DO IT NOWBy Kerry Gleeson
PUT THESE THREE WORDS ON YOUR WALL WRITE THEM ON YOUR CALENDAR THEY WILL SURELY CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Now! No doubt you hear the word all the time. If not from your boss, your spouse or your child, you hear it from advertisers and salespeople. Some days it seems everyone and everything is demanding something now, this moment, immediately.
Time-management gurus often tell us we should ignore all the things that clamor for our urgent attention, including the telephone. They tell us we shouldn’t react to circumstances and people around us; instead, we should organize, set priorities and gain control of our lives by putting off some tasks and focusing our attention on those activities that are “most important” or “first things” or “top priorities”.
I take a contrarian view. While planning, setting goals and priorities have a place, too often, when we set priorities, we do not seem to get around to everything on our lists. “Less important” activities get shoved into the closet by “more important” activities. Eventually, the “less important” things rot there. Not surprisingly, when they start to stink, they become very high priorities. And guess who has to clean up the mess? You do, of course—now!
The method you’re going to learn here is the Do It Now approach. And at the risk of boring you, I’m going to repeat those three little words again and again, in the hope they’ll sink in.
By choosing to Do It Now, you make now your ally, not your enemy. Doing it now enables you to be better organized; to exercise greater control over the when, where and how to what you’re doing; and to feel better about yourself and your performance.
Does the following scenario sound familiar?
You arrive at the office, sit down, look at the papers spread out on your desk, and pick one of them up. It’s from Mary. “Oh, I have to call Mary,” you say. Dutifully, you start a To Do pile somewhere on your desk, and that paper goes into the pile. You pick up another piece of paper, this one a letter of complaint. You think, “I have to answer this letter.” It goes on the To Do pile. The third piece of paper outlines a problem to be handled. “I have to talk to the boss about this,” you mumble, and onto the To Do pile it goes. You pick up the fourth piece of paper and say, “This isn’t important. I can do it later.” You create a Do Later stack next to your growing To Do pile, and so on. You end up shuffling through your various stacks of paper, and by the time you actually get back to your To Do pile and read through each piece again, you’ve wasted time reading everything twice. In effect, you’ve done the work twice, doubling your time commitment but accomplishing little.
In fact, many of us look at our papers three, four or five times before we ever act on them. It takes a lot longer to do something four or five times than it does to do it once.
The first rule for improving personal efficiency is:
Act on an item the first time you touch it or read it.
I’m not talking about those things that you can’t do now or even those things you shouldn’t do now. Clearly, priorities do play an important part in productive work and in achieving results. Common sense is a necessity; it should be a given that the way to increase your personal efficiency is not to Do Something Stupid.
I’m talking about all the things that you could and should do, but you don’t—routine paperwork of the sort you encounter every day. Call Mary. Answer the customer’s letter of complaint. Act on that voice mail as you listen. Take care of these things the first time you touch them, and you’ll be amazed at how little time they actually take and how good you feel when you have finished them.
Start with your desk or work space
When people ask me for my help, the first thing I do is put them through a personal desk cleaning. I actually go to the person’s desk and sort through all her papers with her. I’ll pick up a piece of paper and ask her what it is. She says, “Uh, well, that’s something I was supposed to respond to.”
Then she starts to put it somewhere, but I stop her. “Hold it a second. Why are you putting it over there?”
She gives me an incredulous look and says, “Well, I have to do it, so I put it over there.”
“Well, let’s Do It Now.”
“You want me to Do It Now? It could take quite a bit of time…”
“I don’t mind. I’ll sit here while you do it.”
And she does it. Usually I clock it. And I say, “How long did that take?”
“One minute,” she says, or “three minutes,” or whatever it took.
“Look at that,” I tell her. “See?”
“Yeah,” she says, “it didn’t take much time at all.”
And I say, “I was hoping you’d notice that.”
When this task is done the first time, it makes people uncomfortable. They do it, but they usually haven’t grasped the concept yet, even though we talk about it and ask them to commit themselves to it. What they don’t understand is that Do It Now is meant to be permanent and ongoing.
