"I can't help you if it's all in your head!" - Next Action Associates

“Ready when you are!”, I hollered.

My wife looked back at me and sighed, “We’re nowhere near ready to go.”

“Sure we are!”, I beamed, holding up my personal packing list, each item carefully ticked. I was, after all, a faithful practitioner of the GTD methodology, and often used such checklists to refine routine activities in my personal life.

She shook her head, smiled weakly, and began patiently enumerating all that still needed to be done to close the house, prepare for the cat sitter, finalise our post-flight pickup, and actually get ready to leave the country for several weeks.

“Hold on!” I grabbed pen and paper, and wrote it down as she spoke. She looked at me quizzically. “Well,” I said, “I can’t help you if it’s all in your head.”

Later on, we laughed, recalling familiar departure scenes from our childhood family vacations – Dad in the packed car, engine running, wondering what on earth Mum was still doing; Mum inside, hurriedly making last-minute arrangements. Tempers rising.

We realised it doesn’t have to be this way. Even though we have elected to divide-and-conquer in similar ways to our parents sometimes – my wife often making the travel arrangements whilst I work up to the last minute – we now have a simple tool that goes a long way toward making such departures less stressful. It started with that list she dictated to me in consternation.

Now, in addition to our individual packing lists, we have a well-refined trip departure list that we divvy up and complete before we go. I don’t need to have been privy to all the trip preparation details – I just need to do what’s on the list: put out the recycling, double check all the windows are closed, and fill the cat’s food bowl. Thanks to simple, self-evident steps, we work quickly in parallel and are often ready to go early these days.

Specialisation is helpful, even in a team of two. Yet the more we specialise, the more we run the risk that while something may seem completely obvious (to Mum) others may remain totally oblivious (ahem, Dad) – that is, unless we get it out of our head and clue them in.

When we coach people, we have them do a “mind sweep” (like a brainstorm) to get all their commitments out on paper so that we can process them into a trusted system. Even trained experts in the mental health field–those people whose job it is to help with what’s “in your head” – can’t help you unless you start to unpack it by talking. That’s why many British train stations are plastered with telephone numbers for the Samaritans. Keeping stuff “in your head” is not only inefficient, but can be isolating.

It may sound obvious, but if you want help, on any level and in any way, you need to externalise what’s going on in such a way that someone else has a chance to help you. Those practicing GTD who have a complete, current inventory of projects and next actions should have no trouble showing the boss what they’re up to, or asking a colleague if they could field a project or two whilst they are away. Making it a lifestyle to get stuff out of your head means that help is (potentially) always at hand.

Very often in my experience, people just don’t know what they don’t know. You may find people are much more willing to help than you ever imagined, once they know what “helping” actually looks like. So get it out of your head, get it clarified, and get it communicated.

Help is on the way.

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