Lately I’ve been trying to make a few choices. For example, I’ve been wrestling with either working on my income tax or getting out those pesky holiday cards—which one should I start on first? This morning I had to decide whether I should get up early and run a couple of miles, or stay in bed because I truly needed a little more sleep.
At work our team has been stuck trying to choose between spending money on one strategy and finding out more information about an alternative choice. It’s been on our meeting agenda for almost a month now and, really, it’s not that big a deal.
Ever been there? The more you think about the options, the more it seems like a tie. One is just as good as the other, but you can only pick one. So you pick nothing. You procrastinate. Well, not exactly—because after all, you are doing something: you’re thinking this over. Right?
This dilemma has been around for a while.
Fourteenth-century French philosopher Jean Buridan suggested that if you put an ass (the donkey type, not the human type) between two identical piles of hay, it would be unable to choose between the two and would die of hunger. This became known as the Paradox of Buridan’s Ass, whose picture you see above. (We can’t guarantee the authenticity of the photo.)
Even further back—in 350 B.C., to be exact—Aristotle proposed that a person who is equally thirsty and hungry and has to choose between food and drink might stay exactly at that position and starve to death.
More recently, the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof had trouble making decisions because of his annoying habit of always saying “…but on the other hand, this, and on the other hand, that …” Fiddler opened in New York in 1964.
You may notice that all these observations happened long before multi-tasking as we now know it, incoming cell phone calls, being buried in emails, etc. By the way—should you pay to drive in the car pool lane today, or stay right where you are?
So what’s a procrastinator to do? Here are three suggestions:
- Just do something. Anything. Have you ever noticed that if you are trying to push a stalled car off the road, it’s very difficult to get it moving initially? But once it is moving, it’s relatively easier to keep it going. Physicists call this “static friction.” It’s harder to move things that are currently stationary than things that are already in motion. You might think of it as activation energy.
- Don’t delay. There is a business theory that delay is better than error. Actually—no, it isn’t. First of all, the opportunity you’re putting off now will not be identical to what might be the case in the future. It will likely become more complex as you hold off taking action. Conditions change, and dilemmas usually intensify. Secondly, doing something provides you with some helpful information because you’ve got observed data. Call it a “pilot,” if you prefer. Keep in mind that very few decisions are absolutely final. During implementation, there will be opportunities for adjustment.
- Pick a small first step and add that to your to-do list. Don’t write “Income tax.” Write “Get forms,” or perhaps “Gather expense receipts.” The smaller the line item, the more doable it will seem. And put a deadline on it.
Of course, having a goal is helpful. In fact, it’s downright essential. But it’s not enough. Progress is all about taking action. Goals without action are merely dreams. So if you’re serious about productivity and execution, you’ve got to get active. As Einstein said, “Nothing happens until something moves.” Inactivity breeds discouragement. In real life Buridan’s ass acts and sounds a lot like Eeyore.
Finally, to close the loop after you’ve done something—even an eensy, teensy, stupid little something—celebrate. Even if your celebration is merely a private party in your brain that you hold for yourself. Take a breath, smile in satisfaction, and feel good. And then move on. Come on, we don’t have all day here.
About the author
Dr. Dick Ruhe is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies.