You’re facing the blank page. Or the tough choice. Or the constant flow of distractions and the endless to-do list. What now?
There are always going to be times when you’re feeling stuck, not sure where to go next, what to focus on or how to get back in gear. While it may seem counter-intuitive, one of the most valuable things you can do to get moving again in these situations is to stop and think.
Understanding how you think is important, but just as important is taking time out of the daily whirlwind to really think. Uninterrupted thinking time is one of the most essential ingredients for a more creative, productive and satisfying life.
Sometimes that time is best spent daydreaming, with nothing on the agenda. But sometimes you’ll want to plan that time for some active thinking. What will you think about? There are a number of different questions you can ask to prompt powerful thinking, depending on what’s relevant, what you’re feeling stuck about and what works for you. To get you started, here are a few “think abouts” that are applicable to most of us today.
1. Think about your “inputs.”
Many people go to work, take one look at their inbox, and despair. It’s teeming with undefined “stuff” that’s much easier to avoid than to process. The result is that they skim off the top of the pile, dealing with only the most recent and most urgent items. Their day is governed by reaction rather than choice, so they’re in a a state of constant crisis.
Of course, email is only one source of “stuff.” You’ve also got voicemails, text messages, chat alerts, people dropping in, and all the other interruptions and distractions of daily life. These are all “inputs” that are shouting out for your attention—even if they don’t all require the same amount or depth of thinking.
Think about how you can deal with all of these inputs. For each new one that comes in, ask:
- Can I do something about this? We tend to forget this simple fact: Not everything requires action, and you don’t always have to hit “reply.” Only some of your inputs call for follow-up; the rest can be filed away for future reference (or deleted).
- Can I do it right now? If the follow-up action will take just a few minutes—such as a short email or phone call—consider doing it immediately. Clear the decks as quickly as possible, because the longer you wait, the more things will pile up.
- Can I write a reminder to do it later? When you don’t need to take immediate action, you can “park” a reminder about it. Add it to your calendar or put it on your to-do list. Just be sure to include a deadline so it doesn’t keep getting pushed further down.
2. Think about what to do—and what not to do.
Speaking of your to-do list, don’t forget to write your not-to-do-list. Review your calendar for the past month and reflect on your activities. Which of them can you stop doing? Add them to the list.
And then there’s your other list—the one with items that you actually want to get done. To set priorities, scan the list and choose your MIT (Most Important Thing) for today. Do it first whenever possible.
You can also sort tasks based on the amount of mental effort they require. Tackle these during the times of day when your energy peaks. This is a powerful strategy for becoming more productive.
3. Think about decisions you need to make.
It’s common to feel stuck when you’re facing a big decision or pivotal, possibly life-changing choice. Keep in mind, the bigger a decision, the more thinking it requires. Brainstorm a list of possible options, and ask four questions about each one:
- What will I get in return for the amount of time, money and other resources that I invest in this option?
- How will I implement this decision?
- Who will be affected by this decision?
- If I choose this option, will I be happy with it in the future?
Another good option if you’re still feeling stuck: Stimulate your thinking by using the method Suzy Welch explains in her book, 10-10-10: 10 Minutes, 10 Months, 10 Years, a Life Transforming Idea. “When faced with a decision,” she writes, “determine the consequences and outcomes of your various options in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.”
4. Think about what you learned today.
Here’s a 10-minute program for learning something every day. Start by shutting the door to your office and turning off all electronic devices. Then ask yourself:
- How successful was I at getting things done?
- Did I run into problems as I interacted with other people?
- Did I hit a wall in coming up with a result that would work for my clients/coworkers/me?
- What will I do differently tomorrow?
It’s a great way to both reflect and keep moving forward.
5. And when you’re really pressed for time...
If you only take time for one question each day, consider the following, adapted from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
What one thing could I do on a regular basis that would make a tremendous positive difference in my life?
That one will give you plenty to think about.