The Complete Flake’s Guide to Getting Things Done

Flaky_ape Are you smart and motivated and passionate, and have lots of cool things you’d like to get done, but somehow when it comes to doing them, you just . . . don’t?

Are you great at ideas but lousy at execution? Talk a good game but don’t get any results? Spend a lot of time thinking about where you want to go, but not much time actually moving your ass down the road that would take you there?

You, my friend, are a flake. Congratulations. We are a worldwide force. If we could all get ourselves moving in the same direction, we would change the world. However, that will never happen.

Most of us are creative and smart. We’re often very funny and really pretty charming. We get things quicker than a lot of people do.

What we lack is focus. Everything looks good to us. We want dinner in Paris and a dive trip to Fiji. Most of us care more about experiences than about stuff. But because we don’t take care of the “stuff” aspect of life, we don’t have the experiences we really want to have.

That, and we lack this “drive” thing. We have desire, but we don’t know how to engage drive. The wheels are turning, but the car ain’t going forward.

If you are a flake, you need to learn how to get things done. Getting things done (meeting goals, completing projects, all that irritating junk productive people do) will let you have better experiences.

We live in a world made of stuff, so it gets pretty painful when we blow stuff off. You actually can learn how to get things done. Here’s how.

What Do You Want Out of It?

You’re not going to get a damned thing done until you actually know what you want to get out of it.

I know this is making your eyes roll into the back of your head. You know all about this visualizing your goals business. You may have even forced yourself to write down exactly where you want to be in 5 years, 10 years, and 20 years, with all the little details that will make it real to you.

That’s a good thing to do, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about something much more general. (Much flakier, in fact.)

Just know what you want to get out of the thing you’re thinking about doing.

Do you want to do it to make some money? OK, why do you want money? What does that get you?

Sit down with a pen and paper (or a keyboard if you must, but pen and paper do something interesting to your brain’s deep wiring) and answer the question: “What do I want out of this thing?”

You can describe a scenario, or visualize images, or focus on how you’ll feel or what the material facts will be. If you adopt too much of someone else’s formula, it won’t feel real to you. Just answer the question in a way that makes you say, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. That’s actually exactly it.”

Getting Real

Now it’s time for something that the self-helpers don’t usually talk about. I got this from Robert Fritz’s Path of Least Resistance and I have found it to absolutely rock. Fritz calls it the “Pivotal Technique,” which I think is an apt label. If you need to turn yourself around in a major way, this is how you can do it.

Step 1. Get nice and clear about what you want.

Step 2. Get completely, impeccably, bullshit-free clear about where you are now, with respect to that.

That’s it, just those two. Simple but not easy.

Put another way:

Understand exactly what you want. Understand exactly where you are. Notice the difference.

Please note that there is not a follow-up step called “beat yourself to a bloody stump about not being where you want to be.”

If you’re in New York and you want to go to San Francisco, how much good does it do to beat yourself up about what a lame-ass you are not to be in San Francisco? How far west does that actually move you?

Not one millimeter? Hmm, interesting.

Figuring Out What’s Next

All those annoying productivity people will tell you that the next step is to make a map that goes from here to there.

The map has all the steps you’ll need to take. Those steps are probably broken into sub-steps. Along the way, you’ll identify the resources you’ll need to develop and the avenues that are most likely to get you to your goal.

Get real. You are a flake. You are not going to do all that. In fact, just the thought makes you want to go grab an ice cream, doesn’t it?

And here’s another thing. You don’t know the whole map. You’ve probably never been to this place you want to go. So what makes you think you can map it out? You can’t.

The best you can do from where you are now is to get a sense of where “kinda-sorta the right direction” is.

Flakes are flaky because the map seems impossible. Productive people are productive because the map seems real. The flakes are actually right, but fat lot of good that does us. The productivity people follow their imaginary map, and because they’re doing something, they get somewhere.

But there’s a way out.

All you have to do is figure out what’s next. This comes from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is a terrific system if you’re mentally ill enough to do all the ritual. (I am, and I love it, but most people aren’t.) But the ritual is mostly optional.

Just get an idea of what one action you should take next that will take you kinda sorta in the right direction.

If you’re going to San Francisco from New York, your next action might be “get on Mapquest to figure out what roads go west out of town.” Or it could be “call Greyhound and see what a ticket will cost me.” Or it might even be “wait until the sun goes down to see where west is.”

Those are all legit. They all set you up to start moving in the right direction.

Your brain might start blaring like a smoke alarm with 2,000 things you need to do next. You can’t do 2,000 things right now. Write down the things you think are at least somewhat important. Then pick just one to do next.

Allen is very smart about this. It has to be the single next thing to take action on. Not “get $900 for an airline ticket,” but “check Craigs List tomorrow morning for temp job” or “send mom a birthday card so I can hit her up for money next week.”

If you can’t do it in 20 minutes, it’s probably not the next action. Find the next action.

Do What You Feel Like

The flake’s superpower is that we are very good at doing what we feel like.

If you figure out your next action to take, and you don’t just get up and do it right away, do the Pivotal Technique again.

Understand what you want, and why you want it. Understand where you are now. Notice the difference.

Then do what you feel like.

Just keep cycling through that. As a flake, your unconscious is very good at protecting you from things you don’t want. If you don’t feel like moving kinda-sorta in the direction of your thing, there’s something about it you don’t want.

A great flake technique is to say something to yourself along the line of:

OK, unconscious mind, gigantic pain in the ass that you are, thanks for keeping me from doing something I don’t want to do. Could you do me one more favor and let me know what about it I don’t like? Thanks.

