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Wrestling a gorilla, project dead ends and the Next Action trap

One of the greatest time management techniques is the concept of the ‘Next Action’ from GTD (Getting Things Done by David Allen). Essentially, until you have identified the very next thing that you need to do to get a project moving – it’s not getting done.

Stuck projects tend to have some ‘unfinished thinking’ that’s preventing you from working on them. This might be a decision that needs to be made, a conversation that you need to have, or another action that needs to be completed first. Once you’ve mastered this skill and automatically work out Next Actions for projects, work becomes much easier, but there is a problem.

Imagine that I’m trying to escape from a jungle and I’ve identified my Next Action as ‘wrestle the gorilla’. So far, so good – except that now I have to wrestle a gorilla. Nobody wants to tangle with an enormous hairy primate so a little gentle procrastination starts to build up. Perhaps, I think, I should tidy the jungle clearing first, or maybe learn to imitate bird calls. Suddenly it’s five years later and I’m Tarzan’s scrawnier cousin with an impressive beard and a severe body odour problem.

What happened? In a nutshell, I dead-ended the ‘escape from the jungle’ project. I narrowed my thinking to believe that I only had one option, I couldn’t break it into easier pieces, and it wasn’t an action that I was prepared to take. In this position it’s easy to see a single problem as the whole project.

The solution here isn’t to abandon Next Actions – they’re a critical piece of the time management puzzle – it’s to recognise when a Next Action has been hanging around for too long. You might have chosen the wrong task, or the situation may have changed and it’s no longer possible (or seems possible for you).

One of the best ways to restart a stalled project is to widen your thinking and create a menu of five or six options for working on a project. Some of these are bound to be more appealing than trying to get a Silverback in a headlock.

The realisation that you have a choice can be very liberating and help disperse resistance. Once things get moving again, no matter how small that movement is, momentum begins to build up and you can start to see other possibilities. You may even begin to fancy your chances against that gorilla.

In terms of studying, an exam is just another project. If answering mock exam questions on a difficult topic is causing you to procrastinate, then give yourself more options. Your menu of choices might all revolve around the same topic but could include SQ3R, mind-mapping, flashcards, guided practise questions or writing mnemonics. Once you’ve re-engaged with the topic, you might find that your resistance simply evaporates.

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