Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Separating the Thinking Process from Doing

by Andre · 4 Comments

Thinker Sometimes “almost” isn’t good enough. A restaurant that’s almost clean isn’t much different than one that’s totally filthy, since both discourage dining. Unfinished thinking has similar consequences for taking action.

A To Do list with very broadly defined tasks, like “Write article,” will create unconscious resistance to following through on them if they contain implicit dependencies that need to be surfaced. For instance, if the article needs a fact that hasn’t yet been researched, the writer will probably hold off on starting the draft in hopes of summoning the missing motivation sooner or later. But nothing stifles motivation like ambiguity.

What’s missing isn’t motivation, but information. “Look up Menken quote on presidential qualifications,” a two-minute action that would supply the missing piece necessary to assemble the article, can make the difference between starting and procrastinating. The effort required to take the action is minimal, but identifying the specific action required to kick start the project can take some discipline. Next actions are obvious in hindsight, but can be elusive on the front end without focused awareness.

The most insidious form of multitasking

Thinking about what action to take next while trying to take it creates stress. Thinking and doing simultaneously is multitasking. The thinking process needs to be separated and alternated with action to be effective.

A broad action like “Test Outlook” is an abstraction, so instead of being able to execute it immediately, the mind has to imagine what testing Outlook looks like. In order for anything to happen when clicking Send/Receive, the email account has to be configured. The first physical, visible step would probably be “Enter POP address into Account Setup.” If that were on the list instead of “Test Outlook” (and “Test Outlook” was redefined as a project and placed on the project list to hold the outcome), initiating the whole process would become much more fluid.

Save yourself the overhead of doing project thinking while trying to take action. Get the thinking ahead of time, so that your actions become largely mechanical — not in the sense of lacking vitality, but self-consciousness.

Take breaks to regroup, not rest

We can minimize the amount of thinking required while performing a task, but not eliminate it. Things zig when they should zag, and we need to correct course. If we’re lucky, the next course of action is self-evident, but sometimes that’s not the case, and we end up spinning our wheels. Circular thinking produces no forward motion.

When thinking long and hard doesn’t work, take a break. Some breaks are designed to recover from fatigue, but the point here isn’t to relax, but to suspend doing while thinking about what to do next — to stop multitasking. If I get stuck in mid-sentence while writing a post, and more than a couple of minutes elapse while I’m staring at the screen, I’ll get up from the laptop and ask myself what specific thought I’m trying to express. Once I’ve clarified what I was trying to say, I can focus on how to say it, but when I try to do both at the same time, my eyes glaze over.

This sort of strategic disruption is why “sleeping on” a problem, taking a walk, or taking a shower can dislodge solutions more effectively than trying to concentrate your way through a problem in the midst of it. But once the principle of not doing while thinking is understood, it’s not necessary to resort to elaborate rituals. I don’t need to take a walk or a nap. I really don’t even need to get up from my desk and pace around. I just need to break my visual association from my writing activity, which is why many writers (and other artists and scientists) frequently stare into empty space.

Give yourself permission to momentarily take your nose off the grindstone and get perspective. It’s hard to see a project while in it. If the right path is unclear, the first think to do is stop walking. Create a clearing for thinking instead of reacting.

(Photo credit: gutter)

Technorati Tags: ,

Tags: Productivity


  • Jarrod - Warrior DevelopmentNo Gravatar // Dec 31, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    “But nothing stifles motivation like ambiguity”.

    I will have to keep this in mind when I find my wheels spinning. Todo lists are only useful when you can actually do something with them :).

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Dec 31, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    Clearing away ambiguity is a continuous, cyclical process. We’re all in the same soup of confusion.

  • Sean McManusNo Gravatar // Jan 23, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    Next actions are important, but the risk is that to-do lists become so granular that people spend all their time writing things on lists and crossing them off. In the case of a two-minute task like “Look up Menken quote on presidential qualifications”, it’s probably better to just do it immediately rather than spend time listing it. The important thing is that people are clear in their own minds what the next action is for each task, even if the to-do list has a broad definition of the goal to jog the memory.

  • AndreNo Gravatar // Jan 23, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    @Sean: I didn’t suggest writing it down on a list; I identified it as a two-minute action in the text: “Look up Menken quote on presidential qualifications,” a two-minute action that would supply the missing piece necessary to assemble the article, can make the difference between starting and procrastinating. The point of that example was to clarify what the next action was. Until the next action is clear, it’s impossible to know whether or not it will take two minutes. Once you know what the next action is, then you’re in a position to know whether or not to act on it immediately.