What to Do When You’re Waffling

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Way back in 1998, when I wrote my first article on what to do when you get stuck on a difficult thinking problem, I offered one general piece of advice: Identify the problem. As Louis Sullivan said, "the problem contains and suggests its own solution."

Although I now offer a lot of more specific advice, this general advice is still relevant. You will sometimes identify a problem that doesn't fit any particular process you've learned about. That's okay — you can create your own process for dealing with it.

Here's an example:

In the past, I have hesitated to settle in to do the task that is next on my agenda. In the morning I had set up the items to do — 1, 2, 3. Though this priority order made sense earlier in the day, I would sometimes waffle over implementing it. This temporary state of indecision was unpleasant, and it was often a waste of time. In most situations, there was no reason to revisit the earlier thinking, and I needed to buckle down and do the next task in order. But not always — sometimes there was a good reason to change the priority.

Once I identified the problem, I realized I needed a simple procedure to help me move through the waffling stage into action. Here are the four steps I gave myself to work through this issue:

1) Ask myself: How much time am I trying to use productively? (This context is necessary for any decision about what to do. When the day's schedule has slipped, the plan has changed.)

2) Ask myself: What is my preconception for how I should use this time? (I had to consciously remind myself of the earlier decision. Here, I deliberately used the word "preconception" to give myself permission to state it without assuming it was set in stone.)

3) Ask myself: Does it still make sense? If yes, do it. (In other words, in most cases, reminding myself of the context and the decision, and doing a quick sanity check was all I needed to move me into action.)

4) If it doesn't make sense: review my various to do lists, and reprioritize.

This little procedure has been quite helpful. And it was much faster than sitting at my desk working through the waffling in an ad hoc manner.

Most of the time the original plan still made sense, and I could regain that context quickly and get started with just steps 1-3. Sometimes the context had changed, and something else was clearly more important.

Occasionally I realized I didn’t know my priorities anymore — there was a good reason I was waffling. This last case was a little annoying, but it was the exception, and I'm not sure there is any way around it. In some cases, fresh hard thinking may be needed.

The point is this: I didn't get this process from someone else. I made it up. It follows the pattern of the general solution to confusion: Gather Data, Test Assumptions, Sum Up. But I worked out specific questions for data gathering and testing assumptions that seemed to fit this distinctive situation. I did it with some thinking and a little trial-and-error as I used it a few times.

So, if you find yourself facing a specific obstacle on a regular basis, take the initiative to create your own remedy for it. The basic tactics can be adapted for your specific circumstances — often quite easily.

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