Although getting things done is simple (if you want it done, take action), there are many psychological obstacles that can stand in the way of us taking action, which is why we struggle with getting things done. It’s, therefore, essential that we become aware of the different psychological factors at play in our lives and what we need to do to create the mental environment most conducive to productivity.
One very important factor we need to be aware of – which I believe is one of the most prominent thieves of productivity – is what is known as The Paradox of Choice.
What is The Paradox of Choice?
Put simply: if you have many options open to you, you will find it more difficult to make a decision and take action than if you had fewer options. If a menu had 30 meals to choose from, you will struggle to decide what to order more than if only 3 meals were available. With fewer options (choices), you will experience less anxiety because the fear of making the wrong decision (i.e. not going for the best choice) will be reduced.
This is why you can be more productive if you had only a few items on your to-do list rather than hundreds of items. Trying to figure out which task to go for will develop anxiety and hesitation, leaving you staring blankly at your to-do list, without getting anything done.
So how can we use our understanding of the paradox of choice to get more done?
There are hundreds of ways. But the one I’d like to share with you here is to create artificial contexts.
Creating Artificial Contexts
A context is a location or tool you need in order to get a task done. If you need to make phone calls, you need a phone. If you need to send emails, you need an Internet connection. If things need to get done at home then – you guessed it – you need to be at home!
These contexts determine what you can and can’t do at any given moment. If you don’t have a phone on you, then you can ignore all tasks to do with calling people (unless you desperately need to get to a phone, which is another story for another day). These contexts help you determine what to do and reduce the options available to you. If you’re familiar with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD), then this idea comes as no surprise.
But what are artificial contexts?
Since most of our work involves tools that are with us all the time (phones, computers, Internet, etc), it’s hard for us to reduce the amount of options we have. When we sit in front of the computer, we can work on 20 possible projects we have. So how do we choose which one to work on?
Artificial contexts are ways you categorize your to-do list items to help you reduce the number of options, without there really being an obstacle in getting other tasks done. For example, you can designate your office for working on your professional projects, your living room for leisurely reading, a cafe for learning and your bedroom for relaxing. Although you can take your laptop to your bedroom or read a novel in your office, creating these artificial contexts (associations) will help you reduce the number of options available to you in each context.
Artificial contexts need not be space-bound. You can use different clothing to indicate the type of work you will be doing (and not doing). You can use different web browsers for different types of work (Firefox for web development, Chrome for correspondence, IE for nothing ).
Be creative in coming up with your own artificial contexts that work best for you and that help you split your to-do list so that it becomes more manageable in every context!