The epidemic of not getting things done

Jonathan Choi
May 28, 2019 · 9 min read

Too many ways to fail

Throughout my quest to figure out how to get things done, I came across many examples of failures. I believe if we can better identify the problem we are facing, we have a better chance of changing our thinking to approach it.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

There are almost too many ways to fail and it feels like the odds are stacked against us. While failure seem like a strong word, we need to face them directly if we want to overcome them. We need to acknowledge them, understand them, and dissect them before we can overcome them. There are obstacles every step along the way from start to finish and we will go through the key obstacles during each step and how we can approach it with a different way of thinking.

You can also jump to what is relevant for your journey.

Fail to Start

Fail to Progress

Fail to Finish

Fail to start

Starting is the first step in getting things done and here are some of the common ways that we have failed to start.

Photo by Nathan Shipps on Unsplash

Not knowing what to do

In a world where opportunities are endless and resources are in abundance, it is hard to believe that we can fail to start. However it is precisely because there are too many choices, we fail to find what we really want to do. We are often reluctant to make a choice because we are afraid that it will be a wrong one. But this neglects the cost of indecision, which is often higher than choosing any option. So the first mindset change is to accept that there is no perfect option and recognise that fail to decide is the worst one. Now that we want to make a decision, the question becomes how do we pick the best option? Rather than answering that directly, we should dive into why we are making this decision. By thinking about whether this particular goal is consistent with our values and believes, we will have a much better filter on which option suits us best. Over time, we will be able to formalise these decision making processes and those become our principles when are deciding on what to do. Finally, the fear of making a wrong choice should be addressed as well. There is no reason why we can’t change our decisions if the situation has changed, it will be silly not to do so. There are many examples, like Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, who showed how that mindset contributes to their success. We need to stop associating changing direction with making wrong decisions because you do not have the insight that leads you to a new direction when you made the decision in the first place.

New ways of thinking

Setting unrealistic goals

Far too often we set goals that are too much for us to achieve and we set ourselves up for failure before we even start. While we might not all agree, we are all inherently optimistic when it comes to setting goals. This is known as the planning fallacy as we often overestimate what we can achieve when we plan. The mindset change we need here is to think in smaller steps, the smaller the steps, the easier it is for us to progress. Note that I am talking about smaller steps and not smaller goals because I do believe in setting ambitious goals that stretch us out of our comfort zone, but the key is to break that down to small steps that we can deliver confidently. The reason why we like to set unrealistic goals is because failing a grand and ambitious goal is expected and it is an excuse easy to hide behind. We tend to overlook achieving something small and we celebrate trying something big, but that is backwards when we try to make progress. This is not to discourage us from trying, but we must change our mindset to measure success by the actual progress that we have made rather than what we have tried.

New ways of thinking

Not actually starting

A common mistake that stops us from actually starting is the concept of motion vs. action raised by James Clear. How often did you plan to eat healthy and spend most of your time researching diets that you didn’t end up following? We can only start something when we actually start actioning on it. This sounds fairly obvious but that means researching and planning are motions and not actions. We want to start with all the information so we have the best chance to succeed, but we need to stop thinking that because there are always going to be another article to read, another plan to follow and another thing to learn. If we can approach this the other way round and start working on our goal, we will be in action much faster and there is always room to research later.

New ways of thinking

Fail to progress

The real work begins once you have started, and sustaining the progress becomes the main goal.

Photo by Lindsay Henwood on Unsplash

Too busy to work on it

There are only so many hours in a day and we often fail to find the time to work on what we want to finish. While it is easy to hide behind the fact that there are so many other things that need our time and attention, we need to change our thinking about how we spend our time. We need to approach our day by thinking about our priorities first and allocate the time to goals we want to accomplish. This is an exercise of prioritisation and we need to be honest about what is important to us and choose from there (remember the cost of indecision discussed above). Prioritising our goals and allocate time to work on them establish implementation intention. Studies have shown that this simple strategy will increase the odds of achieving our goals. At the end of the day, it is not a question of how to find more time, but a question of how important our goals are. Making choices between what to do is difficult, but I believe failing at what we want to achieve because we don’t want to make a difficult decision is way worse. I don’t believe we are too busy, I believe we are too scared to say no to the things that don’t really matter.

New ways of thinking

Distracting environment and unfocused mind

It is hard to deny the addictiveness of social media and other online platforms that are engineered to keep us hooked, but this distraction-filled environment is a significant obstacle for us. I am not here to fight the losing battle that we should eliminate those distractions, it would frankly be impractical and impossible. Combining the noisy surroundings with our brain’s tendency to attend to stimuli, it is not surprising that we fail to make progress even when we have the time to do it. The mindset we need to change here is going to be challenging and requires practice. We need to learn how to be able to go deep and focus on what we do, a state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as “flow”. He said, “Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding”. So it seems like the key is to be able to start that interaction before our mind wanders off.

New ways of thinking

Fail to finish

Even on the final home stretch, getting across the finish line is still not easy. Here are two questions that usually pop into our mind and how they can stop us from finishing.

Photo by Anton Shuvalov on Unsplash

All or nothing

While not all of us will identify as a perfectionist, we all want our work to be good. Finishing what we do requires us to hand over our work to the audience, whether the audience is our boss, our friends or strangers on the internet. It is a daunting task because we no longer have control over the outcome and you start receiving feedback from others. The question “What if it is not perfect?” is often the last obstacle that stops us from completing our goals. There are two layers to this question, an internal one for ourselves and an external one for everyone else. I believe somewhere between the spectrum from terrible to perfect, there lies the sweet spot called “good enough”. We need to ask ourselves whether our work is good enough for us. If not, get back to work and make it better because our work exemplifies us. On the other hand, if we believe our work is good enough for us to stand behind, we can move on to the external level. The truth is that we will never know how our work will be perceived until we have finished it, so there is nothing we can worry about. Finish our goal, let the world sees it and embrace the feedback so we can do better next time.

New ways of thinking

What’s next?

This question stops us from finishing by bringing us back to the start of our journey. When we finish, we are back to figuring out what we should do and that is a lot of uncertainty to deal with. Humans don’t do well under uncertainty because we live in a delayed return environment with a brain that is wired for immediate return. Sometimes this uncertainty is too much for us and we would rather not finish just to avoid it altogether. To overcome this, we need to shift our perspective to turn worry into excitement. We need to recognise that we are not back to the start because we have made progress by finishing the last goal. And the unknown is an opportunity to achieve something new and something more. We need to learn to see these moments as opportunities where we can make choices and move towards the life we want to have.

New ways of thinking

Now what?

We have walked through the path of finishing your goal from start to finish and it is not an easy journey. I hope this will help you better understand these obstacles and give you some ideas on how you can change your ways of thinking to overcome them. Changing our mindset is not enough for us to get us across the line, it is just the first step but it is a tremendously important one.

Across The Line

For those who want to get things done

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