Do a dash

take ten minutes to make a difference

What is a dash?

A dash is commitment to bite off a small chunk of the task at hand and a self-given permission to stop at just one bite. You might commit to ten minutes to file bills and give yourself complete permission to stop at the ten minute mark. Or you might commit to reply to just one email in the big stack of emails you have been trying to ignore and give yourself total licence to stop at one.

Dashes can vary in size and shape, but always have the twin characteristics of a small, very doable initial step and a genuine permission to stop once the initial step is complete.

Doing a dash can be very useful for times when you find yourself repeatedly putting off a task or for times when you don’t seem able to get started on anything and just giving yourself a hard time isn’t making things any better.

For the best results:

  1. Pick an initial commitment that is very modest. You cannot dash up a mountain. One reason you may be stuck is that you perceive the task at hand as mountain-like. And note, the fact that some part of you thinks it is is daft to think of it as mountain-like is completely irrelevant. That part of you is not the part that’s struggling to get going.
  2. Be serious about the permission to stop. If you are insincere about giving yourself free licence to stop, then you undermine the power of the dash. For the dash approach to work, you need to think of anything you do over and above the initial commitment as a bonus. If you think you have failed because you’ve not achieved the bonus, then you’ve not really given yourself the permission in the first place.

The dash is an excellent way to get started on an activity, especially when you have been putting that activity off for a while. Many dash users find that, once started, they have momentum to carry on. But even if you only do ten minutes, that’s still ten minutes more than you would have done. So why wouldn’t that count?

Why is it needed?

However elaborately spun, the reasons for not getting started on a task invariably boil down to one of two things:

  • fear some part of you is worried about the consequence of getting started – this could be fear of failure, fear of success, or fear of the project growing arms and legs thus becoming a source of further unwanted obligation;
  • ambivalence some part of you really does not what to do this and is digging in, even if some other part of you is quite convinced that you either do want or ought to want to do it.

Fear and ambivalence are ludicrously common.

In some circles they are not talked about much, but don’t take that as evidence they’re not around. Even the productivity ninja experiences fear and ambivalence. These people are ninjas not because they don’t experience such feelings, but because they continue to be in charge of their choices even in the face of them.

In other circles people talk about fear and ambivalence freely. This can be good. And it’s always worth checking whether such talk is buttering any parsnips. If talking about fear and ambivalence is not leading you to get more of what you want and if you actually want to get more of what you want, then notice this and switch tack.

If fear is the underlying issue for you, then reality-check the fear. Ask, realistically, what’s the worst that could happen? And if it looked like the worst was going to happen, could you change course later?

When fears lurk towards the back of your mind – as opposed to being pulled out for systematic scrutiny – they tend to loom much larger. And if, after scrutiny, your fears are well-founded, that is still useful information, e.g. for re-evaluating your decision or for putting in place a plan B.

If ambivalence is the underlying issue for you, then take some time to carefully assess your goals. See if you can distinguish what you want as opposed to what other people might want for you.

These other people can include old voices that rattle on in your head, perhaps versions of the voices of parents and other adults that featured significantly in your growing up. Is what you want the same as what other people and/or the old voices want for you?

Of course, you may be ambivalent and still have no viable alternative choice. And knowing clearly that you do not want to tackle a task but are, for other reasons, obliged to do so, can make it easier to get doing. Now maybe get started with a dash.

On the other hand, if reflection leads you to discover you really don’t want to do the task at all and you don’t have to, well, then just bin it.

Origins and understandings

I first encountered the idea of ‘the dash’ in a piece by Merlin Mann on 43folders.

Susan Page, in books on dating and on getting yourself published, shows how easily we can be driven by fear or ambivalence without really knowing so. What is more, she is always practical, constantly nudging her readers to move from insight to action.

My understanding of why the dash is such a powerful technique, which informs my remarks above, comes from Transactional Analysis (TA). In particular, this is the source of the idea of permissions (licenses to think, feel and act) as a means of breaking free from an inner battle of various oughts, shoulds, and must-dos that often dog even the most well-adjusted mind.

References and links

Hyperlinks can be great. They can also dilute your focus and tempt you into putting off what you most want to do. Here I chose to place links at the foot of the page to help you to make an active choice as to whether to surf or refocus your attention elsewhere.

  • Merlin Mann’s original dash piece can be found on his 43folders site. Also check out Merlin Mann’s posts on Inbox Zero, soon to appear in book form.
  • Susan Page’s If I’m So Wonderful, Why am I Still Single? is the best book of its kind. Although it addresses a specific topic, it has a lot of material on getting focused and getting on with getting more of what you want. The discussion of ambivalence is especially recommended. See also her excellent How to Get Published and Make a Lot of Money. Again, the book addresses a very specific topic, but the techniques for self-management and the attitude can be widely applied.
  • David Allen’s Getting Things Done: How to Achieve Stress-free Productivityoffers a complete system, including some dash-like techniques. Of particular note, is his two minutes rule. If an action is going to take less than two minutes it is always better to do it straight away rather than defer it. Easily said and, in fact, often not that hard to do. It makes a difference.
  • If you take to heart the lessons in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles you won’t need to use the dash technique because you will march steadily forward conquering every creative battle. Pressfield adopts a very strong, and far from gentle, tone; more Sergeant Major than Life Coach.
  • If your main focus is productivity, most material on Transactional Analysis will be too much. Abe Wagner’s Say it Straight or You’ll Show it Crooked: Speak Openly and Get Results is a friendly and practical introduction to the topic, with an emphasis on communication. It can be difficult to get hold of. A more demanding read, but comprehensive and well written one, is TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis by Ian Stewart and Vann Joines.

Note: the links to books on Amazon generate a tiny kickback for me if you make a purchase.