by Niall Doherty

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” – Henry Ford

One of the best habits I’ve developed in terms of productivity is the discipline to break projects down into small, actionable steps. This sounds like a very obvious thing to do, but I believe most people don’t do it nearly enough.

Not doing this is one of the primary reasons for procrastination. Say for example you wanted to start a blog. That’s your goal. Great. Now where do you get started? What’s the very next action you can take to move you closer to your goal? If you’re not very tech savvy and have no idea how to setup a blog, your first step might be getting advice from someone who does. So, you write this down on your to-do list…

  • Ask a computer nerd how to set up a blog.

Except that’s not an actionable first step. It’s not specific enough. There’s still thinking to be done before something can happen with that. A better first step would be:

  • List the three biggest computer nerds I know.

Your next might be:

  • Get contact information for those three nerds.

Then:

  • Come up with top 5 questions about setting up a blog.

And finally:

  • Send each nerd those questions.

Much better. Now you have a to-do list instead of a to-think-more-about list. Your one obscure “action” item became four specific action items, things you can actually go and do.

It’s much harder to procrastinate once you’ve identified that very next action.

Positive frames

Another bad habit that leads to weak productivity: Setting goals with a negative frame.

Lots of people want to quit their soul-crushing 9-to-5 job, so they keep that goal in the back of their minds:

  • Quit day job.

That goal has a negative frame, and it’s unlikely to be achieved as long as the frame stays that way. It’s generally better to have a positive frame, something to move towards instead of away from. So you might rephrase it like so:

  • Become self-employed.

Or, if self-employment isn’t your thing:

  • Find a job you love.

Once you have your goal set in the positive frame, you then want to spend time breaking it down into next actions, like we discussed above.

Note that you don’t need to identify every single action right from the start. There’s that old analogy about driving your car at night: You might have to travel 100 miles, but the headlights only reveal 70 feet of road at a time. That’s fine. You’ll get there in the end.

Outsourcing your brain

Another good habit to build: Write everything down.

Don’t trust your brain to remember stuff and remind you at the right time. Our brains aren’t that smart. They’re off thinking about sex and beaches when we need a reminder to pick up baking sheets at Tesco’s. Perverted brain. Now we can’t make cookies.

I try to write everything down, or throw it into the to-do app on my Mac. That way it’s off my mind but not forgotten. Next time I go to Tesco’s I can check the grocery list in my notebook. When I sit down at my computer next Tuesday, I’ll see that I’m supposed to follow up with the bank again about that credit card application (AIB no move fast).

You should write things down even if you have no intention of doing them any time soon. Just get them off your mind so you’re not trying to juggle a million different thoughts, worried that you’ll let one slip. I have a someday/maybe list, home to items like this:

  • Organize a flashmob.
  • Live without money for a week.
  • Take a class in parkour.

I no longer have to keep those things in the back of my head. I can pick up the list every so often and decide if it’s the right time to tackle one of those projects. If it is, I get busy figuring out next actions. Then I go do them.

Making shit happen is as simple as that.

Big projects

I’m using my own advice to create my first paid product. As I mentioned last week, that product will be an online course designed to help people become more courageous, built around the Random Acts of Courage concept.

It’s a big project. There are lots of different ideas to consider, things to figure out, bits and pieces to get done. My self-imposed launch deadline is March 17th (Paddy’s Day!).

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew with this project, but I know I’ll get it finished and launched if I just practice what I preach: Write everything down, define next actions, use positive frames, and show up every day.

Two things to close this out:

  1. Credit where it’s due: much of the above I learned from David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done (<– Amazon.com affiliate link). I thought I was pretty good at the whole productivity thing before reading that. It really helped shine a light on a bunch of my “open loops,” as Allen calls them. You can buy it via the affiliate link above, search for it on your local Amazon site, or find it in any half-decent book shop. The habits Allen advocates aren’t always easy to develop and maintain, but they’ll make you a productivity ninja if you commit to them.
  2. Last week I was interviewed on video by my friend and Mastermind compadre Spyros Heniadis. He asked me a lot about my manifesto (400 downloads last time I checked) and my plans for generating income. The interview is 28 minutes long and you can watch it at Marinating the Mind.