Look at this picture. What’s wrong with it?
Looks tidy, right? Nice Paul McCartney poster? Nobody died..
This is the small room at the bottom of the stairs in my house. Opposite the sofa you can find my guitars. Sometimes I sit and play there. The door goes through to the entrance of the house and my wife’s office.
But what is that pile of DVDs doing there? We don’t have a television in that room and “all my other DVDs” are nicely organised in their own little space.
THAT pile of DVDs is what is wrong with my life and what is wrong with the lives of many other people. THAT pile of DVDs is unfinished, indecision and procrastination. It is the annoying remains of a DVD-classifying and tidying job. No-one knows where to put them and no-one has made a decision. Every time someone sees them, small silent curses are made about what the hell they are doing there, followed (in my case) by mini-anxiety about having to deal with them, but not being sure what to do and where to put them.
In life, many people have their own “pile of DVDs”: The thing at the bottom of the to-do list that isn’t getting done, the dripping tap in the bathroom or the CV that still hasn’t been posted for that job opportunity.
These things remain unfinished and undecided as we procrastinate our way around them. It seems easier to ignore them than to take action. But they niggle away at our souls because they are not in their right place. When I wake up and come down the stairs, the first thing I see is those damn DVDs. And when I go to bed, they are the last thing that crosses my path before sleep.
In some cases, the consequences of inaction are quite small: The untuned piano and out of place DVDs will not change much. I don’t lose any sleep and nothing bad will come of it.
But in others cases, the consequences of inaction can be far worse: That niggling image of more important unfinished business eats away at you, causing insomnia and anxiety. What will I do about the wall that looks like it might fall down? How will I pay my credit-card bill? When will I finally get started on living my dreams?
In all cases, until there is a boldness, decision and action, nothing will change. The boldness is about daring to move forward with things. The decision is about what matters most, your priorities, the things you want out of life and how you want to feel about yourself. And action is about taking small steps towards satisfaction, one-at-a-time.
Sometimes it takes a shock to the system to force you into action: The wall falls down, the bank freezes your credit-card or burnout leaves you depressed and out of work.
In many cases, one of the following ideas might help:
- Seth Godin says in “LinchPin” that our lack of boldness is an evolutionary leftover designed to keep us “safe”: When we are frozen in inaction, it is because our reptile brain is scared of what will happen if we actually take the action we are considering. It is easier to stay in the status-quo than try something new.
- Tony Robbins’ TED talk on “Why we do what we do” suggests asking 3 questions about “focus” in order to actually make a decision: Ask yourself what this thing means to you, what you are focussing on and what you are going to do about it.
- In his book “Getting Things Done”, David Allen proposes asking 2 questions to figure out what the next action should be.
Regarding my DVDs, it was Tony Robbins’ idea that got me started: I have been focussing on almost everything else in my life but those DVDs and what that means to me is the same as what my ever-fattening belly means: I am letting some other things go to shit. Action? [Pause from writing]
…OK… 30 minutes later they are gone. Some have been put in the children’s rooms.. Disney and The Gruffalo. The music ones have been put with my CDs. And the rest are in the big cupboard with things to sell on eBay. (That last idea is my answer to David Allen’s question: “What is the next concrete action I will take?”)
Whilst tidying, I contemplate the importance of Seth Godin’s idea and realise that it often seems easier to do nothing, plod along and get the same results. Going for gold is scary. What will it look like? How will it work? What if I fail?
But if you want to tidy those DVDs, fix the scary threatening wall or find the job of your dreams, you need a little boldness, decision and action to get you on track.
In Leadership training, we often do a priority setting exercise where leaders have to help their team to put a list of objects “in order of importance”. In the debrief, I make an analogy with the way people go shopping at IKEA. Yesterday I was at IKEA… I won’t say how it went 😦 …I’ll just share the analogy…
There are 2 types of IKEA shopper…
- The first goes to IKEA with a specific mission. She knows what she wants (a bed) and upon arrival, moves quickly, confidently and economically towards the bed section. Faced with 20 beds to choose from, she consults her specifications and chooses the one that best responds to her needs. In the case that 2 or more beds perfectly respond, she will have to make a decision and choose.. or re-visit her criteria to better define her needs. This shopper leaves with the bed she needs and rarely much more.
- The second goes to IKEA with no specific mission. Upon arrival, she wanders around looking at different things asking “I wonder what I could use this for?” or thinking “That could be nice in the living room…”. On the off-chance that she might think “I’ll buy a bed” she will be faced with 20 beds to choose from and no specific criteria. Quite possibly, this shopper leaves with a bed, although it may not be perfect. Quite certainly, she will leave with many other things.
