A few years ago, I realized that my life wasn’t going the way I wanted it to. Sure, I was happy overall. I had a family I loved and a career I was passionate about. I set and stuck to personal goals. My belief system gave me direction and purpose. But still, something was off. On a day-to-day basis, I felt like I was spinning my wheels. I worked hard, I made plans, I constantly had a ton of stuff on my mind…and yet, it felt like I wasn’t going anywhere. I wasn’t making substantial, meaningful, observable progress. Looking back, I realize why: it’s because I hadn’t yet discovered the power of “not messing around”.
What does “not messing around” mean?
What exactly do I mean by not messing around?
My mind immediately goes to the tabs I have open on my Internet browser. At any given moment, I can have a tab for my email, one for an article someone told me to read, one for the Google search I did for that random pain in my back, one for that funny YouTube video I need to share with my team, and so on.
I might have dozens of tabs open, in multiple windows. Each of them represents something I have to do, want to do, should do, or am putting off doing. Too many tabs, and it becomes hard for me to find what I’m looking for when I’m ready to use it. Not only that, but eventually, all of these open tabs slow down my browser and result in that special kind of frustration that only comes as a result of a painfully slow computer.
For people who mess around, their brains are a lot like an Internet browser with too many tabs open. They’re tasks that are considered, possibly planned, and maybe even started, but somewhere in the process, you get stuck. You open a new tab, thinking “I’ll get to that later.”
Messing around means leaving those tabs open. It’s letting to-dos, thoughts, ideas, and plans stay loose inside your head. Ultimately, you feel like nothing’s been decided, nothing’s moving forward, and these amorphous ideas start to weigh you down and slow your progress.
Tell-tale phrases of messing around
I’ve found that you can usually tell if you or someone else is reaching “messing around” status if they use phrases like:
“We’ll come back to that.”
“We should do this more often.”
“Let’s talk later.”
“I’m not sure when.”
“I’m sure we’ll figure that out.”
“We’ll have to think about that.”
Basically, any time you walk away from a situation without making an actionable decision, you’re messing around.
Why there’s power in not messing around
There are a few reasons why there’s so much power in not messing around.
Messing around wastes energy
When you leave tabs open in your brain, you’re spending energy unnecessarily. You’re devoting subconscious brain power to a task that you aren’t actively working on. You’re spinning your wheels and not getting any traction.
Messing around ruins mental peace
When the gears in your brain are constantly running, even if it’s behind the scenes, you’re depriving yourself of peace. Your rest will be interrupted by open tabs. You’ll feel as though there’s always something you should be doing or working on, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
Messing around stifles creativity
When so much of your mental energy is being spent unhelpfully spinning your wheels, you don’t have the free mental space to think creatively. Your brain needs room to breathe if you’re going to be able to be curious and creative.
Messing around is distracting and controlling
Messing around distracts you. When there’s constantly “something” beneath the surface for you to work on, focusing becomes that much harder. Your mind might constantly jump from one open tab to the next, reminding yourself that you need to work on that task…at some point.
Many people embrace loose, unstructured time because trying to be too structured makes them feel controlled. But guess what? Open tabs can start to control you, too. They control you by keeping your life out of control, so that you can never get to the work that’s really important. Instead, you end up overwhelmed and unsure how to move forward.
How to not mess around
There’s a lot of power in not messing around, but for many of us, messing around is a natural state. It’s normal to us to put things off when we hit roadblocks or get tired. We have to retrain our brains to not mess around if we’re ever going to create the happiness we want from life.
Make actionable plans
An actionable plan is the ultimate antidote to messing around. This is taking your thoughts, ideas, and to-dos about a certain task and giving them a place to live (that isn’t your brain). It allows you to close the tab in your mind and start taking action instead of, well, messing around.
If you stop your progress on a task because it seems too big or overwhelming, break it down into small, actionable steps. For example, “Overhaul our billing system” is a really big and overwhelming task, but “Email our bookkeeper and ask for recommendations on how to improve our billing system” is much more manageable.
I’ve been in meetings—a lot of meetings—that last well over an hour, and end without any real work getting done. I walk out of those meetings feeling like we must have accomplished something (after all, we were talking for over an hour), and yet, if I try to nail down what we decided to do next, I can’t. We talked around the decisions; we never actually made decisions we can act on.
Don’t let yourself put off decision-making. If there’s a decision to be made, make it.
Sometimes, you aren’t the best person to do a particular task. If you have a tab open in your brain, it’s important to decide whether it should be in your brain or someone else’s.
Delegate what needs to be delegated, as soon as possible. Keeping something on your plate that you shouldn’t even be in charge of is a common way I see people messing around.
Know what you want, and go after it
Considering the fact that I’m the salesperson for my company, it took me a surprisingly long time to realize that if I wanted to make a sale, I had to ask for the sale. I had to leave the meeting with a signed contract or a solid verbal commitment. Sales meetings needed to end with an agreement, not with a “Let’s talk more soon” or a back-and-forth email conversation debating the finer points of the arrangement.
When you know what you want, go after it. Don’t mess around. Don’t leave the tab open.
Learn to say no
Saying “no” is one of the most important skills you’ll ever learn. Too many people waste their time and energy doing tasks they never should have taken on in the first place. These people are unquestionably messing around.
If something comes your way that you don’t want to do, or that doesn’t align with your goals, or that simply isn’t a priority right now, say no. You don’t have time to mess around.
Tips to help you not mess around
Like I said, not messing around doesn’t exactly come naturally to a lot of people. Luckily, there are some little hacks that can help you as you try to make “not messing around” the norm.
If a task comes your way that can be done in two minutes or less, do it right away. Immediately. Send a quick reply to that email; file that letter in the right place; make your bed. This idea was originally presented in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, and I’ve found it hugely helpful when it comes to closing tabs that are cluttering up my mental space.
Put it on the calendar
Sometimes, closing a tab is as easy as scheduling time to take care of it. Instead of leaving the tab open and trusting your brain to come back to it “at some point,” put the task on your calendar. Dedicate that time to working on that task. The nice thing about this is that it requires so little time (definitely less than two minutes!) but it frees up so much mental space.
One area in which I use this rule frequently is my social life. If I see an old friend, I don’t let the conversation end with “We should meet up sometime!” Instead, I pull out my phone and set up a lunch. It’s just as easy, and it makes sure that it actually gets done.
Turn off distractions
Sometimes, tabs get left open because we get distracted by something else. Even something as simple as a text message can throw you completely off track. When you’re trying to get things done, turn off those distractions so you can stay focused until the tab can be closed.
Ask clarifying questions
Other people can play a major role in leaving our tabs open. If you catch someone trying to leave a tab open with you (say, in a meeting), ask clarifying questions until you can identify action items that will move you forward. For example:
Them: “We’ll have to have the design team take a look at that.” (vague direction)
You: “Okay, who should I hand it off to?” (clarifying question)
Them: “Send an email to Amy.” (action item)
Don’t let other people rope you into a “messing around” situation.
I now have a sticky note on my desk with the letters IDMA written on it: “I don’t mess around.” It reminds me of that time in my life when messing around was the norm, when I felt overwhelmed and unproductive, no matter how hard I worked. When my wheels were spinning but the gears weren’t turning.
Now, “I don’t mess around” propels me forward. Now I know that if I’m going to “create happy” in my life—and if anyone else is going to “create happy” in their life—I have to stop messing around and start doing the work. Trust me, it feels a lot better.
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