Why We Fail At The Things We Want To Accomplish (And What To Do About That)

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I caught myself giggling in the car yesterday morning.

I was on my way to work and listening to Howard Stern on satellite radio (it’s one of my daily rituals). Stern was doing a "Best Of 2013" that featured some of the gang’s favorite segments. I was lucky enough to catch his amazing interview with Jerry Seinfeld (sidebar rant: Seinfeld’s amazing Internet show, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, returns in the New Year and Howard Stern is one of his guests). Seinfeld is known for his intense work ethic. If there is one individual who embodies the work of David Allen‘s Getting Things Done, it is Seinfeld. He was recounting a story to Stern about an earlier episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee with Sarah Silverman, and a conversation he had with her that didn’t make it to the show. Sarah Silverman was telling Seinfeld all about people who come up to her and say things like, "I’m thinking about writing a book," or "I’m thinking about doing stand-up comedy," to which she always answers, "you’re never going to do it." I could not stop myself from laughing. If you start anything with, "I’m thinking about…," Silverman figures, it ain’t going to happen. We all know she’s right.

How many of those "I’m thinking about…" do you have on your list?  

I’m thinking about losing eight pounds. I’m thinking about picking up the electric bass again. I’m thinking about taking a drawing course. I’m thinking about taking a course on standup comedy. I’m thinking about… It’s kind of funny. It’s kind of true. I’d really love to do these things, but I’m probably not going to… unless I just do it (then, you won’t have to ever say that you’re thinking about doing it, because you are doing it). I’ve been devouring a recently published book titled, Manage Your Day-To-Day – Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, And Sharpen Your Creative Mind, which is edited by Jocelyn K. Glei and Scott Belsky from 99U. It’s a mix of great quotes, insights from creative people on how to optimize your time effectively and celebrity interviews. One of those interviews is with Dan Ariely (noted professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, famed TED speaker and the author of Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality and The Honest Truth about Dishonesty). I love Dan’s work and – beyond that – I am forever indebted to him, personally (he was kind enough to introduce me to his literary agent who became my literary agent). In the chapter on distractions and multi-tasking, Dan provides this fascinating insight…

"Every time you’re doing something, you’re not doing something else. But you don’t really see what it is that you’re giving up. Especially when it comes to, lets say, e-mail versus  doing something that takes fifty hours. It is very easy for you to see the e-mail. It is not that easy for you to see the thing that takes fifty hours."

What activities do you think that we, as human beings, default to?

We’re busy. Very busy. The problem is that so few of us can take the ideology of Seinfeld, Silverman and Ariely and coalesce it into something bigger. How often do you find yourself spending countless hours responding to emails, going to repetitive meetings, etc…? We go through our days thinking about how busy we are, based on our inbox and our calendars, but we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking deeply about the true work that we’re supposed to be doing. It’s amazing how these little distractions add up in our lives and fool us into thinking that we’re busy and accomplishing anything.

Block some time. Block some real time.

That’s what I am starting to do during this break. I am blocking an hour here and an hour there in my schedule, each and every week to work on those projects that will take fifty hours (or more). It’s basic math. Two hours a week equals eight hours a month. Just think about how those big projects can come together in a much shorter period of time. I’m also going to block those hours when things may be a little quieter (earlier in the day) and when I’m feeling most creative (usually before and after regular work hours). As amazing as technology is (see my post from yesterday), I often catch myself addicted to the drug of the inbox, the newsfeed, a to-do list, or related content on YouTube. The wormhole of technology is now a deep one. Emails don’t make us do great work. Emails keep us busy. So, it becomes (somewhat) obvious that we fail at the things that we want to accomplish, because life is full of small, medium and large distractions. Perhaps the answer is to figure out a way to re-program our habits, so that the things that we want to accomplish can be broken up and booked into a schedule in a way that enables the true work to replace the distraction of everything else. Sounds like a sound strategy to me.

I’m hoping to see that "something else" that Ariely talks about. I hope you can too.