How to develop mental discipline to get the work done
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How to develop mental discipline to get the work done

How to develop mental discipline to get the work done

We must recognise that our minds are powerful originators for ideas

With a gargantuan effort underway to distract us, whether this is an external force of antagonism such as social media companies, or whether it’s our own stray unstructured thoughts, we must recognise that our minds are powerful originators for ideas. However, the more we can get out of our heads, the more clearly we can think.

David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, says: “Your head is not for holding ideas – it’s for having ideas…The first thing to do is to capture what’s got your attention, then decide if it’s actionable or not, and if it is, decide what the next action on it is, and do the action right then if you can.”

Allen is referring to the “Zeigarnik effect”, named after Bluma Zeigarnik, who, in the late 1920s, stated that incomplete or interrupted tasks weigh on our minds much more than completed tasks.

Whenever I think about a task or activity to perform, I write it down. As a result, I experience more clarity and less stress. Even if I notice the smallest item weighing on my mind, I externalise it (write it down) to create more attentional space for bigger and better things. The notes app I use (Evernote) syncs between all my devices. My to-do lists are simple: one for work and one for personal matters.

However, there are plenty of other possible apps or just a good old-fashioned notebook you can use. The point is: externalise what you are thinking, or else you will forget it. In Getting Things Done, Allen also mentions a “waiting for” list: a list of everything you are waiting on, which – like a to-do list – you should review on a regular basis to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.

From my own experience, the most productive people are the ones who strike a balance between the two extremes, who understand the power of capturing and organising what they have to get done, but who also don’t sacrifice real work in favour of ‘looking’ efficient. The reality for many knowledge workers is that they need to keep on demonstrating that they are productive members of the organisation, yet what constitutes productivity as a metric is often fuzzy and unclear.

To overcome this issue, many knowledge workers resort to how productivity was measured during the Industrial Age, under the Efficiency Movement, founded by Frederick Taylor, who used to stand with a stopwatch in hand measuring the efficiency of worker movements – all the while calculating how to speed up the tasks they were undertaking.

Fast-forward to today’s knowledge worker and this manifests itself as a need to be visibly busy and undertaking such mind-and-soul-crushing behaviours as replying to emails immediately no matter what time of day, packing the diary with meetings, many of which are not required, chiming in on instant messaging conversations whether they have relevance or not, and firing off random ideas across the office as you walk through – all the while ensuring you are publicly seen to be busy and so, by default, valuable to the organisation.

Unfortunately, all of us can slip into this unproductive trap, where we give the impression of busyness, yet our work lacks depth, and we do not possess the mental discipline to undertake cognitively demanding work. When we feel ourselves sliding into this zone, which we all do to some extent, then it’s important to become aware of it, pick ourselves up, reset and head in the opposite direction.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT, an educator and a novelist

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