Overcoming workflow paralysis

If you’re a living, breathing, human being, there will come a time when you’ve managed to get a bit behind in your work. Ok, more than a bit behind. Wayyyy horribly never-going-to-catch-up-I’m-a-terrible-person behind. Hands up if you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, please leave now. You’re just going to piss the rest of us off.

I’m a good, modern hipster. I’ve read GTD (twice). I’ve got my moleskines, my hipster-pda, my treo, my powerbook, my “basement covered with notes”:http://www.peterflaschner.com/article/hipster-pda-on-the-juice. I know the difference between a next action and a to-do. Yet every once in a while, I still manage to get behind. When I do, my behavior changes. The more behind I am, the more time I spend staring blankly at my monitor. The later my nights get. The crabbier I become. I feel like poo. And I look like it too.

*Given the insane proliferation of GTD and workflow talk, I know I am not alone in this.*

We’re all trying to do more. Maybe its more work, maybe its more time with the kids. Whatever your drive is, we turn to workflow pr0n because we want more *something*. We’ve already brushed up against the overload monster, and we turn to our idols of productivity for protection and guidance. Even the most seasoned workflow wizard gets distracted once in a while though, and the monster is very quick to jump on our backs.

Human nature is a hard thing to buck. When danger rears our nature says “go to ground – run and hide!” In our post-post-modern world, danger comes in the form of missed deadlines and blown deals. Our nature takes over. There’s not very much you can do to fight it directly. But you can learn to recognize its signals and avoid dreaded workflow paralysis.

We need a tiny bit of understanding about how our brains work before we can go on. I’m going to be extremely general, so please spare me the hate mail. Our brains are basically made up of 4 areas: brainsbrainstemtem, diencepahlon, limbic, and neo-cortex. The brainstem is the ancient part of our brain. It hasn’t changed much since the reptiles ruled. It’s where the fight of flight instinct comes from. It regulates our basic functions, and is essentially in charge with keeping us alive. We don’t have direct control over our brainstem’s functions. You can’t willfully stop your heart. Nor can you willfully avoid the fight or flight instinct when it kicks in. But you can sidestep it. Here’s how.

The first step is in recognizing what’s happening. Fidgety? Check. Got to pee? Check. Irritable? Oh yeah. Unable to concentrate? You get the picture.

Your brainstem really does equate missing an important deadline with danger. And when it detects danger, it changes your behavior. Run! Hide! Great when you’re being chased by a saber tooth tiger or a crazed ex-postal worker. Not so good when your to-do list is 100 items long. While the idea of running away from my keyboard is tempting, I’ve found through trial and experiment that it just doesn’t help.

I’ve found the best way to side-step the run away instinct is to allow myself to make mistakes. See, the danger in this case is not coming from outside. Its fully internal. The drive to succeed, to make it, to do great work, to get things done comes from inside me. Knowing that my brainstem wants to run away from danger, I need to reassure it that there is no real danger present.

Our brainstems are binary. Good/bad. Danger/saftey. Live/die. Allowing mistakes removes the threat, and prevents unhelpful behavior from getting the way. Letting myself make mistakes takes the control away from my brainstem, and puts it back in “my” hands. Obviously I’m not condoning avoiding responsibilities and commitments. But admitting that we make mistakes is an incredibly powerful tool. As Shakespeare so eloquently put it *”to screw up is human”*.

The fact is, if you’ve gotten behind on your work, you *have* made a mistake. You’ve either taken on too much (hello!), or not managed your time properly. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Recognize it for what it is, a mistake, and get back to work. Try to avoid doing it again. Screwing up once is normal. Making the same mistake twice is sort of ok. Three strikes and it’s not a mistake any more; it’s an indication of a greater issue that you’ll have to identify before you can be successful in your, well, life. Besides, if you didn’t make mistakes you’d be completely unbearable.

Let’s review. The ancient part of our brains considers missing deadlines as danger. It kicks our natural fight or flight mechanism into place. The fight of flight instinct can be very detrimental to actually _getting things done_. Recognizing this behavior in yourself, you can side step full on catatonia and panic by allowing yourself to have screwed up. This recognition tells your brainstem “thank you very much, but I am not actually in mortal danger. Now please buzz off so I can get back to work.”

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