It’s human nature to put off uncomfortable or undesirable tasks, or to make the easy choice in the moment. But if something is a legitimate priority, we’ll have to get it done eventually — and sooner is better than later. In this article, the author lays out strategies we can use to ‘trick ourselves’ into getting started on projects that might feel onerous or overwhelming, but really need to get done: 1) start with an easy behavior change, 2) commit to a certain date, and 3) make it an experiment.
We’ve all heard the standard productivity advice — we should “eat that frog” and conquer our hardest, most consequential tasks first, so we don’t waste the whole day procrastinating. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
There are a litany of emotionally salient — if counterproductive — reasons why we might put off an important project, from fear of looking stupid (“I’m new at this and might be terrible at it”) to uncertainty about how to proceed (“There are a thousand things to do and I’m not sure where to start”). But if something is a legitimate priority, we’ll have to get it done eventually — and most of us realize, at least intellectually, that sooner is better than later.
For years, I’ve researched the question of how we can force ourselves to do what we know is important, even when our human impulses intervene and, in the moment, we just don’t want to do it. In my new book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I lay out strategies we can use to “trick ourselves” into getting started on projects that might feel onerous or overwhelming, but really need to get done. Here are three techniques you can try.
Start with easy behavior change.
When a goal is large, complex, or long term, it takes a huge amount of motivation to keep yourself going. After all, finishing that proposal or creating a deck for a particularly high-stakes client presentation typically involves both a lot of time and a lot of steps (brainstorming, outlining, drafts, revisions, feedback, more revisions, etc.). So how can you sustain that motivation?
According to Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg, maybe you shouldn’t even try to. “When a behavior is easy, you don’t need to rely on motivation,” he says.
Instead of focusing on the enormous task ahead of you, he suggests creating “tiny habits” that are so minuscule and doable that they’re impossible to resist. When he wanted to create a flossing habit for himself, he decided to floss just one tooth. Because getting started is often the hard part, once you’re flossing that one tooth, it becomes far easier to keep going and floss them all.
The goal is that for any activity where you feel nervous or averse, lower the bar and find a small way to begin. If you find yourself overwhelmed by your inbox, try replying to just one email. If you’re uncomfortable at a networking event, go up to just one person and introduce yourself. (You can give yourself permission to leave afterward, but you might not want to.)
Commit to a deadline.
Every leader has heard the mantra, “What gets measured gets done.” That’s true for tracking sales or customer lifetime value, and it turns out it’s also true for accomplishing our own long-term ambitions.
Sam Horn was a successful author and speaker — and she couldn’t figure out how to take a break. “For decades, I had associated a full calendar with financial stability,” she said. “It was a measure of my success.” And that’s exactly what she’d optimized for, booking her schedule so full, she was on the brink of exhaustion. After one particularly brutal trip, she decided to realize a dream that she’d been pushing off for years: She wanted to spend a year traveling and working from the road. Most critically, she gave herself a deadline. For any major project, whether it’s starting a new business, or applying for an award, or signing up for a course or a graduate program, she says, “If you do not have a date on the calendar, it is not getting done. Because life will intervene and you’ll say, ‘Okay, well, not now, later.’ And then you set up that loop.”
She ran into plenty of obstacles on her path to becoming a digital nomad, from incredulous friends (“Sam, are you sick?”) to fears that her business would suffer if she went on the road. “Yet it happened,” she says, “because I circled October 1 on my calendar and made a vow to be out the door on that day.” Her biggest lesson? “A pre-commitment needs to have metrics if it’s going to succeed.”
Make it an experiment.
We often procrastinate because we’re subconsciously inflating the stakes surrounding our goal. If it feels like we’re making a deeply consequential decision, we may get paralyzed (“If I start a podcast and quit, I’ll look like a failure, so if I start, I’ll need to keep doing it forever.”) But realistically, few professional decisions are that critical, and almost none are irrevocable. Launching a podcast, for instance, doesn’t involve a blood oath, and while not ideal, it’s certainly possible to quit a new job if you realize it’s not a fit.
The key to overcoming this hurdle and getting started is lowering the stakes in our own mind, so we can actually get started. If we view a project as a defining moment in our lives, of course we’ll hesitate: If I don’t get the pitch deck right, no one will invest in my startup, and my entrepreneurial dreams will fail!
Instead, we need to reframe our actions as an experiment, because it eliminates the risk of failure. Failure is upsetting to so many of us because it implies finality: You tried to accomplish something, and it didn’t happen. But an experiment, which you recognize from the beginning has an uncertain outcome, can hardly be called a failure. You know it’ll take multiple iterations to get the result you want, and you set your expectations accordingly. Instead of becoming a podcaster for life, you commit to one season of six episodes. Even if no one listens, or you realize you don’t enjoy it, you haven’t failed: You’ve gotten data that helps you refine your approach, so you can succeed in the future. When the pressure is off, it’s a lot easier to motivate ourselves to get started.
It’s human nature to put off uncomfortable or undesirable tasks, or to make the easy choice in the moment. But if we want to become long-term thinkers and accomplish the meaningful goals that we say we do, these three strategies can help us get started — and stay the course.