of doing the right thing, keep working, overcoming procrastination and even simply getting started. This is an actual (sic) transcription of a conversation with my brain to throw some insight into how to capture projects, size and write tasks for maximum productivity.

Me – Morning Brain, are you ready to get work?

Brain – Hmmm, that depends – what have you got for me to do?

Me – Well, we’re working at home today so we can do almost anything on our lists, but the first thing I’d like to do is to pay a supplier, as he’s sent us an IBAN number for a European bank.

Brain – Whoa, slow down there cowboy, a payment for European bank? Have we done this before? I don’t think so, that sounds difficult… How about putting the kettle on, let’s get coffee, I know how to do that.

The science bit – Piers Steel, an organisational psychologist, states that tasks that we have a low self confidence level to complete (i.e. ones which are difficult to do or we haven’t done before) cause procrastination. The key here is to reduce the difficulty of the task.

Me – OK, I clearly put that into my system incorrectly, as we actually have more than one action, and it might even be a very small project. Let’s try again. How about we go to Google and just check out how to make an international payment?

Brain – Go to Google and check something out… OK, we’ve done that before – I can do that.

Me – (5 mins later) Hey, it seems really easy to pay the bill. In fact, it’s just like making a domestic payment. Let’s keep going, shall we?

Brain – Well, now that I’ve done that task I’m feeling pretty good about myself – OK, go for it.

The science bit – Steel says our brains have a desire for immediate gratification, and when we complete something, not only do we get a chemical hit that makes us feel better, but our confidence to complete goes up. As a result, our willpower outweighs the task so it’s easy to keep going. It’s OK to put a small task into your GTD system as a means of getting going, and then having done that, work on until you can’t do any more due to time or resources.

Me – Well done Brain, now I’d like to have a look at a project that’s become blocked and see if we can create a next action to move it on.

Brain – OK, I’m feeling good, we paid that bill didn’t we, let’s crush it! What’s the project called?

Me – Well, I’ve written it as ‘Magician’.

Brain – Oh man, you are kidding me… what am I supposed to do with that?!  Have we to get a Magician’s kit for the kids, book a magic show, or are you hoping that I’ll magically know what to do next?

The science bit – the central executive in our brain requires that we use different lenses to see the end of a project and make decisions on what to do next. Therefore, we have to be able to switch between both images. Recent research at the Dominican University states that if we have a clear outcome and have defined a next action, we are up to 67% more likely to complete the project.

Me – OK, let me describe what ‘done’ looks like. ‘We’ve hired a kid’s magician for our son’s birthday party on the 10th December.’

Brain – Fine, can you capture that in our GTD system so that I’m always clear on the gap between what needs to be delivered and where we are now? So, what’s next to do, and remember, I like to see tasks in 20 minute chunks and written so that I know exactly what I have to do. I get tired easily you know.

Me – Great, it’s captured, the next action is to call the magician and see if he’s available.

Brain – Have you got the number?

Me – No.

Brain – Well the next action is to get the number – sometimes I despair!

Me – Sorry, let’s have a cup of tea, can you remind me later?

Brain – No, as you know, I’m only good for remembering 2-3 things at any one time.

The science bit – our brain is mostly stimulated to remember things by the outside environment, for example you may be at the supermarket and see note paper which reminds you that you have a report to write. Trying to use our brains to remember things will only work if an event creates an emotional reaction and you can’t help but forget it (your first kiss – you’re thinking about it now right, even though you weren’t a moment ago), or you use lots and lots of repetition, but even then an external memory system helps you to remember. A doctor does not go about all day thinking about knees and all their associated disorders, it’s only when they see a knee that the information is retrieved. So, create an external system for remembering what to do. 

Me – I’ve put ‘get a number for the magician’ into our list.

Brain – Great, how about a coffee?

Me – Latte, flat white, cappuccino, cortado?

Brain – Oh for goodness sake, just put the kettle on!



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