Has this ever happened to you?:

There’s an item on your task list, but you’re not quite sure how to start. It’s not due for a few weeks, so you keep pushing it. Every day, you’ll say you’ll do it tomorrow. Well, now it’s due tomorrow and when you sit down to finally do it; it takes all of 20 minutes. And you’re kicking yourself because you’ve been stressing about it and procrastinating for 3 weeks. “Why didn’t I just do it earlier?”, you ask yourself.

Or what about this?:

You put a recurring daily block on your calendar for “focus work” because you’ve heard time blocking helps you stay focused. But every day, you blow past that time block without using it for “focus work”. Instead, you check your email, or fight the latest fire.

Does that sound familiar?

These scenarios may not seem all that related at first, but the root cause is actually the same for both: Task granularity. You weren’t specific enough about what you needed to do, so you didn’t do it.

Your brain will always prioritize the specific over the general.

So, when you have a task and you’re not sure where to start, you push it and instead focus on something that’s more clear.

Even though you have the best of intentions, you’ll always answer that email that just came in (specific) over “focus work” (general).

So, what’s the answer? You’ve got to get specific.

For every task or project, define the smallest next action you can take to move it forward. And if the action doesn’t yet seem clear, break it down further.

If you literally have no idea what the next action is, then it’s “Google X” or “Ask boss about where to start with Y”. There’s always a step you can take.

If you’re waiting for someone else, the action is “follow up with so and so”.

Language Matters

Recently, a client of mine was having trouble making progress on a project that was really important to his business: implementing a billing software. Even though he said it was his most important project, and he was adding time blocks, he kept ignoring the time blocks. I asked him if the blocks started with “figure out”.

He said “how did you know?”.

“Figure out” is not clear enough. It’s amorphous.

So, instead, we asked what does “figure out” really mean? In this case, it meant that the first step was going to be to “create a spreadsheet with the list of criteria for a billing software”. And then the second step would be “fill in criteria spreadsheet for Vendor A”, and so on.

When you get to a task, or a time block, you want there to be no question about what actually needs doing. No friction between looking at the task and starting the task. The more specific the task is, the easier this is.

Or, your task might say something like “connect with John”. And you might think that’s specific. But what does “connect with” mean. Does that mean send him an email? A Slack message? Schedule a meeting? Be specific to reduce the friction.

Why time blocking STILL doesn’t work for you

If you’re thinking, “my time blocks are specific and I still ignore them”, I’m betting the issue is that your time blocks don’t consider the whole of your task list. If you time block about only a few things, but haven’t considered what else is on your list, then the blocks might not have been prioritized correctly. And you might need to take a step back and ask yourself if you’ve implemented your single trusted system.

If you add a few time blocks to your calendar, but you haven’t considered the whole of what you need to do today, then your calendar doesn’t accurately reflect reality, and you might be rightfully prioritizing something else over what you’ve time blocked. But it’ll feel bad because you’re ignoring those time blocks. Again.

(And if you don’t have a task system that you love yet, I’ll recommend TickTick. It’s my favorite.)

Specificity makes the tradeoffs more clear

Do you consistently prioritize the (seemingly) urgent over the important. The urgent is right here. It’s specific. It needs an answer!

When you’re super specific about the next actions in a task or project, it is easier to prioritize the important over the urgent.

If you’ve defined all the steps to a task or project, and when you need to do them to hit your due date, it’s so much easier to understand the tradeoffs you are making if you instead answer that email that just came. If you’re clear on your next steps, you’re clear that you’ll have to make time for them later if you ignore them today.

Does this have to be in writing?

Yup! When you’re defining next steps, it should be in writing. In your task list.

Why? Because if it’s all in your head, it’ll be harder to focus on the task at hand, because you’re so busy trying to remember all the things.

If might feel silly to spell it all out, but I promise you it’ll be easier to define what you need to do, and actually make progress on it, if it’s in writing. Your brain can let go once it’s written down. And you won’t need to think about it over and over again. And when it’s time to work on it, you won’t sit there trying to remember where to start, you’ll instead simply do the step you already defined and move onto the next thing.

The next time you find yourself procrastinating, or ignoring a time block, ask yourself: “What’s the smallest next step I could take to move this forward?”