Are you among the zillions of people who seek out tips on getting organized to reduce your stress at work? I certainly am. One stressor in particular is self-inflicted: procrastination. We/I procrastinate and procrastinate and then kick ourselves/myself for unwarranted delays.

So if I know that, why am I still doing it? In my defense, I will say that I have infinitely improved in this area over where I used to be. I keep collecting new tools and tidbits and slowly over time I have become more productive. But old habits sometimes still sneak in — unbidden and unwelcome.

So what next? I just found another useful rule of thumb to help out. First some background.

How do you organize your time?

In their delightful book on getting organized, Sunny Schlenger and Roberta Roesch described five types of people according to how they organize their time. In fact, I previously reproduced a blog post about it, “Discover your own personal organizational style.

Here’s the typology:

  • Hopper: Moves from one task to another, often without finishing any of them. Easily distracted.
  • Perfectionist: Wants to achieve the highest possible standard. Spends inordinate amount of time on the last few insignificant details in one task, leaving others completely unfinished.
  • Allergic to detail: Doesn’t want to be bothered with detail; wants to stay above the fray, often inadequately delegates or follows up.
  • Fence sitter: Avoids deciding among difficult choices. Gets overwhelmed with the myriad of possibilities. Keeps collecting information while avoiding actual decision making.
  • Cliff hanger: Waits until the last minute to complete tasks, favoring that adrenaline rush as a momentum to get it done.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Unfortunately, they did for me 10 years ago when I first read the book and they still do today. I slightly cringe every time I read the list.

General Powell’s 40:70 guideline

Then today, I happened across a rule of thumb by General Colin Powell for how to know when it’s time to stop collecting information and instead just make that decision.  It was described by Oren Harari in his book Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell and is also found online:

“Part I: Use the formula P=40 to 70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.

“Part II: Once the information is in the 40 to 70 range, go with your gut.”

This was rather stunning to me. Make a decision when you only have 40-70% of the information? This is what is known as taking an “informed risk.”

He explains that if you have less than 40% of the information, you don’t know enough. More than 70% of the information means that you are wasting valuable time collecting more when you could be finished with that project and on to something else. Excessive delays in making a decision often leads to “analysis paralysis” and too often, the opportunity will pass. Better to jump on an opportunity now with 40-70% of the information than to try to wait until you have 100% of the information and it’s too late.

Note the implications: a bad decision is worse than no decision. This is supported by behavioral science research that shows that people regret things they wanted to do and didn’t more than they regret failures when they tried.

Now, the question is, once you have at least 40% of the information, how to recognize what your “gut” is telling you to do. For me, the question is whether I feel or better or worse if I think of a decision. If I feel better, I go with it. Of course, I have to clear my emotions around the issue first. If I’m emotionally charged, I’m much less likely to trust my judgment.

How might you use the 40:70 guideline?

I discovered the 40:70 formula two days ago and applied it the next day. Years ago I noticed that I might delay a decision if I am not quite sure what to do (perfectionist), sometimes for weeks or months. I also keep collecting information about it (fence-sitter), hoping that something magical will happen to suddenly make it all clear for me. In other words, I tend to not like to make decisions until I have  much more than 70% of the needed information. Probably Powell would disapprove.

Over the weekend I had a chance to use the rule. My senior partners in Leading Consciously and I have decided to find someone to help us with one part of our work. This required my pulling together information to send several vendors we are considering. Last week, I pulled together the needed info very quickly and sent it out to them as a draft. Stephanie (one of the senior partners) responded that it was good and wanted to send it on to those we were considering for the job. I said no, let’s wait, there could be more information that I could add that would be useful.

After that, I spent about as much time tinkering with the document as I had in writing it out initially. Added value? Oh, about maybe 5%. Certainly not enough to justify the extra time I spent trying to improve it.

Then I found Powell’s 40:70 guideline. Yesterday, I was getting ready to tinker some more with the doc when I remembered the guideline. I asked myself two questions:

  • Did the document have 70% of information that I thought was needed to send out to the potential vendors?
  • Would the vendors have 70% of the information they might need to figure out how to approach helping us?

The answers were yes and yes again.

To check in with my gut, I imagined sending the doc off to Stephanie. I felt an immediate wave of relief.

Case closed. I just sent Stephanie an e-mail saying go ahead with it. I’m done.

Now, for the caveat. Would I bet my life on a decision that has only 40-70% of the needed information? Absolutely not. There certainly are times where greater certainty is required. I would think that an engineer overseeing the building of a bridge needs more than 70% of the information. In my case, for many of my run-of-the-mill decisions and in crisis situations, the 40:70 guideline would work just fine.

Questions:

  • Which of the five styles of organizing your time most fits how you work?
  • How might the 40:70 guideline be useful to you, if at all?
  • Under what conditions do you decide to go with your intuition about what to do?

References:

  1. Reframing Change, Chapter 3
  2. Beike, D. R., Markman, K. D., & Karadogan, F. (2009). What we regret most are lost opportunities: A theory of regret intensity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(3), 385-397.
  3. Harari, O. (2002). The leadership secrets of Colin Powell (1st ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Filed under: achieving your goalsconscious use of selfmaking positive changes

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