What’s stopping you making progress?

Why are you stuck in the same old ineffective routines?

What causes procrastination or self-sabotage or mental clutter?

Making progress isn’t just about time management and ‘to-do’ lists. It’s about understanding the poor habits and deep insecurities that can wreck progress in both our career and our personal life.

Get Things Done is an insightful exploration of the poor conditioning and self-esteem issues that can hold us back. By understanding the root causes of our ineffectiveness, we can break free from our organizational incompetence – helping us develop strong goals and execution skills, as well as avoid the traps that can drag us back to our self-sabotaging worst.

Using solid psychological research and analysis, Robert Kelsey, author of the bestselling What’s Stopping You? provides tools and resources that help us plan and execute our desired future. Get Things Done helps you:

Realise what’s blocking your ability to achieve things
Generate goals that motivate you

Get started and keep going through the setbacks

Convert destructive habits into constructive practices

Deal with barriers such as interruptions, distractions and family life

‘Finding fulfilling work takes endeavour. It also takes direction and motivation. Robert Kelsey’s well-researched book is a great place to start.”
Roman Krzaric, author of Empathy and How to find Fulfilling Work

‘For those that want to achieve more, working out how to get things done is vital. When it comes to understanding how to turn yourself into a doer this book is a great kick in the pants.’
Richard Newton, co-author of Stop Talking, Start Doing

‘There are many books about motivation and they tend to rely on pop psychology or the author’s intuition, which makes them as inaccurate as ineffective. With Get Things Done, Robert Kelsey has managed to bridge the gap between the science and practice of willpower, discussing key psychological theories in an elegant, accessible style, and translating them into effective actionable suggestions. This book is a must-read for anybody wishing to understand the difference between potential and achievement and bridge that gap to fulfil their meaningful goals.’
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD, author of Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-esteem, Insecurity and Self-doubt

‘A great contribution for all of us who struggle with disorder and long to attain meaningful goals. It gives us both the why and the how!’
Dr Marilyn Paul, author of It’s Hard to Make a Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys

‘A Smörgåsbord of practical tips for getting your life under control.’
John Williams, author of Screw Work Let’s Play

‘An engaging, entertaining, easy-to-read book.  Robert Kelsey is disarmingly honest about his own flaws and failings and you can really hear his voice in his writing.  If you’re looking to make a journey of personal change, you could do worse than to rely on Kelsey as your compass.’
Dr Rob Yeung, psychologist at consulting firm Talentspace and author of Confidence and How to Win

‘The hallmarks of Robert Kelsey’s work are thorough research, personal insight and thoughtful presentation’
John Caunt, author of Organise Yourself

‘The world is full of dreamers. Talented individuals with great abilities, ideas and aspirations. And yet, many of these dreamers fail to realize their full potential. How sad it that? In his book, Get Things Done, author Robert Kelsey shares the secrets of making things happen. He tackles both psychological and behavioural blocks as well as gives us practical ways to deal with potential distractions such as email, conflict, bad habits, etc. His writing style is genuine, easy to read and based on solid research. I recommend this book for anyone out there who knows they have even more potential than what they are currently demonstrating. You want to get results in your life? Then start by reading this book!’
Tim Ursiny, Ph.D., RCC, CBC, founder of Advantage Coaching & Training, and author of multiple books including The Coward’s Guide to Conflict  and The Top Performer’s Guide to Attitude

‘Robert’s thought-provoking survey of productivity literature looks at the perplexing question of why smart people can undermine their own success. Fortunately, this book offers plenty of ideas for getting started on the hard work of personal change.’
Laura Vanderkam, author of What the Most Successful People Do at Work

Extract from Get Things Done

INTRODUCTION – my own personal chaos


In my mid-twenties I started learning German. Not sure why. I just fancied it – perhaps feeling that, having earned a university degree (late), I could plug another “life gap” and learn a language. I went to the Goethe-Institut in Manchester and borrowed some tapes. And I made good progress. Soon I felt well on my way – building up vocabulary, understanding verb construction and dealing with grammar.

But then I just stopped. One day I missed a lesson and that was that. Of course, 20 years have passed, so if I’d kept it up I’d be fluent by now.

In my early-thirties I took up sailing. I was living in New York at the time and had some great lessons in the harbour using Liberty and Ellis Island as tacking points. And I was good at it – my instructor thought me a “natural”. But, again, I just stopped – meaning my strong nautical progress came to nothing.

Then there was golf – that was in my early-twenties. French – early thirties. Five-a-side football, squash, tennis – all sometime between university and now. And what about all those business plans? Town-based restaurant guides, for instance. We produced three but not a fourth despite their popularity. A highly-focused financial magazine: didn’t happen, despite two near-identical magazines since succeeding. A lifestyle magazine for the City of London: yep, there’s now one of those. But it’s nothing to do with me.

