CTO Compass

It’s Decision Time

What do you do when you sit down to plan something out?

If you’re anything like me from 5 years or so ago, perhaps it looks something like this:

I sit down, pen and paper in hand, and computer at the ready. I get myself a fresh coffee and start thinking about the project or goal I need to work on. I stare into space and ponder the sorts of things that could be done.

After about 5 minutes or so of staring, one of two things would happen.

1.I decide I don’t have enough information, or maybe there’s some great idea out there that I’m not aware of, so I’ll just do some “research”.

Or 2. I’m suddenly feeling a bit overwhelmed, so I’ll take a little break and take a look at Twitter (I refuse to call it “X”).

The outcomes are the same: my time allocation is up, and the notebook is still blank. Though I do have a lot more browser tabs open! Or, I feel bad because I just wasted 20+ minutes on Twitter.

If any of this sounds familiar and has you nodding your head vigorously, then I have good news for you: by the end of this email, you’ll have a plan you can follow to take control and plan far more effectively with a technique called Decision Time.

Procrastination is our brain’s protection system kicking in

Contrary to popular belief, procrastination isn’t a bad character trait; it’s just our brain’s way of telling us something. We only have to stop and listen. The main causes of procrastination on an important task are either because it’s too big and overwhelming, or it’s ill-defined, so we don’t really know where to start.

There’s one other big reason, which was often my underlying issue. I have perfectionist tendencies, so in wanting the project or goal’s success to be certain, I needed the perfect plan. Which I ultimately didn’t think I was fully ready for or capable of doing. And if the project isn’t completed, then I haven’t yet failed. The fear of failure was what was really holding me back from committing to anything.

We should embrace risk-taking when trying something new, even if it comes with uncertainty. Taking action in spite of the fear is courageous, and, in the end, even if we don’t succeed, we can learn from our mistakes for future growth. And if we’ve learned something, we win. It’s only by not taking action at all that we are really losing out.

Decisions, decisions, decisions

One of my favourite and most underrated books, in my opinion, is a book from the 80s called “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life” by Alan Lakein.

In it, he shared a technique he called Decision Time, which totally changed the game for me to be able to more consistently make better plans and, importantly, begin executing them.

First, we need to know that planning is not a thinking activity. It is a writing activity where you are making decisions about what you will do and when you will do it. Writing makes it a more concrete activity. The key insight that unlocked it for me was that planning doesn’t need to take forever; we don’t need a perfect plan, we just need a way forward.

In truth, there are no perfect plans anyway. It is far more effective to adjust your plan as you execute and hit obstacles you didn’t and couldn’t plan for.

When you’re about to start an important task, or you need to plan something out, realise you’re at Decision Time. Grab a sheet of paper and write out, “I have decided.”

Set yourself a 5-minute timer and record whatever decisions come to mind about the task or project.

  • When will you start it?
  • Where will you do it?
  • What to do first.
  • What to do next.
  • How much time can you devote to it all together?
  • What information do you need?
  • What equipment might be required?
  • Who else will need to be involved?

​The more concrete you can be in those decisions, the more likely you’ll hit on some simple ways to start and begin making progress. By the way, it’s important that you do actually write your answers down; this is a writing activity, not a thinking activity.

As you try to answer these questions, you might still get stuck; next time, I’ll cover a follow-up technique to unstick you called “The Magic If”.

The beauty of this process is that it allows you to change your relationship with the project. When you focus on everything you don’t know, you’re reactive. By changing the frame to one of making decisions, you’re now proactive and action-oriented. It frees your mind up.

One final, important thing. It’s fine to make “wrong” decisions. Just make them based on your best judgment now. A decision that gets you into action is a good decision. Decision Time is all about getting started to get over that “blank slate” problem and into motion. As you progress, you’ll learn what else you’ll need to decide to succeed.

Next time you get stuck, remember it’s “Decision Time”, and follow this process to get moving. As Tal Ben-Shahar said, “Action precedes inspiration”.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

Here’s a quick recap of the technique:

When you sit down to plan out a task or a project or to make progress on a goal you have, write out on a sheet of paper, “I have decided”.

Set a 5-minute timer and answer these questions, writing whatever comes to mind. You don’t need to overthink it.

  • When will you start?
  • Where will you do it?
  • What will you do first? (what’s the smallest step you can take?)
  • What to do next.
  • When might it need to be completed?
  • How much time can you devote to it all together?
  • What information do you need?
  • What equipment might be required?
  • Who else will need to be involved?