Build a Ramp

A RampThere are two things that every workable organization system promotes. The first is taking regular time to go over what you’re doing, such as a daily review. The second is to build your infrastructure (tools, habits, environment) in such a way that doing the right work is also the easiest path.

There are infinite variations of the latter, but it’s familiar to all of us in ideas as simple as “If you don’t want to eat ice cream, then don’t keep ice cream in the house.” It can easily be unpacked into tools like universal capture or inbox zero or whatever. The specifics are not very important but the idea absolutely is.

As important as this is when you’re trying to build your overall system, it’s also something to bear in mind when you’re trying to get specific tasks done. Sometimes you’ll find yourself with a big hair all of a task in your to do list that you’re just getting no traction on. Maybe it’s too big, or too scary, or too messy – whatever the reason, it’s just not moving and you need to do something about it1.

In those situations, I like to build a ramp.

That means I add a new task to my list whose purpose is to make it easier for me to address the hairball. The ramp’s purpose is not to solve the hairball problem, or even to work on it directly, but rather to address the things that are giving me the opportunity to not work on the hairball.

Simple ramp tasks might include things like “Schedule an appointment on myself to break down the hairball”,“Create initial hairball checklist”, “Create Dropbox folder for hairball” or even silly things like “Create a cool codename for hairball”2.

The right ramp for the situation depends on the reasons that I’m not making any movement on the problem. That’s important because while the ramp task itself should be helpful, the process of thinking through what I need to do to unfamiliar myself is invaluable. Especially when a hairball has sat on my list long enough that its inertia is more of a barrier to motion than anything intrinsic to the task.

It’s a simple technique, and you won’t need it in every situation. But the next time you find yourself staring at something you know you need to do but just aren’t, see if there’s a task you can pick up to build a ramp for that big task, so it maybe starts rolling on its own.

  1. GTD nerds will, of course, suggest that the right answer is to break it down into smaller, actionable steps. That’s good advice, and when it works, it’s another way to build a ramp, since the first action is (hopefully) much easier than the task a whole. Unfortunately, some tasks – especially hairy ones – can resist this. Sometimes the it’s the very task of breaking the hairball down that is daunting! In this situations, then that is what you build a ramp to. ↩︎
  2. Careful with these though. Start doing enough tangential tasks and sooner or later you’ll find you’re shaving a yak. ↩︎