And the books I’ve half written. There was The War Hero, a Second World War tale of a discharged soldier lying about the circumstances of his injury; an unnamed spy novel based in a fictional country; a romantic drama called Sanctuary involving a Manchester student and a young Asian girl running away from a forced marriage; and even a lad-lit comedy called Mind The Gap on finding love in London. In each case I made strong progress – writing reams and reams. And then I simply stopped.

Yet such frivolities seem insignificant compared to my wayward career path. Enough to raise eyebrows in any HR department, my serious “careers” have included training as a building surveyor (four years, plus a year at Poly), work as an advertising sales executive (one year), a newspaper production editor/journo (one year), a magazine sub-editor (six months), a financial journalist (five years), an investment banker (five years), a dotcom entrepreneur (two years) and a financial PR company director (nine years). In fact, anyone trying to make sense of my CV would assume they’d picked up a page or two from the pile below.


Process isn’t a talent – it’s taught

Just about everything in my life has followed the same wayward trajectory: bright ideas, followed by enthusiasm, followed by an active frenzy that fizzles out once the going gets tough or I become bored or something else attracts my attention. Despite looking and acting well-organized – and possessing plenty of early determination – my mental chaos ultimately wins: halting progress and destroying both my productivity and my credibility. The only alternative to this pattern has been when fear’s overwhelmed even this pathetic process – stopping me from even starting.

That said, I’m far from alone. Just in the UK, millions of people are stymied by their inability to get things done. They cannot get beyond the idea or initial thought – or perhaps the half-page of scribbled lines. Even if they take action, they can fall at the first fence or the minute another – seemingly-better – idea takes its place. Many eventually surrender – assuming it takes skills seemingly beyond them or that those that can get things done are somehow gifted.

But they’re not. They’ve simply learnt the art (and science) of process. Indeed, process is a key word. As explained within, there are conditions aplenty to explain our inability to deal with process. But there’s also the fact process is a skill we need to acquire, like learning to read a book from the beginning to the end (i.e. in that order). Yet millions of people enter adulthood without learning the basics of process. For me, the concept of thinking before acting, and then acting with thought given to sequence (and consequence), was alien.

The problem wasn’t just impulsivity. Sure, I’d often jump in without thought, although I’d just as often not jump at all (perhaps when facing authority or bureaucracy or when feeling fearful or lazy). My problem was being clueless with respect to time and task management, which meant my actions had no direction or purpose, while instructions felt like an imposition: hence my knee-jerk resistance.

As we shall see, such cluelessness starts young and is almost certainly the result of poor conditioning: whether from influencers (such as parents and teachers) who were themselves poorly-conditioned (thus merely passing-on the malaise), or who we – for whatever reason – ignored or even rejected.

And it’s not long before we’re resigned to our fate: developing low expectations regarding what’s achievable, or assuming that – somehow – strong goal-oriented productivity is for other people. We may even find a condition that suits our symptoms, perhaps excusing us from the fray (see Part One).

Yet there’s nothing innate about strong personal productivity. In virtually all circumstances, it’s a mere facet of learning. It’s something we have to be taught, or something we have to teach ourselves if no-one bothered (or we didn’t listen). That said, blaming others or our circumstances, or assuming others have privileges and entitlements not available to us, is both disabling and self-fulfilling.

Of course, we’re right: other people are (probably) to blame for our situation; and others do have it easier. And we may even have been diagnosed with one of the long list of conditions to explain our productive deficiencies. But simply using this as an excuse to languish at the bottom – to not even start the journey towards becoming a well-organized, goal-oriented and productive human being – is an appalling and wilful act of self-sabotage.

Someone, somewhere has to tell us this news. And (more importantly) we have to hear it. Otherwise, like millions of unproductive people everywhere, we’ll remain stuck in the wrong place – facing the wrong way – although with some cast-iron excuses for our lack of progress.


Someone capable of achieving something

No mentor appeared for me – at least not one I was willing to listen to. Instead, I remained utterly ineffective until my late thirties. Of course, I’d made some headway. But it was poor progress compared to what I thought possible, and usually dismissed by me as “too little, too late”. Somewhere in there, I reasoned, was a person able to achieve great things. I just needed someone to spot it, give me a chance, and point me in the right direction.

But that moment never came. In fact, even by thinking this I’d handed over my future to somebody I’d never met and who may not even exist – hence my starry-eyed “gis-a-job” look of longing and desperation every time I met somebody that clearly did have a future, and did know where they were going.

How pathetic: inwardly pleading “please save me” to total strangers, asking them (even if unstated, the intent was plain) to rescue me by organizing my future. It was the directionless graduate’s equivalent of sitting passively outside the train station with a sign saying “homeless and hungry”.

