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4 Ways to Make Sure You Get a Task Done

Strategies and goals

Have you ever broken a promise–even to yourself–without meaning to? Maybe you offered to do something and didn’t get around to it, or made a resolution and didn’t follow through, or it you wanted to be involved in something but forgot to show up because there were other things going on.

If you haven’t had this experience–if you never neglect to do anything significant you intend to do–then you don’t need this article. For the rest of us, I have four simple points that help ensure things get done.

1. Get it down in writing somewhere you’ll see it. Our brains can only hold a few priorities at once, and those priorities shift from hour to hour, or even moment to moment. If you have a task system that you already actively use, that’s an ideal place to put the task. Or you could put a temporary note somewhere in your way. For instance, whenever I have to remember to bring anything with me in the morning, I put a post-it note on the front door, where it will always present itself to me before I go out. Another option is to put a note in a calendar system you use, or to have it pop up as a reminder in your e-mail program, phone, or PDA (if you use something that offers a reminder feature). Whatever you do, it needs to be in writing so that you don’t have to depend on having the information in short-term memory, and it needs to be somewhere you’ll naturally see it again so that you don’t have to keep an item in short-term memory just to review it.

2. Figure out the next explicit action you need to take. An action is a specific behavior that you already know how to do. For instance, “clean the garage out” isn’t an action, because where do you start? And are you supposed to clean it all in one marathon session? etc. Instead, think about what you would do if you were going to start on the task right away, and how you would describe it if you were going to have someone else do it for you. If the thing you want to get done is cleaning the garage, your next action might be “sit down with calendar to find a four-hour block of time to start working on garage” or “Call dump to find out hours” or “E-mail Jerry to find out if he wants the old couch.” Explicit actions free you from worrying about the whole big project, whatever it is, and allow you to focus on doing one specific thing that you know how to do. If you don’t know what to do, or do but don’t know how to do it, then your next task is to get the information you need. It could be “Talk with Marcia to find out what she wants moved out of the garage” or “Find blog posts by people who have successfully cleaned out their garages” or “Sit down at computer and brainstorm things I’ll need to do to get the garage cleaned out.”

Once you’ve completed that action, figure out what the next action is and write that down (or do it immediately and follow up with the next action after that).

3. Be prepared to say yes. It won’t help to know that you need to do something and know what it is if you aren’t going to do it when the chance arises. At some point there has to be a decision that “OK, I’ll do that now.” Fortunately, this is much easier if you know that you have do do something and have a specific, doable action in mind.

4. Fix conflicts and obstacles. Some tasks won’t need this step. Depositing a check, reading an article on the Web, or making pancakes for the kids may not present any serious difficulties. However, if your next action is “Talk to mom about moving her to a senior care facility” or “Draft letter of resignation,” for instance, there may be barriers between you and getting that action completed. Here are some of those barriers and what to do about them.
A. Lack of knowledge. If you don’t know how to do what you need to do, then probably your real next action is to learn something–by reading, seeking out someone more knowledgeable, taking a course, finding a step-by-step guide, etc.
B. Anxiety, fear, guilt, anger, etc. If a negative emotion is getting in the way of you taking the action you have decided to take–for instance, if you’re too angry to talk constructively with your coworker who just caused your big project to fail, or if the very thought of talking to your mom about assisted living makes you want to go stick your head in the sand, then it may be necessary to work through that emotion as your next action rather than moving ahead with something more task-oriented. Working this through could be accomplished by journaling, talking with a friend, or talking with a therapist or other professional. You may simply need to apply idea repair.
C. Someone or something you’re waiting for. If someone else needs to do something before you can make progress, you have three choices: wait for them and do something else in the mean time; try to encourage them to move ahead; or find a way around them. Realistically, there may be times when you don’t have any other option than to wait, but these are the minority: usually, there will be something you can do to move almost any project forward, even if it’s just preparation for a later step while you wait for someone whose input is necessary for the current step.

Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Transportation.

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