Using a Bit of Pretend
A bit of imagination can be surprisingly helpful with difficult thinking. I learned this by applying advice from Alan Lakein on how to get started on a difficult task:
"Imagine this: You've been relieved of all responsibility for getting a difficult A-1 [important task] done. Instead, you only have to write down a plan for someone else to follow. You're simply to give this person whatever good advice you can, based on your familiarity with the project up to now. Once you've prepared your plan, the entire burden of carrying out the plan will be shifted to his shoulders. You never have to do anything. Your only task is to plan how someone else should do it...." [Note 1]
This trick quickly jump starts the work. It is effective because it puts you in the right frame of mind to implement some powerful tactics.
When you are stuck getting started on a big task, you are faced with several mental challenges. First, you are probably overloaded by the sheer number of details. Second, many of the items seem urgent, which is distracting. (You feel like you should drop everything and do this one little thing.) Finally, in the midst of all this overload, you are likely to forget something crucial. Lakein's trick helps with all three of these problems:
- By focusing just on what you know about the task, you radically reduce the number of items to think about. When you identify something you don't know how to do, you don't have to figure it out. You just put it on the list for "the other guy."
- By saying "the other guy" will do the task, you eliminate the frequent impulses to do little things that occur to you. This eliminates most of the distractions plaguing you.
- By giving yourself the instruction to help "the other guy," you prime yourself to consider everything important. In that helpful mindset, you'll include all the "to do's" you know about, your advice for setting priorities, and warnings to "the other guy" to watch out for potential problems. The assignment encourages completeness.
In fact, this trick is just a means of breaking off a doable first step. First you plan, then, later, you'll execute. By focusing only on planning, you make the task mentally tractable.
Of course, you might do the same planning without imagining doing it for "the other guy." Some people could tell themselves, "just plan what I know, then worry about executing," and get the same benefit.
But for many people, Lakein's trick will be easier. The reason is simple: The instruction "just plan what I know" is unmotivating if you don't think you need a plan.
Oftentimes, you think you know exactly what to do on a big project. It's only when you go to explain to "the other guy" that you see the difficulties. Lakein's artificial task gets you to fill in the holes and unravel the tangles you didn't realize were there. In fact, the holes and tangles were likely making you feel stuck, but you don't discover them until you perform a simple planning step.
When you don't think you need a plan, you won't plan, because it seems like a waste of time. Lakein's trick avoids this predictable problem.
There are other cases where imagination helps you establish the right mental context for hard thinking. For example, Gary Klein recommends imagining that your project ends in a complete fiasco as a means of finding potential problems. [Note 2]
The value in these tricks is that they motivate you to go step-by-step through a useful thinking process, one that you wouldn't have undertaken otherwise. Of course, after you've used a trick a few times, you also learn the value of that kind of thinking, and you don't need the trick anymore. But I still use them. It's fun to pretend for a moment that "the other guy" is going to do the task for me.
1. Alan Lakein, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life
2. Gary Klein, The Power of Intuition
This article originally appeared in the Thinking Directions newsletter on 4/14/10.