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Amorphous blobs of undoability | WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.13

Amorphous blobs of undoability | WE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.13

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Published by Mackenzie Hawkins
How to overcome the psychological hurdle of the abstract and get "stuff" done.
How to overcome the psychological hurdle of the abstract and get "stuff" done.

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Published by: Mackenzie Hawkins on May 29, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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 Amorphous blobs of undoability
Amorphous blobs of undoabilityWE THE CURIOUS vol.2 no.13
Research has shown that people put off tasks that are unappealing, difficult, orexpensive. That’s hardly surprising. What we underestimate, however, is a moresubtle form of resistance.In a recent study by Dr. McCrea, college students were asked to fill out aquestionnaire. In group A, almost all of the students completed their task by thedeadline; in group B, 56% failed to respond at all. “Furthermore,” as the researchteam reported in
Psychological Science
, “this effect did not depend on theattractiveness, importance, or perceived difficulty of the task.” The difference wasvery simple—and subtle. When the questionnaires prompted students to think inconcrete terms (i.e., name any type of bird), students responded in a timely way.When the tasks required a more abstract form of thinking (i.e., name any categoryto which birds belong), the students dawdled or didn’t respond at all.“Those seeking to cajole a colleague, friend or spouse into action might ponder thefinding,” a write-up in
The Economist 
half-jokingly suggests. And why not? Afather was having no luck getting his young son to clean his room. So he got a bigbox, put it in the middle of the room, and, instead of giving the abstract command,“Clean your room,” told his son to put into the box anything that wasn’t where itshould be. What had been a source of procrastination and stress became a simple“gathering” game. His son then pulled out one toy or piece of clothing at a timeand, with enthusiasm, put it away.In another study, seniors in college were given a pamphlet about the dangers of tetanus and told that the campus health center was giving free tetanus shots to allstudents. Almost none—a mere 3%—of the students actually went to the health
center. Then the experimenters did something that, on the face of it, didn’t make awhole lot of sense. As seniors, the students were, of course, familiar with thecampus and already knew where the health center was located. But, when theresearchers gave the pamphlet and included a campus map with the universityhealth building circled, inoculation rates jumped to 28%. As information, the mapwas unnecessary, but it proved useful because it triggered the kind of concretethinking that leads to action.
If we’re so smart
Outcomes, even those as elementary as a clean room or a tetanus inoculation, areinherently—and rather sneakily—abstract. Consider, for a moment, some of themore involved outcomes we might want to bring about in our lives: finalize,implement, research, publish, distribute, maximize, learn, set up, organize, create,design, install, repair, submit, handle, resolve—we all face these types of to-do’s.Some are big, some small; some pleasant, some not-so-pleasant. But what thesedesired outcomes all have in common is their abstractness. This is because anoutcome, like a goal, is not something you actually do; it is something you achieveafter doing many action steps.For years productivity expert David Allen has trained clients to get to the “runway-level” of life: action. If there’s a desired outcome, he coaches, then ask thequestion, “What’s the next action?” He has spent hours with executives trainingthem to think about the specific, physical next actions they need to take in order tomove each of their projects forward. Allen himself wonders at the effectiveness of this approach. After all, he works with some of the most brilliant and successfulpeople in business. Yet next-action thinking produces results that are immediateand profound.

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