Put the Ukulele Down - Next Action Associates

“Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”
-Blaise Pascal

What if nobody likes this blog? What if I’m all out of ideas about GTD®? What if I go to write and nothing shows up?

I keep a ukulele by my desk. Several times in the course of considering this blog article, I found myself reaching for it, to “just check the tuning” or “see if I can remember how that melody goes”.

Yes, I was procrastinating.

I like GTD and I like writing about it. Invariably, when I get going, the writing becomes fun. So why would I delay?

It turns out that I’m not alone in letting negative fantasies – and the resulting negative feelings – fuel my avoidance of ultimately positive pursuits. A recent New York Times article brings together cognitive research demonstrating that procrastination is not about laziness, but about “the primacy of short-term mood repair… over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.”

This is part of why the focus on desired outcomes in the GTD methodology is so incredibly powerful. Recently, studies using event‐related functional magnetic resonance imaging have actually mapped the regions of the brain that light up when we focus on positive results, helping us to understand why “associating tasks with higher valued incentive outcomes results in less task procrastination.”

It’s all in your head. But the synapses of someone focusing on a desired outcome are visibly different than those who are not. The result of that focus is even more visible – in outcomes achieved, better and faster, rather than endlessly delayed.

So, I defined an outcome: “Successful blog post published.” In my case, I didn’t even have to define what successful was going to look like in terms of readership or feedback. Just that one word – ‘success’ – was enough to get me going. I like success. I even like the word.

By definition, desired outcomes (what we call ‘projects’) in the GTD methodology, require multiple steps to complete. This means you are likely to look at the outcome you have defined multiple times, and in doing so choose appropriate next actions.

Your brain will helpfully try to match those actions to the outcome. This means that “Grudgingly endure social event” may produce different next actions than “Have a great time at social event”. Worse, you may not want to look at that item, or even your entire project list, if it contains an outcome that produces a negative response. You may instead procrastinate.

I changed how I thought about what I was doing – using the tried-and-true GTD habit of defining a successful and positive desired outcome – and before I knew it, this piece had almost written itself.

So if you find yourself procrastinating, check to see if you have a negative emotional response to the job at hand. Re-cast it as a positive desired outcome, get that outcome as well as a bite-sized next action into your system, and see how quickly it starts to move.

I must caution you, however, that the above advice may significantly hamper your rise to fame as a ukulele star.

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