Why You Can't Get Anything Done (And What to Do about It)

Remember the most infamous iceberg, which sunk what was then the world’s largest, most opulent cruise ship, The Titanic? According to survivor stories, the iceberg that sank the luxury cruiser stood anywhere from 50–100 feet above water. And while that sounds massive, typically only one-tenth of an iceberg’s mass is visible. What’s happening beneath the surface is significantly more than we initially realize.

I think of everyday tasks like icebergs floating through your day. Even the small ones involve a lot more than meets the eye. They take more time than you estimate. And you end up barely putting a dent in your to-do list and feeling like you can’t get anything done.

The good news is: there are ways to navigate the icebergs and stop getting hung up on feelings of unproductivity. They’re called workflows, a topic I wrote about in depth in my new book, Automate Your Busywork. But before we dive into workflows, it’s worth examining why we tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish.

The planning fallacy

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman once partook in writing a new curriculum for Israeli high schools. Kahneman asked his colleagues how long they estimated the project would take. Their reply? Two years. Kahneman dug further. He asked the group how long similar projects had taken. They reported 7–10 years and about 40% never finished at all.

So, how long did it take for Kahneman and colleagues to finish? Eight years, and by that point, the Ministry of Education lost interest.

As David Brooks, who shared this anecdote in a story for the New York Times, writes: 

Most people overrate their own abilities and exaggerate their capacity to shape the future.

It’s called the planning fallacy, a concept that Kahneman explored in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” And it’s why we tend to underestimate how long it will take to get something done.

But how do you overcome the planning fallacy?

Experts have varying ideas. For example, “Essentialism” author Greg McKeown recommends multiplying everything by three when you’re calculating the required time for a task. He told the Times, “Pay the price up front and think about it fully. Cost it more honestly, then make the wiser decision. It’s a very healthy way to live.”

I think that’s a good place to start, but I’d also recommend reimagining tasks as discrete workflows, an idea I write about in my book and employ every day as CEO of Jotform.

The power of workflows

Workflows are a series of interconnected steps that produce a result.

Consider an email. Your to-do list states Reply to Sam — a seemingly simple task that you can knock out in a few minutes. But underneath that innocuous item, there’s an imperceptible mass of tasks — first, you need an answer from Casey who, to be able to reply to your email, needs input from the accounting department. And once Casey gets back to you, you need to input his numbers into a spreadsheet and also collaborate with another colleague. Before finally replying to Sam, you remember you still need the legal department’s approval. Suddenly, a couple hours of your day are gone and you’re nowhere near the end of your to-do list.

As your blood pressure rises higher and higher, you probably have an epiphany: these aren’t just emails, they’re workflows. If you want to get your work under control, you have to understand and manage your workflows.

Some workflows are linear, meaning they follow the same steps each time (like brushing your teeth), and others are not. For example, loops: when the last step triggers the workflow to start all over again, like playing a song on repeat or a data collection workflow that re-initiates each time the process is completed. Regardless of whether it’s linear or non-linear, every workflow has four predictable elements: trigger, steps, results, outcome.

Understanding any workflow requires mapping out the full process ahead of time. In practice, this does two things. First, it removes your emotions from the equation. You’re not wrestling with whether or not you want to hit the gym in the morning — you simply map out your workflow (book trainer sessions, set out your clothes the night before, prepare the coffee machine, etc.) and press ‘go.’ And secondly, workflows help combat our natural tendency to underestimate how long a task will require. Seeing all of the steps, you can plan accordingly. You create for yourself (and your colleagues) reasonable expectations.

And here’s what else workflows can do.

1. Highlight time-wasting flaws

Visualizing all of the steps in a particular workflow can help you to identify flaws in the process and save time. This applies to all types of workflows, both quotidian routines and isolated projects.

To demonstrate a marketing example: imagine you’ve rolled out a beautifully designed, engaging newsletter. It’s firing on all cylinders but you’re getting zero new subscribers. Mapping out the workflow, you realize you’ve skipped the “confirm subscription” step. Tweak the workflow, problem solved.

2. Identify automation opportunities

Another critical advantage of workflows is that they enable you to identify which steps can be automated, meaning less busywork and more time for stuff that matters, to you and your organization. Let’s say one of the steps of your workflow is a recurring payment. Automating this step by setting up automatic bank transfers will eliminate any effort on your part, not to mention, obviate the need to remember to manually make the payment.

Not everything can be automated. Highly creative work, for example, is something that only you can do and requires your full attention. But for tasks that are repetitive, recurring, and require little-to-no input, automation is like an infallible personal assistant. To boot, you can dedicate more brain power to that highly creative work.

With workflows and automation, your present self can realistically envision how much time your future self needs — take a good look at the entire iceberg — and calculate your schedule accordingly.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website aytekintank.com.

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