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The Wrong Question to Ask

How to separate the planning from the doing so you can get more done!

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash
Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Recently, one of my clients had an epiphany and she put it so succinctly that I knew it was something I wanted to share with you all.

She said “what I’ve realized is that asking myself ‘do I feel like doing X right now?’ is not the right question to be asking”.

As soon as she said it, I thought “YES!”. Exactly.

We all have things that we need to do to make our lives (in and out of work) run smoothly, but that aren’t exactly fun, exciting or interesting. If I asked myself “do I feel like paying bills right now?”, well, the bills would never get paid because the answer to that question is always going to be no.

Do I feel like making doctors’ appointments? No!

Do I feel like doing laundry? No!

Do I feel like invoicing clients? No!

No! No! No!

Now, of course, it’s equally important that we set aside time to do whatever we want, whatever we feel like doing. Downtime is essential. But more on that later.

Right now I’m talking about looking down at your task list (or peering into your brain) in the middle of a workday, or when it’s time to take care of chores/the business of life and asking, “what do I feel like doing next?”

You might think that asking “do I feel like it?” is a positive way to get work done. You might think it’ll put you in the right frame of mind to work on what your mind/body want to work on, right? But, when we do only what we feel like doing, we are likely to pick off the quick and easy things. Those things that give us the immediate dopamine hit of checking something off a list. But we could do quick, easy, relatively fun work ALL DAY LONG. And never get to the big stuff, or the drudgery that just has to happen.

SO, WHAT SHOULD YOU DO INSTEAD?

A concept I talk about with my clients all the time is separating the planning from the doing. In the moment, we get caught up in our emotions, in what we feel like doing. It’s really hard to make a decision, in the moment, that we should work on the big project that needs our attention instead of the 30 emails that came in this morning and are still waiting for a response. It’s really hard, in the moment, to work on submitting our expense reports when we are excited to get working on that new article, or design, or deck.

When we separate the planning from the doing, we are setting ourselves up for success so that we are less likely to get caught up in the moment later and make the “wrong” decision. When we separate the planning from the doing we are thinking more rationally about what needs to get done, and when, instead of what we want to do, or what feels pressing in the moment. When we separate the planning from the doing, we are prioritizing our future selves.

SO HOW DO WE SEPARATE THE PLANNING FROM THE DOING?

Use a Task List

All that stuff that’s floating around in your head? Get it out of there. Get it down into a single system, whether that’s an app, a spreadsheet or even a notebook. Once you’ve offloaded everything you HAVE to do into your system, prioritizing will be so much easier. Once you can see everything in one place, it’s much easier to compare relative deadlines, to check your calendar to see what time you have available, and to slot in the work where it fits.

Time Blocking

We are conditioned to show up for what’s on our calendar.

We look at our task list, we see 20 items for today and at 8am we think to ourselves, “yeah, we can get that done, today’s going to be awesome”. But then what happens?

The day. We start checking email, a colleague stops by to chat, more email, more Slack, and suddenly it’s 5pm and we’re not quite sure where the day went. But most of those items on the list are still there.

Instead, use your calendar to your advantage. Take a look at your task list. Take a look at the time you have available. And make your best effort to block out the time you need to get done the things on your list. Make sure to block time for email/Slack, too. And leave a little buffer for the unexpected. Chances are that when you start time blocking, you’ll realize that your previous plans were a little too ambitious and that there’s just not enough time in the day to get it all done. And that might not feel so great at first. But I can assure you that it feels much better to have a small number of things on your list for a given day and check them ALL off, than it feels to have an unrealistic list for the day in which almost nothing is checked out.

If you’ve tried time-blocking before and said “it doesn’t work for me because I can’t stick to it”, don’t worry. Time blocking isn’t abut sticking to it 100% of the time. It’s about intention, and it’s a reminder to your in-the-moment-self of what your planning-self decided was right for you to be working on right now. Now, it very well may happen that something comes up during the day that blows your plans out of the water. But if you haven’t planned and haven’t blocked that time, it’ll be that much harder to know if the tradeoff was worth it.

End of Day Planning

When you come to the end of your day (work or otherwise), spend a little time planning for tomorrow. Decide what you’ll work on, time block where necessary, and come into the office the next day (or start your Saturday morning) ready to execute.

When we plan in advance, we save ourselves the activation energy that is sometimes required to just get going. We save ourselves from the question “what do I feel like doing”?”. Because the answer to “what do I feel like doing?” is rarely the same as “what should I be doing?”. When we’ve planned in advance, all we have to do is DO. And when we cross off the last item in our list for the day, THEN we get to ask “what do I feel like doing?” and no matter the answer, it will be” “right”. When we finish what we’ve planned, we get to ask ourselves “what do I feel like doing?” with absolutely no guilt wrapped up in the answer.

Making time for “what do I feel like doing?”

I mentioned at the top that there is a time and a place for “what do I feel like doing?” Now, if you feel like you’re on the hamster wheel and that your life is filled with ONLY things that you don’t really feel like doing, then I want you to do what another of my clients did. She was feeling guilty whenever she relaxed, because she knew that there was still a to-do list waiting for her. (News flash: there will ALWAYS be a to do list. It will never be done. And that’s A-OK!).

So I suggested to her that she should actually block out time on her calendar and label it “Do whatever I want”. Seems a bit silly, right? But it worked. She blocked off Friday night to Sunday morning as “Do whatever I want” time and then, when she looked at her calendar, the ONLY question she had to ask herself during that time was “what do I feel like doing?”. This freed her to really enjoy her downtime. Instead of thinking of all the things she had left on the list, she was free to spend that time doing only what she desired. The rest of the time, she was getting down to business on her task list.

(And remember, downtime is SO necessary for stress reduction and productivity. I even wrote a whole blog post about it here.)

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