This is evident when I go back for a follow-up visit. Usually they’ve cleaned up their office or work space in anticipation of my coming, with everything stacked neatly into piles. They’re very proud. But clearly they don’t get the concept. Only by working with this concept consistently over time—as do I—do you begin to see more and more evidence for acting the first time. All the reasons people make up for why they can’t or shouldn’t act now really don’t hold water.
A first visit with one client included a thorough desk cleaning. We worked through every item on her desk, one at a time, until everything had been done that could be done. We talked about acting on things the first time—about doing it now—and she was so impressed that she committed herself to the whole concept of Do It Now as her new work philosophy.
When I went back for a follow-up visit, I hardly made it through the door before she started telling me that Do It Now was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her. She was very enthusiastic about the program and about the change it had made in her life.
Then I picked up the papers from her pending basket. The first piece of paper in it was a phone message. I said, “Why don’t we call her now?”
She frowned just a little. “Now?” she said.
And I said, “Yes.”
And so she picked up the phone and returned the call. By the end of our meeting, we’d gone through every single piece of paper in her pending basket.
Obviously my one visit hadn’t changed her definition of the word pending.
Let me emphasize: Do It Now means do it now, regularly and consistently, day after day. Not doing it now is what got you into trouble in the first place. Your pending basket is for things you can’t do now, for things that are out of your control. For example, you call Mary back on Monday because that’s when she’s back from vacation, not because Monday seems like a good day to do it. That’s pending.
Grasp the concept of Do It Now—and function accordingly each and every day—and these simple words will literally change the way you approach both your work and your life.
Six ways to stop procrastinating—now
Most people are very clever about putting things off. “I don’t have time” is just the beginning. Others include: “I think he said he was not going to be there today, so I didn’t bother to call.” “This could take forever, so I had better wait until I have a free day to start.” “It’s not so important.” The list is endless.
My approach is this: Be as clever about completing things as you’ve been putting them off. Ask yourself: Where else could I get this information? Who could this task be delegated to? How can I get this job done? How can I get that letter, that folder or that report out of my basket and off my desk so that I never have to look at it again? That’s where you should focus your brainpower—not on clever excuses.
This may sound simple, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow. Too often the reason you’re not getting things done is that… you’re just not doing them. You can learn how to overcome procrastination and to increase your personal productivity, though. How? The following strategies can benefit you immediately and immensely.
1. Do it once
Sorting through all the papers on your desk and creating To Do and Do Later piles for yourself is a common practice. One woman I know regularly create piles. The first time through she calls it “reading for familiarity.” The second read-through is her “action” read, unless she sets it aside “to do later.” This woman is a cum laude graduate of a prestigious university, handling a responsible position in business!
Needlessly rereading everything on your desk achieves nothing. Answer the letter the first time you read it through—Do It Now—and you save time, move toward customer satisfaction and accomplish a task that otherwise prevents you from doing more important things.
2. Clear your mind
A client once described to me what it was like for him to drive home from work at the end of the day. He would drive past a gas station and think: “I must get a spare tire for my car. I had a flat some time ago and have not gotten around to getting the spare.” On he would drive, past a pharmacy, and think: “Vitamin C. We need vitamin C. Winter is coming, and we need it for the expected sniffles.” He wold drive past a supermarket and think: “My wife wanted me to pick up bread. Ah, I don’t feel like it.” By the time he got home, he would be breathing hard. He needed a drink to calm down. He had done nothing, but he felt as if he had worked hard. He was exhausted from procrastination.
If you are a procrastinator, the sheer volume of incomplete activities in your work and your life distracts you from concentrating on and completing what’s in front of you. This is where priorities fit into the picture.
Have you ever made a list of ten things to do, only to have the bottom five never change? We tend to neglect lower-priority items. Yet we still consider these things to be important.
My view is that things either should or should not be done. If deadlines are involved, certainly they must be considered, but if something else is important enough to do, do it. Otherwise, don’t.
