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Amorphous blobs of undoability WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.13
Research has shown that people put off tasks that are unappealing, difficult, or expensive. That’s hardly surprising. What we underestimate, however, is a more subtle form of resistance.
In a recent study by Dr. McCrea, college students were asked to fill out a questionnaire. In group A, almost all of the students completed their task by the deadline; in group B, 56% failed to respond at all. “Furthermore,” as the research team reported in Psychological Science, “this effect did not depend on the attractiveness, importance, or perceived difficulty of the task.” The difference was very simple—and subtle. When the questionnaires prompted students to think in concrete terms (i.e., name any type of bird), students responded in a timely way. When the tasks required a more abstract form of thinking (i.e., name any category to which birds belong), the students dawdled or didn’t respond at all.
“Those seeking to cajole a colleague, friend or spouse into action might ponder the finding,” a write-up in The Economist half-jokingly suggests. And why not? A father was having no luck getting his young son to clean his room. So he got a big box, put it in the middle of the room, and, instead of giving the abstract command, “Clean your room,” told his son to put into the box anything that wasn’t where it should be. What had been a source of procrastination and stress became a simple “gathering” game. His son then pulled out one toy or piece of clothing at a time and, with enthusiasm, put it away.
In another study, seniors in college were given a pamphlet about the dangers of tetanus and told that the campus health center was giving free tetanus shots to all students. Almost none—a mere 3%—of the students actually went to the health
center. Then the experimenters did something that, on the face of it, didn’t make a whole lot of sense. As seniors, the students were, of course, familiar with the campus and already knew where the health center was located. But, when the researchers gave the pamphlet and included a campus map with the university health building circled, inoculation rates jumped to 28%. As information, the map was unnecessary, but it proved useful because it triggered the kind of concrete thinking that leads to action.
If we’re so smart Outcomes, even those as elementary as a clean room or a tetanus inoculation, are inherently—and rather sneakily—abstract. Consider, for a moment, some of the more involved outcomes we might want to bring about in our lives: finalize, implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create, design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve—we all face these types of to-do’s. Some are big, some small; some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant. But what these desired outcomes all have in common is their abstractness. This is because an outcome, like a goal, is not something you actually do; it is something you achieve after doing many action steps.
For years productivity expert David Allen has trained clients to get to the “runwaylevel” of life: action. If there’s a desired outcome, he coaches, then ask the question, “What’s the next action?” He has spent hours with executives training them to think about the specific, physical next actions they need to take in order to move each of their projects forward. Allen himself wonders at the effectiveness of this approach. After all, he works with some of the most brilliant and successful people in business. Yet next-action thinking produces results that are immediate and profound.
“One of the surprises to me over all these years of working with thousands of relatively sophisticated people,” Allen writes in Making It All Work, “is how challenging it has been for most to grasp this very operational application of outcome thinking.” Identifying next actions for each desired outcome is, after all, just common sense. Why would people even need to be “coached” in next-action thinking? Compared to the intricate and complex levels of thinking we are capable of, making the mental leap between abstract outcomes and concrete next actions seems trivial.
Perhaps the power of Allen’s approach lies in the psychological difference between the abstract and the concrete, not in terms of intellectual difficulty, but in terms of what translates into action. As a rule, we don’t even recognize the abstract quality of our to-do’s, let alone respect the narrow but deep chasm between having the intention to get that tetanus shot, or to give mom a great birthday party, and actually figuring out the specific action step we need to take to fulfill that intention. For example, this is a typical conversation Allen might have with a client who has “tires” on a to-do list: Allen asks, “What’s that about?” The client responds, “Well, I need new tires on my car.” “So what’s the next action?” [Client wrinkles forehead and ponders for a moment.] “Well, I need to call a tire store and get some prices.”
As Allen points out, a person who needs tires on his car has probably had that todo nagging at him for quite a while. And he’s probably been at a phone hundreds of times with just enough time and energy to make such a call. What’s holding him back is he hasn’t made the connection between the outcome he wants—“get new tires”—and a specific context, like access to a phone, for acting on it. Allen
estimates that, for most outcomes, determining the next action takes less than 20 seconds. “That’s about how much time is required to decide what the ‘doing’ would look like on almost everything. It’s just the few seconds of focused thinking that most people have not yet done about most of their stuff.”
Usually, when we’re stuck we tend to think there must be something wrong: we need more clarity; we need to ramp up the motivation. Maybe all we need is concreteness. There are two parts to the fundamental thought process for getting things done. 1) What’s the desired outcome? (Clear thinking, but still abstract.) 2) What’s the next action? (Concrete thinking.) “These questions are almost never both answered completely when we encounter ‘stuff’ that we know we ought to do something about.” Yet both are critical. With the first question, we get direction; with the second comes motion, because the question “What’s the next action?” prompts us to think in concrete terms and so automatically triggers engagement. Once we overcome the psychological hurdle of the abstract, our “stuff” starts to get done. At one of Allen’s seminars, a senior manager of a major biotech firm looked back over the to-do lists she had come in with. “Boy,” she said, “that was an amorphous blob of undoability!”
REFERENCES Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and Business of Life by David Allen
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen
"Motivating minds: People procrastinate when asked to think in the abstract"
The Economist, January 24th 2009
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
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