On Her Own

How to trick yourself into getting things done

Motivation can be hard sometimes, but there are still things that need to get done. We know that discipline is the answer, but what does that really look like? Sometimes you can just decide that you’re going to do the thing, just buckle down and churn out the results that you need. That’s sometimes presented as the ideal, as the opposite of being unmotivated or even lazy. There are so many reasons you might not want to, though, and they can’t always be overcome by force of mind. Sometimes, you have to trick your brain and your body into acting because no matter how much you know you need to, the inertia of not wanting to is so hard to shift. Knowing those tricks and enacting them to get the ball rolling is as much discipline as simply jumping into action regardless of your motivation level. Here are a few that I use:

I start by opening the file, going to the place, whatever it is to make the task I need to do as accessible as possible. Occasionally, this ends in nearly accidentally doing the thing because it’s right there and I might as well poke at it. Perhaps I only get a sentence written, a paragraph read, an item unpacked here or there, but over time it can add up to a more substantial amount. Those of you who have read my book, the Dry Fire Primer, might also be familiar with the concept of “dry fire pants” and a “dry fire dojo,” where everything is laid out to make it easy for you to start your practice. Not having to run around and gather up all of the equipment and supplies for a task has two effects: it reduces the friction you need to get going, and it helps give you a small space for getting into the mindset that now is the time to do the thing. You can apply it to all sorts of tasks, not just practicing a particular skill.

After that, sometimes I go do something else entirely, something I find easier to get going with. An old boss of mine would call it going after small wins, the sort of simple task that could be completed without much effort but still had to be done. Administrative organizing and shuffling in an office, perhaps, or emptying a dishwasher or moving your dirty laundry from the floor to a basket. While you might not want to do them as much as you don’t want to work on your main goal, they can be easier to make yourself do because they don’t require as much thought or energy. You can apply the same concept to the big project you’re dreading too, by working on all of the little bits and pieces surrounding the hard part. We joke about the student who carefully sets up the required header and precisely formats the title on a big research paper, but getting those first few words down is still necessary. Completing these easy wins can create momentum that you can carry into harder or more complex tasks. And if they don’t, they give you the satisfaction of getting something, anything done.

Another trick is to set time boundaries about when you will start and stop working. Use your calendar, alarm clock, or timer apps to set reminders of when you will move away from the distraction you’re using to avoid what you have to do. For instance, perhaps you will give yourself permission to play a game for ten minutes but then get to work. Use those apps again to create a commitment to do the thing for at least a small, set amount of time. Alternatively, you can chunk up the task and make an agreement with yourself that you will finish one portion now, and another portion later, until you’re done. This way, you do not sink completely into the fun things you’re doing instead of the less enjoyable thing that needs to get done, and you can grit your teeth knowing that for now, you only need work on that thing until you get to a predetermined end point. Cleaning your entire home might seem overwhelming, but straightening up whatever you can in fifteen minutes or scrubbing just the kitchen sink might seem a lot more approachable. It might take you a couple of days, but small pieces here and there can add up to a finished project.

Then reward yourself! Be thoughtful to scale your rewards appropriately, and to ensure that they remain reasonably healthy overall, but do include them as part of your plan to get the thing done. It’s easy to end up overeating or spending yourself out of your budget when it comes to treating yourself for finishing something difficult, but you can also select other things that might be as enjoyable. Gold stars are how we often motivate children, but don’t underestimate how satisfying it can be to check off boxes or, indeed, put stickers on a completion chart for every week you clean your bathroom. Instead of a whole candy bar for every workout you do, which can be counterproductive, maybe you can indulge in a half-hour with the really great new book you just bought or a spa pedicure after completing a month of classes. Don’t reserve rewards only for completion either; small ones like five minutes of a game might be perfect as you complete one part after another, so that you have something to look forward to often instead of only when you finally slog to the finish line (as long as the rewards don’t interfere too much with the work!).

Do you have ideas for other ways to help discipline yourself to do things you don’t want to do, things that you aren’t intrinsically motivated to do?

Hi, I'm Annette.

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