3. Solve problems while they’re small
Sometimes I point out a questionable stack of papers on the corner of someone’s desk. Rather sheepishly, they admit, “It’s my problem pile. I figure if those papers sit there long enough, they’ll go away.” And sometimes they do.
Murphy’s Law says: If anything can go wrong, it will. Here’s a corollary to Murphy’s Law: If there are ten possibilities of things that can go wrong, you can be sure that the one thing that does go wrong will cause the most damage. Maybe most of those items in your problem pile will go away if you let them sit long enough. But you can be sure the one problem you don’t want to happen will be the one that happens.
Get into the habit of acting on these things now, and you’ll catch problems when they’re still small, before they become big, time-consuming crises. You’ll have more time to concentrate on the important things.
4. Clean up backlogs
Backlogs create their own additional work, so eliminating them cuts down your work load more than you can imagine. There are five essential steps for handling backlogs.
a. Identify the backlogs.
b. Set priorities for which backlogs to clean up first.
c. Schedule time each day to take a piece of the backlog and clean it up.
d. Identify the cause of the backlog.
e. Remedy the cause to prevent any further buildup of backlogs.
5. Stop worrying about it
Almost everyone tends to put off unpleasant tasks. Facing up to them and completing them isn’t easy, but the consequences of not doing them can be much worse.
To compound the problem, most people who procrastinate not only don’t do the task, they also tend to dwell on the unfinished or undone task and worry about not having done it. This worry consumes far more time than people may realize.
Think of some of the problems you’ve had to face in the past. Did dwelling on them get you anywhere? No. It was only when you finally initiated some action that the problem began to be resolved.
Most of us tend to exaggerate how long an unpleasant task will take or how unpleasant it really is. We dread it, so we put it off. The trick is to choose the task you enjoy least and do it first. This lets you win in two ways: Your second task of the day will seem easier, and completing the worst task tends to give your self-confidence a boost.
6. Now feel better about yourself
Procrastination and its attendant cover-ups create a buildup of negative emotions not always evident on the surface. By committing yourself to Do It Now, completing the hard jobs first, and handling the big jobs bite-by-bite, you’ll eliminate a tremendous load of stress and anxiety and gain self-confidence and self-respect.
Finally, cultivate decisiveness
Successful people in general take little time to make a decision, but they take a long time to change a decision once it has been made.
If decisiveness is a weak spot with you, there’s an easy way to handle the quandary. Simply imagine the worst possible consequences of any decision you can make, and ask yourself if you can live with those consequences. If the answer is yes, go for it.
I’ve seen decisive people make the wrong decisions. Nevertheless they usually make their objective happen anyway. The act of deciding may, in fact, be more important than the correctness of the actual decision and have more influence on the consequences.
Procrastination itself is only a bad habit. Do It Now substitutes an action-oriented behavior for the “do it later” behavior. You act before the mental barriers are activated, so you don’t have time to think, “It’s too hard; maybe it will go away; I’m not in the mood; I don’t feel like it.”
A common word heard when discussing the subject of changing behavior is discipline. “If I had more discipline, I would be able to exercise, stop smoking, diet.” While discipline plays a part, I believe it is a red herring. If you exert discipline enough to establish a routine, you make a new habit. The habit helps you maintain it. Discipline yourself to act now, and it will very soon become a habit. Then the habit will lessen the need for discipline. William James, whose studies of human behavior are well known, suggested that if you do something every day for 30 days, it will become a habit. Try it with Do It Now.
To be honest, this is more than dealing with procrastination. It is a philosophy toward work and life. It is the view: “I am proactive; I am action-oriented; I am bigger than the problems I face.” These characteristics begin (and end) with how you face up to and habitually act on the small details of work and life.
So what is the first thing you should Do Now? Go ahead—write it down. Focus on first things. Get yourself organized. Do It Now, and do it better!
Kerry Gleeson is the founder of the Institute for Business Technology, a consulting firm specializing in white-collar efficiency and production improvement in Boca Raton, Florida.