I glared at the organic pile of refuse in the corner of my backyard. For more than a month, I’d dreaded cleaning up the pile of plant material left by the Brooklyn brownstone’s previous occupants. I shivered to think about the creepy crawlies that lurked below the rotting leaves, weeds, and twigs.
I justified my procrastination by keeping busy with other less gross household projects. At the same time, I knew it was contributing to the bug population of our backyard. After a few minutes of hemming and hawing, I made a compromise with myself, which led to an unexpected outcome.
“I’ll just grab a trash bag and the garden gloves. That’s all I have to do right now. At least the tools I need will be ready and waiting for me.”
Two minutes later, I stood once again in the yard with a bag in one hand and a glove on the other. As I started to wrestle with the desire to set the items down and return indoors, I quickly made a second bargain with myself.
“I’ll just put one handful of leaves into the bag, then at least the job will be started.”
Scrunching my nose, I reached down, wrapped my fingers around a fistful of debris, and quickly shoved it into the black void of the trash bag. Then something happened.
The Law of Intertia
One handful led to a second and then to a third. A mere ten minutes later —it’s often quicker and easier than I’ve built it up to be in my mind—the job was done. Once in motion, it was easy for me to stay in motion. (Thanks, Isaac Newton!)
How often do we procrastinate the unpleasant “creepy crawlies” in our business? Whether it’s writing a book, having a difficult conversation, spending time selling, or attending to finances, leaving these tasks untouched consumes cognitive energy, even when we are not conscious of it.
As these projects build up, overwhelm sets in. Overwhelm, in turn, threatens to stall our progress.
Reduce Friction (and Overwhelm) by Thinking Smaller
By nature, business owners are big thinkers. The problem is that we tend to think too big at the moment of getting started. This creates mental (and emotional) friction. The laws of physics teach us that friction increases the energy required to set a body in motion. On the other hand, forward movement (i.e., taking action) becomes easier as friction is lowered.
When managing your business’s growth, it’s important to know when to think big (e.g., when defining your vision or laying out a strategic plan) and when to think small (e.g., when putting a new project into action based on your strategic plan).
To lower the friction, identify the “first handful” or what Getting Things Done author, David Allen, calls the “next action.” Narrow your focus to a single step, ideally something that takes just a few minutes or less to complete.
Identify Your First Handful
Now, when I head to the backyard to enjoy the hammock, I look at the clean, bare corner of the yard and feel relief, even pride, rather than the weight of an unfinished task.
The next time you feel overwhelmed by your business, what if you permitted yourself to tackle just one handful?
Write one paragraph of your book.
Write the first sentence of a difficult email.
Identify one sales prospect to follow up with.
One handful will almost always lead to more.
Perhaps the first step is to grab a sheet of paper and spend two minutes making a list of the neglected piles of refuse that are sapping your energy. Then identify “one handful” and resolve to do it today.