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Dumbing yourself down to get stuff done

Ever have too many thoughts that stop you getting stuff done? Do you squeeze up against deadlines because they’re the only way you find your focus in the mental maelstrom, or find yourself working at strange hours because you’ve weirdly found yourself in the zone? Put another way, do you find yourself taking the edge off your intellect – deliberately or not – to get shit done?
I had this ah-ha moment during PhD thesis writing. I was reading David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” with his amazingly complicated and borderline OCD system for organising and implementing your to-do’s, when I came across a little gem. Paraphrasing wildly, he points out that highly intelligent people often fail too get on with stuff because they don’t ask the simple question “what’s my next step?” about every single project, task or problem that they have on. Instead, you think your way around, over, and underneath your project, and you end up with so many thoughts and possibilities that you end up accidentally stuck in Too Much Detail.

Allen goes further: he says that this is why intelligent people often resort to a drink before they can get their best work done. Think of the essays you’ve written that only started to flow when the bottle was uncorked, the beer lid levered off, or your substance of choice got to work. Your mind is too busy thinking around the project to actually narrow down and get on with the next step. But as soon as you dumb yourself down, your mind can’t handle all these thoughts and so focuses on the task at hand.

My thesis writing method was, in essence, to faff around for most of the day, and then when tiredness crept in and dumbed me down just enough, I’d find my focus and be able to write until I was too tired. That 6pm – midnight window (sometimes 2am/3am, but I wouldn’t recommend it) saw my highest word counts. It wasn’t the most sustainable of work patterns, nor the most sociable, I’ll admit it. On the other hand, a thesis is a limited and (usually) once-in-a-lifetime endeavour, so I stuck it out.

Take a moment to review your best working hours for focused output: can you find your own pattern? Maybe you hit the sweet spot when you’re nicely full after a big meal, or tired, or after a drink. Then ask yourself: in the long-run, is this a healthy pattern – a healthy habit? Or do I need to tweak it, or replace it with another habit?

Going back to Allen, his question about the next step is the most straightforward mental habit I’ve found that helps you find your focus and get stuff done. When you find yourself faffing about, skipping between tasks or interests or distractions (heaven forbid!), press pause and ask yourself “what’s my next step?” Most often, you’ll know what it is almost straight away, and you can move smoothly into action and get shit done – without dumbing yourself down.

Do you dumb yourself down to get stuff done?

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