A Distractible Person’s Guide to Getting Things Done

“We often do a better job of taking care of our future self, as opposed to our present self.”

Bradley R. Staats is a professor at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School. He combines research on operations management and human behavior to cultivate constant learning and top performance at companies around the world, and he is the author of the Next Big Idea Club selection, Never Stop Learning: Stay Relevant, Reinvent Yourself, and Thrive. Renowned psychologist, top-rated Wharton professor, and Next Big Idea Club curator Adam Grant recently sat down with Brad to discuss how we can start adopting and sticking to the habits that will make us successful.

Adam: A lot of what you write [creates] this reaction of, “Yeah, I should be doing that, but I don’t do enough of it.” It might be what our colleagues Pfeffer and Sutton call a “knowing-doing gap,” where you recognize that something is an effective practice, and then you look at your calendar and think, “I’m a total failure when it comes to doing that.” What advice do you have for closing those gaps, and making sure that we actually do build that time into our schedules?

Brad: I think folks like Stephen Covey got it right—the tyranny of the urgent over the important is a constant theme through life. We know what we should do, but then somebody walks into our office asking if we can go to a meeting, or if we can knock something out for them. We know it’s not as important, but it’s right there in front of us, so we go ahead and run down that path.

I’m both an operations professor and a behavioral scientist, so as I wrote the book, part of the goal was to say, “Hey, let’s understand the psychology of why we get in our own way.” But I think we can go back to some of the operations, some of the process side, to come up with a better approach.

Research tells us that we often do a better job of taking care of our future self, as opposed to our present self. So in the moment, right now, if you ask me, “Hey, are you going to take 15 minutes to reflect? Or are you going to go down the hall and chat with somebody?” I might have the urge to go down the hall and chat with them.

On the other hand, if I’m making my schedule for tomorrow or for next week, I might actually do a pretty good job of blocking it out, saying, “Look, I need to knock out an hour of writing in the morning. It doesn’t matter what else is going on—I’ve got to have that hour to write.” Or, “I need that 15 minutes to reflect.” So I’m a big fan of actively managing the calendar, and blocking out that time.

Sometimes you can tell everybody what you’re doing, and in others, you might need to come up with a code word: “Look, I’m in a meeting.” That meeting happens to be just me reflecting, but that’s the sort of process and accountability approach that protects us from ourselves.

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