Ask yourself that question out loud before you go to bed. Maybe write it down on a piece of paper as well. Then forget about it and see what pops into your head the next day.

Once you can see what you don’t like, you’ll figure out a way around it. Flakes are excellent at figuring out ways around things.

Don’t Misplace Your Brilliant Insights

Because, as a flake, you’re more-than-average ruled by your unconscious mind, I can promise you will get useful answers to your questions. Your unconscious mind is actually a lot smarter than your conscious mind is. So you’ve got that going for you.

But, again because you’re a flake, you’ll probably lose track of those answers.

In fact, you’ve come up with terrific answers and lost them again many times already. It’s just how we flakes work.

So set up a flake-friendly way to keep everything. I call mine the compost pile. All the notes and ramblings and scribbles go in there, and eventually some of it composts into something I can use.

Flakes throughout history have used notebooks for this, and they’re not bad, but they’re hard to go back into. It might take hours to find that genius insight you had two years ago that will absolutely solve the nasty problem you’re facing right now.

So I like software. At the moment, I am addicted to the 37 Signals product Backpack. I keep blog post ideas, gardening plans, backups of eBooks I’ve bought, plans for world domination, etc. in there. On my Backpack home page are notes about the very next actions to take on various things I want to get done, and a few bullet points about what I want to focus on right now.

(I try not to focus on any more than four general areas at any one time, or everything immediately grinds to a halt. When I get ideas for projects outside my three or four focus points, I throw ‘em into the compost pile.)

The Plan in 7 Reasonably Painless Steps

  1. When you’ve got something to do, figure out what you really want to get out of it.
  2. Do the pivotal technique. Think about what you want, then get clear about where you are right this minute. Notice the difference.
  3. Figure out the next action.
  4. Do what you feel like.
  5. Rinse, lather, repeat.
  6. Start a compost pile for ideas, notes, plans and insights.
  7. Stick to three or four primary areas of focus.

That’s it. Fellow flakes, what kind of things are you trying to get done now? Making any progress? Let us know in the comments.

Related Reading

  • Rock Your Day. Dave Navarro is not a flake, but he has good ideas about getting past the mental blocks that keep us from being productive.
  • The Alternative Productivity Manifesto. Clay Collins’ take on whether we should be pursuing productivity in the first place, and how we might define that in a healthy way.

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Comments

  1. angua says:

    Fellow flakes,
    I cannot tell you ho comforting this blog was for me. I am not alone. I have wrestled with flakiness all my life, now maybe I can stop beating myself up about it. Lol. Fabulously useful I will print it and read it every day

  2. Rikk says:

    “Way of the Flake” – love this Sonia! And I am completely a Flake. The name is much more elegant, in it’s own flakey way, than a Myers Briggs or other style label.

    And knowing that you’re a Flake too gives me hope. You’ll be getting affirmative replies to this post for years to come… Thanks for writing it!

  3. Alex says:

    I’m a flake. I remember years ago an old man came into the car shop where my stepdad had me scraping paint off of a car and he sized me up and said in a simple flat voice: “Alex, you’re a flake”. I was wounded but I didn’t even know what that was. Was he saying that I’m like a flake of paint, not real, not worth anything? Of course what he meant was that I am not worth anything to someone who wants to use me to get something done, which is actually good! But it was his tone I didn’t like. Of course I didn’t really know that what being a flake means is that I’m not even useful TO MYSELF. So all these years later I notice I have a student in my class who has the attention span of a spider monkey and totally does goofball stuff that is totally inappropriate at random, answers other students’ questions but can’t answer the questions I give him and I then I see that old man coming out of my subconscious telling me to tell him that he is a flake. I then feel rage because I still am not sure what a flake is. I come online and search. Damn, I’m a flake. I know everything that should be done in my life but I am a damned STONE when it comes to doing the drudgework. I have a MASSIVELY inert motivational system all at odds with a totally inspired vision for every facet of my life. I have studied myself and tried to change everything: psychocybernetics, motivational psychology, meditation, drill sergeant-like severity, externalization of memory and process, decluttering and simplifying, reducing everything to some experiential essence so that I can make sure that I choose the most compatible means to an end rather than merely a symbolic one which won’t do, etc etc etc.

    I’m looking at this and saying to myself… here we go again, something else that won’t work. But even so, there is something here that rings true. The subconscious is VERY intelligent, and it is protecting me. I don’t have to beat myself up over that. Just have to be honest with it, like you do with your shadow-side in Jungian psychology. I have to ask it what it is really trying to do/not do, let me do /not let me do. Commune with it in some kind of really primal way. Finally I am going to have to admit that I won’t disgrace myself anymore by doing what I don’t feel like doing, and that I always do what I feel like doing when I’m true to myself, so all I really have to do is be true to myself. The other side of a flake is a person who is true to himself and nothing else. Just gotta flip this coin…

  4. Joshua says:

    A great GTD article. I guess I must admit I am a flake. Been denying it for many years, yet, somehow I this clears things up some. It really is a lot of work Getting Things Done!

  5. Emily Rose says:

    I totally get this, I am a flake and a darn good one, I have started making progress towards my goals most recently and it feels really good, but I still always find other things to put off until later, and end up doing them at te last minute. But I figure, embrace it, go with it, the things get done when they are supposed to. So I just started implementing more deadlines for myself and things get done. But not too many deadlines, yeah i have a million and one projects I want to do, but I put the majority of them onto the back burner because now is just not the right time for them and I can do them later. It also kind makes me feel good to have things on my list that I can go do when i finish the ones I am working on, I’m never for want of something to do. It makes me confused when people talk about being bored.

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