Yet the biggest problem with this “future-outsourcing” approach isn’t that it doesn’t work. It’s that it does. Occasionally, we do get rescued – normally by someone looking for recruits to their cause. We end up pursuing their goals for their ends. Indeed, why not? We’ve failed to forge our own path, so we may as well hand over our fate to someone more capable. That said, we’ll quickly blame them when our unrealistic expectations turn out to be, well, unrealistic.


Ever-decreasing circles

On several occasions I’ve outsourced the direction of my career in this way: pleading for a chance (covertly if not overtly) and “as luck would have it” being recruited by an organized, goal-oriented, skipper looking for a crew. Eventually I’d work this out and become disillusioned and even resentful. And then I’d start the same flirty-eyed process all over again, with a new bunch of productive strangers.

As is the way with these things, this was a process that repeated itself in ever-decreasing circles until – depressed and not a little fearful for the future – the unrelenting reality of my situation came crashing in. Floored, I found the self-help section of the bookshop – a zone that opened up an Aladdin’s Cave of potential solutions for my malaise. Books, DVDs, courses, even homeopathic remedies: rather typically I jumped in with the zeal of those desperate to be converted.

But, again, I’d outsourced my future – this time to a series of grinning Californians promising me dream-fulfilment via their seemingly-irrefutable methodologies. Not for the first time, my wide-eyed enthusiasm became eroded by small slips and minor setbacks. My passion burnt away – replaced by a deep cynicism at the cheesy grins, the hyper-titling (Maximum Achievement, Unlimited Power etc.) and the over-promising.

That said, the pattern of behaviour felt uniquely mine. Hope, enthusiasm, sketched-plans, erratic execution, small setbacks, arrested progress, despondent reactions, procrastination, surrender, cynicism, denial, even depression – and then, almost without pause, the next twinkling light on the horizon rekindling the hope.


Lost in a fantasy world

In fact, mine is a simple tale of low-self esteem and childhood alienation: a strained relationship with my father; a school that only noticed my misbehaviour; an older sister that I seemed to continually irritate – and a mother that tried to make up for all these deficits but was busy fighting her own battles. Small wonder formalized pursuits couldn’t hold my attention and I, instead, lost myself in a fantasy world that, after a while, consumed my sense of purpose.

I opted out of the real, emotionally-painful, world aged 10 – instead occupying a parallel, more comforting, universe of my own making. Literally, I became someone else – a made-up person in a made-up country – keen to escape the reality of an upbringing that was both barren and hurtful.

I was brought up in what Americans call exurbia – a once-quaint Essex village expanded to the size of a small town to house the post-war east London Diaspora in soulless but comfortable estates. This changed the pace of life along with the accents. Yet neither the rural natives, with their fruity vowels, nor the London incomers, with their sharp expressions, offered me a sense of direction worth emulating. Instead, I left the local comprehensive with one O’ Level (in geography) and pursued a series of careers I didn’t want, or – with those I did want – eventually rebelled against: perhaps after an episode in which I felt exploited or undervalued.

A crucial point here is that unproductive people are rarely lazy – at least not initially. They can be highly-motivated and work extremely hard, although they’re busy going nowhere. Add stress, anxiety and convictions of exploitation to those patent feelings of frustration and alienation and this is a destructive state of mind. It’s also one unlikely to produce a positive response from others.

Most back away: inwardly rolling their eyes or quietly bitching to a confidant. Instead, they focus on their own productive pursuits, and view us as no more than a highly-volatile obstacle to navigate.


The painful truth

Certainly, this cycle continued for me until I went into business with a successful friend – yet again, hitching myself to someone else’s endeavours in the hope some of his magic would rub off. Inevitably, we fell out. But rather than back away, my partner attacked – telling me some home truths I’d been waiting to hear all my life.

“Yes, you’re talented,” he said (after prompting). “But it’s wasted. You’ll never cash it in because it’s directionless. You only know what you don’t want, which means you’re so busy fighting everybody – including yourself – you become someone others avoid. There’s so much noise going on inside your head – so many battles being fought – that you cannot hear or see anything else.”

“In the end, people will give up on you,” he said. “Or you’ll spend your entire life running away from things – meaning you’ll have nothing to show for it but a series of lost battles and great excuses.

Finally, someone worth listening to had said something I needed to hear. I had to change, and change fundamentally, which led me back to those discarded self-help books (and even into the hands of a professional psychologist).

Yet to change I needed to understand what had happened. Why was I so directionless – destructively so? Adopting productive behaviours simply because some self-help guru told me to – or because a colleague had finally pierced my emotional armoury – felt equally unsustainable: another pursuit that would disappear at the first sign of boredom, or after the first setback, or due to some invented dispute.

If I was to change fundamentally – sustainably – I first had to unravel the chaotic mind that made me so ineffectual. Only then could I adopt the strong habits – as recommended by the gurus – with any sense of understanding, or with any optimism that the road ahead would be more rewarding than the twisting and rutted path that had taken me to this sorry point.