Anyone who has travelled on the London Underground will be familiar with the recorded voice that warns us to ‘mind the gap’. It’s very good advice, but the gap I am concerned with is not the gap between the edge of the train and the platform.
Failures and disappointments
If I think back over past failures and disappointments, I can trace a lot of them back to the simple but all-important gap between thinking and doing. If I had gone ahead and done what I knew I needed to do, I know that in virtually every case I would have made progress. If I had actually done something instead of finding reasons not to, I would have achieved so much more. I know that because of the opportunities I missed and the ones I took: I achieved little when I held back and a lot when I went for it.
I stress again that I am not talking about the bigger concepts we’ve tackled so far but our daily habits instead. A few small examples can serve to make the larger point:
Forgetfulness. I’ve always thought of my poor memory as the reason I forget to do things. I am now convinced that it’s a symptom, not a cause. I don’t think I forget things at all. What I do is remember them at various times during the day but neglect to take action on them. One evening I was due to meet a friend and had some things I was supposed to bring with me. When I arrived I found I had forgotten them; one item was left on the arm of a chair, another in my office and a third was in a reminder on my phone.
I had remembered all of them, but I had either partially dealt with them or not dealt with them at all. I had created a gap between thinking and doing, and every one of those tasks fell through that gap. That is not forgetfulness; it’s not taking responsibility for following something through.
Absent-mindedness. Where was I? Ah yes. If you are absent, it simply means you are not present. It’s a choice. I chose not to pick up those items and put them in my car ready for my journey, so when I drove away, they weren’t there. I might forget where I left my glasses or what I went upstairs for, or I might forget what I was going to do with my life. Lots of little things add up to one big thing. There is no excuse for not being present in your own life.
Organisation. I didn’t bother to make a list or organise myself in preparation for going out. It isn’t laziness, but it is lack of organisation. A few seconds of thinking and planning would have prevented me from letting people down. There have been many occasions where I’ve let myself down for the same reason, or at least made things much harder for myself and others than it needed to be.
In order to make progress, we need to do things to help the process along. If we don’t do those things the process stalls. Everything in life is a process. Everything depends on something else to make it happen. Processes need to be efficient and effective, and few would argue that a business needs to be well run or a factory clean and well organised, but when it comes to producing great results for ourselves, we seem to think we can make it up as we go along.
The truth is if we want to get things done we need to accept that our ambitions can only be achieved with a clear vision and some discipline. We need to set goals, chunk them into manageable targets, prepare ourselves, take action and continuously improve our processes if we want to give ourselves the best chance of success.
If you read the autobiography of any successful person, there is one quality that stands out above all: discipline. There are a lot of talented people in the world who don’t achieve because they don’t make the effort. I am not talking about an occasional effort followed by a longer period of retreat but a sustained effort; this means keeping going until you have actually completed something. The successful people may have less natural talent, but they make up for it with commitment, discipline and hard work. Doesn’t sound much fun, does it? I promise you that it’s much more fun than not doing it.
Busy doing nothing
Think of the hours spent watching TV, often not really watching it at all but vaguely following the images and words as they slip by us, or flicking through the channels trying to find something that will divert us. Divert us from what? From our inspiration? From our goals? From our families? Our lives?
Millions spend their time compulsively checking their devices for mail or social media updates. Many of us doze gently in our armchairs late into the night instead of going to bed and sleeping properly; then wake the next morning unrested and out of sorts with the world. All the while there are family members we could be talking to, hobbies we could be enjoying and skills we could be learning and perfecting.
Yet when we think about what we really want to be doing, we tell ourselves that we don’t have time. It’s the most common excuse people give for not starting something, or giving it up before they’ve succeeded. The passing of time is not a choice, but what we do with our time is up to us. You make things happen by doing stuff, and the only place we can do stuff is the time available to do it in: as the poet Philip Larkin asks, ‘where do we live but days?’
Why is it so difficult to focus on what we want and do it? Why is it so much more attractive to do something else, something meaningless or unproductive; in fact, anything that isn’t what we really want or need to do? In the words of the old nonsense song, for great chunks of time, we’re ‘busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do’.
Doing the wrong things
We live in a state in which we feel the pressure to ‘do’ something all the time. It’s a state of constant activity, one of the results of which is that we get tired. We are tired because of the constant rush of activity and tired because we are aware of all the things we should be doing that we are not doing.
One of the things this leads to is ‘burn-out’ – a condition most commonly associated with top executives and sometimes worn by them as a badge of honour. I think there’s a case for inventing a new syndrome of our own; something like ‘switch-off’ or ‘never set alight’ syndrome, in which we are so worn out from doing the wrong things that we have nothing left when it comes to doing the things we should be doing.
I have advised throughout this book that we can only get things done by doing things, so I know that I am also reinforcing this message of taking action. I stand by that, as nothing gets done if you don’t do anything, but it is important that we do the right things. David Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’ contains a technique he calls the ‘What’s the next action?’ Decision. His argument is that we are so conditioned to responding to what’s in front of us that we spend our time shuffling things around, trying to remember them and failing to prioritise effectively enough to deal with them. We typically carry around in our heads a whole load of priorities and things that need to get done. They clamour for our attention, and we think about them dozens of times in a day without actually dealing with them; just as I ‘forgot’ to do several things before meeting my friend earlier in this chapter.
We spend a lot of our time doing things we shouldn’t be doing, often as a way of avoiding doing the things we should be doing. Allen’s ‘What’s the next action?’ technique requires us to decide for any given task what the next thing is that we need to do to resolve it or take it forward to the next step. And then do it. If the next thing to do is to put something in the car so I won’t drive off without it, that’s what I do. If you need to talk to someone, you go and talk to them. He describes it as ‘creating the option of doing’. If you need to do something you promised yourself yesterday that you would do today, do it. Then it’s done.
Mind the gap between thinking and doing, or you will miss the train.
Leadership & Management author and trainer