My daughter recently had a high school assignment to set up a job shadow with someone in a field she’s interested in working in.
She did the research and found three potential companies that she thought were a good fit. Two had email addresses that gave her a direct line to the person she needed to talk to. The third had a phone number and a customer service contact form.
“There’s no email address,” she said.
“So call,” I answered. When I was a teenager, talking on the phone was a normal thing to do. Not so with today’s teens. I’m pretty sure if I ever need to threaten my daughter with a punishment, telling her she has to call people on the phone would do the trick.
“What if I fill out the customer service contact form?” she asked, sounding hopeful.
“That won’t get you what you need,” I responded.
“But I’ll be doing something, right?”
And I thought, this is the perfect example of choosing activity over progress.
We all do it. We take meaningless action to avoid doing something meaningful that is either hard or scary or uncertain. And we feel busy, which makes us feel good. At least, it does until we get to the end of the day and look back on what we’ve done and realize that we haven’t really accomplished anything. Even though we were so busy, we didn’t stop even for a moment.
It’s a mistake that’s easy to make, but today I’m going to give you an easy-to-use strategy to help you avoid this trap. Put this to work in your day-to-day routine and you’ll find yourself moving forward, making real progress toward your goals.
So let’s get started.
Lay the Groundwork
The first step is to lay the groundwork. In order to focus on important things, you first have to decide what is important. And then you have to decide how to get from where you are to where you want to be.
To do this, you need to work through some basic goal setting.
- Determine what your top goal is. Make it specific and give yourself a deadline. For big goals, that deadline might a year out or even three or five or more.
- Think through what needs to change in order to realize that goal. If your goal is to land one new client a month and right now you’re landing one new client every three months, then the number of clients you’re landing is what you want to change.
- Determine the steps you need to take to bring about that change. This will become your task list — the important things you need to do that will carry you forward to the realization of your goal. It’s basically an action plan, and it may take some testing to get it right. You may try a certain approach and not be happy with the results. If that happens, revisit your action plan and come up with a new approach, including the steps you need to take to make things happen.
Okay … once you know what important actions you need to take to successfully reach your goal, the next step is to actually do them. This is where it’s easy to get hung up, and start substituting activity for progress.
The way to get past that common obstacle is through a simple trick …
If you have one takeaway from this article, I hope this is the one.
This is just a simple trick to get you out of the habit of turning to busywork when you’re really avoiding something important. To illustrate, let’s use an example.
Say you have an important task to accomplish — you want to call 10 potential clients to introduce yourself and your services. These are companies you’ve researched who you know you can help and that you believe you’d like to work with.
But calling potential clients is scary.
So instead of facing that fear, you find yourself doing the laundry or cleaning your desk or checking Facebook. You’re busy. But you’re not making progress toward your goals.
Or maybe, instead of turning away from your scary, important task, you trade the action you know will have the best effect for a more comfortable action. For example, you might decide that instead of calling the first company on your list, sending an email to a generic address you found on the company website would be just as good.
Really, you’re still just stalling. Both actions take about the same amount of time, but one — the one you’re avoiding — is much more likely to get you results. The other just lets you feel busy without making any significant progress.
Or instead of calling the companies on your list, you might decide to research 10 more companies. More action, little progress.
The trick to overcoming this habit is to go into what you’re doing in a state of mindfulness.
Pause for a moment. Think through the meaningful action you want to take and what benefit you hope to derive from it. If the action is to call 10 potential clients, then say out loud to yourself, “I want to call these 10 companies to find out if they use freelancers … and if they do, to find out who the best contact is. This will help me move forward by giving me a way to contact a decision maker within a company that works with freelancers and that I want to work with.”
Sometimes that’s enough to keep you on track. But sometimes you find yourself still looking for a way around doing the important task. If that happens, continue with your mindfulness, and acknowledge:
- Why you’re scared.
- What the worst is that is likely to happen by proceeding.
- What the cost is of not
- And what the best outcome could be if you proceed.
It might go something like this: “I’m scared to call these companies because I feel like I may be interrupting them with something they aren’t interested in and because they might say no. The worst that is likely to happen is that they do say no — maybe even rudely — and I move on to the next call.
“The cost of not making these calls is that I don’t get any closer to landing my next client and my business doesn’t grow. The best outcome of making these calls is that I land a client today.”
Sometimes, in this process, you’ll discover something you’re missing. For example, you might realize you’re scared to make the calls because you don’t know what to say when someone picks up the phone. If that happens: pause, fill in the gap you’ve found (like writing a short script to follow), and then come back to complete the task you’ve set for yourself.
Practicing this kind of mindfulness as you sit down to do something important and meaningful is one of the very best ways to keep yourself focused and on track.
When you tell yourself what you’re going to do and why you want to do it, you tap into consistency bias — an innate desire almost everyone has to be consistent with what they’ve said. It also helps you recognize the source of your resistance and to overcome it by either taking steps to fill in what’s missing or by acknowledging the benefits that are more powerful than your fear.
Mindfulness is the single best way to make sure the actions you take are meaningful and will move you forward … and to prevent yourself from doing things that just make you feel like you’re making progress.
But sometimes, after striving to be mindful, you need something a little more.
If you have an action plan and you’re approaching it mindfully, but you’re still shying away from the important tasks, the next step is to do an audit.
Start by creating a schedule of what you want to do during the day and when you plan to do it.
Then, in a separate place, whenever you go from doing one thing to doing another during the day, make a note of the task you just stopped and when you stopped it.
At the end of the day, compare what you’d hoped to accomplish with how you actually spent your time.
Doing this kind of audit for a couple of days in a row will help you see when you are being truly productive and when you’re settling for being busy. It can help you identify patterns like, maybe you always get off task after lunch. That might be a good time to do something that doesn’t require too much focus. Or maybe, you get off track whenever you sit down to actually write. Just being aware of that tendency can help you overcome it.
Figuring out what’s important to you and then approaching those goals with deliberate mindfulness is a powerful way to stop spinning your wheels being busy and to start chewing up the road, moving forward and actually getting things done.