For me, an analogy can be drawn with the way people (do not) set priorities..
- Faced with an inbox of “things to do”, the first type will ask “What is my mission?” and “What are my specifications?” in order to decide which actions best suit her needs and therefore what should be done. Things are classified quickly and easily and the right work gets done, whilst other “useless” things are left behind.
- The second type of person will spend time wondering/wandering through the list of potential actions with no real purpose, picking things up, playing with them a little, maybe changing to other actions, with no direction. Things are not classified and sometimes the wrong work gets done or “real priorities” are missed.
In leadership training, participants are given a list of objects to prioritise “in order of importance”, given their situation. There are 2 major approaches:
- The first start by defining their mission, creating strategic action and then assessing the objects in function of their needs. They ask “How will this help us to achieve our mission?”
- The second start by looking at the objects, asking “What could we use this for?”
What do you think is the best approach?
- It seems obvious to me that type 1 is more organised, strategic and structured. They tend to be more efficient in doing what they set out to do. They prioritise things in terms of relevance to mission and strategy and feel comfortable that everything has been well assessed. I compare them to the “J” of MBTI and I myself like this approach. I am just like that.
- Type 2 seems to me less effective and things certainly take more time. In that sense, they are less efficient in relationship to their (apparently non-existant) mission. They don’t prioritise in terms of strategy and sometimes end up carrying a lot of stuff out of IKEA on their shopping trolley. This doesn’t fit my MBTI “J”.
…but is it so obviously bad to be Type 2? Aren’t these the people who find new and interesting creative useful approaches to things? Aren’t they the ones who see opportunities where the others do not, because of their “wider vision”? Are they more flexible? Does their “no-mind-spirit” help them?
Decide for yourself…
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This blog post has been written as support for homework for participants from my training on “Creating Influence”.
…but the exercise described below is an excellent approach to defining strategic action for any mission you may undertake.
First, let’s describe “strategic action”
How is strategic action different to normal action? It considers one’s current position in close relationship to the mission. In this way, strategic action is focussed on high level priority-driven steps that are more likely to get us to where we want to be.
Example: Suppose I want to complete an IronMan race. I might be inclined to imagine that swim-training is the best action to undertake. But if I first do a good strategic positioning exercise, I might realise that my priority is in fact to first develop my business offer in order to earn more more so that I can liberate more time for training. If I don’t do this, I will have to a) squeeze in training in an already busy schedule and b) end up paying divorce costs due to marital negligence 🙂
Ready to think strategic??
STEP 1: Start by defining your mission
There is no sense in doing a positioning exercise if you don’t know what you are trying to achieve.
Example: If I ask you if I am strong, depending on what objective you imagine me working on, you may come up with completely different answers…
When defining your mission, be sure to use quality goals. Read my other blog post on PERSONAL goal-setting for some starter ideas..
STEP 2: …then assess your current position
One of my favourite tools for doing this remains the SWOT analysis. A good SWOT will give you ideas on recurring themes for improvement. Note: I said a GOOD SWOT !
- Read here for some of my favourite SWOT questions
- …and here for some tips on how to be complete in your general approach to SWOT
Another tool I really like regarding personal influence is the network influence-grid proposed by Jo Owen in his book “How to Influence“. He suggests that for all the people in your network, you need to assess them in terms of whether or not you have a good relationship with them and whether or not they have power (to help you in your mission). A network influence-grid therefore has 4 quadrants…
When the people you know are mapped out in their relevant quadrants, you will better focus on people who are realy useful (top-right) or think about how to better leverage the existing relationships you have to get what you need.
STEP 3: Now, look for priority areas for action
I find that if I have done a good job of assessing my strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, when I look at the results there are recurring and linking themes. These are the things to work on. Don’t worry about action yet, just look at which things seem to come back and back.
For example, in my last SWOT exercise I saw that:
- My network was very complete
- …but that I wasn’t using it well enough
- I have great references for training work
- …but never ask for referrals
- There was an opportunity to better develop my own client base
An obvious priority strategic action: Leverage own network.
STEP 4: When your priorities are clear, plan baby steps
I am finally reading “Getting Things Done” by David Allen right now. One of my clients said it was a great book, but I thought: What else could there be to learn about priority management? In the first 10 pages I had my answer:
Turn unmanageable TO-DO lists into “next concrete action” (baby-steps) lists.
In the scope of our exercise, this means asking 2 questions for each of the priority strategic actions noted previously:
- What would be an ACCEPTABLE outcome?
- What is the NEXT CONCRETE ACTION you need to take?
If you’ve followed the 4 steps ahead, you should have some good ideas to get moving with.
Thanks for reading 🙂
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