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Graham Allcott

Think Productive


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How to deal with ‘nags’


Graham Allcott is back with another tip to maximise your productivity. This month - procrastination.

I’m sure you know what I mean when I use the hugely technical term 'nag'. And no, I don’t mean your husband or wife. I’m talking about all of those stressful, panicky, anxious little thoughts. Rather ironically, nags are ridiculously skilled at parachuting their way to the front of your attention at exactly the moment when you can do nothing about them.

'I’m worried about the budget!' Well guess what - being in the supermarket and worrying about the budget you need to finish back at the office tomorrow doesn’t actually help you finish the budget. The nag doesn’t really care.

'Oh that reminds me, Lucy and Rohan’s party is coming up soon and I haven’t even thought about the fancy dress costume.'

Well, you haven’t thought about it usefully, anyway. You haven’t clarified why it’s a nag and what you can do to move things forward. You just know there’s something to do. And because you haven’t done the required thinking, chances are you have had the same nag several times before. The less you deal with them, the more they follow you around.

Nags are productivity's enemy. They’re stressful, unsettling and annoying. Worse still, they distract you from the thing you could be usefully doing at that moment, whether that be completing the shopping, working on something else or enjoying a relaxing evening catching up with your family or friends and wanting to give them your fullest attention.

Nags say 'deal with this, or else...'.

Or else what? Or else we’ll look foolish, miss a deadline, forget to do something we want to do, miss an important commitment, lose money, lose respect, lose everything. (No-one said nags were rational or measured.) A nag is us realising we need to give this anxiety some attention. If we subconsciously start to feel that we have the potential danger cleared, or at least under control for now, the nag will go away.

Managing your nags

There are two ways to get rid of our nags.

  • We use quick and disciplined decision making to turn them quickly into actions to be revisited when we have some time.
  • We can simply just capture and collect the nag, knowing that our systems will ensure we return to it later.

This second option is more preferable (since it reduces the ability of the nag to distract you from what you're working on), but is only possible if you trust that you’re going to return to the nag in good time and at that point convert it into the right actions. 

So actually, the way to deal with nags is to already have what I call a good 'second brain': the right lists of your projects and actions, so that you can judge your nags or new actions alongside everything else you have to do. And then the clearer you are on your current workload (however heavy it is!), the less your brain feels the need to nag you.

What to do when you're overwhelmed by nags

Meditation is a fantastic way to move from worrying unproductively about the future to being more focussed and present in your thinking. Mindfulness is a skill. If you’re unsure about meditation, or if you’re stressed in the office and just need some immediate relief from the nags, try picking up a pen and paper and writing whatever comes into your head. You may write whatever and however you like – and you may decide to shred the piece of paper in a few minutes. The ability to stay present and focussed regardless of whatever nags are popping into your brain is something meditation can really help you achieve.

And the act of 'externalising' the nags – getting them out of your mind and onto the paper where they can be managed more objectively – can in itself be extremely meditative. It’s a simple technique that helps you understand what’s on your mind, what your worries are, what your instincts are. It also provides that important first step to acting on those things and creating the change you need.

Graham Allcott is the author of "How to be a Productivity Ninja" and founder of Think Productive, a training company specialising in productivity, time management and email training

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Graham Allcott


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