Moving a mountain

I was reminded recently of this Chinese proverb – “The man who moved a mountain was the one who began carrying away small stones.” 

This resonates with me so much. I’m often put off getting started with big tasks because they just seem, well, too big! What reminded me of the Chinese proverb was Nassim Nicholas Talib writing in his great book Antifragile about the the analogy of asking someone to move a one ton rock or one ton of pebbles. One person alone can not move a one ton rock but can move a ton of pebbles, over time, by chipping away at the task.

This is how we need to approach mammoth things that confront us. Procrastination is fuelled by feeling things are too big for us to achieve. The power of small wins – a psychological concept – relies on us breaking big tasks down into smaller constituent parts. I was recently saying to someone that success is sometimes about using our brain chemistry to our advantage and tricking ourselves into better ways of thinking or doing. So, what we know is every time we tick something off our ‘to do’ list we get a little dopamine hit that drives us onto the next step. If completion of the task is only ever ‘ticked off’ when the whole task is complete we only get the one ‘hit’. If we break it down into lots of tasks we get lots of hits! Win!!

What’s even better is if you have the right tools for the job! Shifting that ton of pebbles is going to be so much easier if you have a shovel and a wheel-barrow. If all you have is your hands, you’ll get it done, but it will be painful and slow. Before you start any task ask yourself, “do I have the right tools for this task”. ‘Tools’ can be many things. Simple things like pen and paper, information things likes names and phone numbers, or bigger things like the right software or equipment. With the right stuff around us things get done.

The crucial technique for this is planning. Plan every day. Think – “what am I doing tomorrow”, and, “do I have what I need?” Prepare what you need, or check you have it in the right place and accessible. Plan big on your last working day before a break (for most of us a Friday before the the weekend). Plan all of next week – get your ducks in a row. Check before you leave that you have everything you need for next week. If you haven’t, find it, buy it, email someone about it. If there’s no chance of you getting it for next week can you move the task. If you can’t how will you get around the lack of the right thing. Planning is everything!

Planning brings the future into the present so you can do something about it (Alan Lakein). I have a little planning session daily (usually just checking stuff is where it should be because…) I have a big plan every week, and a massive plan every 3 months, usually going up to six months ahead to see what I need, including, crucially, how much time do I need.

Control it or it will control you, says David Allen.

In a recent on line conference I was asked, “what are your 3 key messages to help people with their well-being and productivity. I pinched an idea from the property world and said….

“Plan, plan, plan”

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