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Trick Yourself into Getting Started

It’s the new year. You may have recommitted yourself to your goals or set some new ones. You may have vowed that you want to get more done without working more hours. You may want to feel like each day ends on a high note at work. You may want to feel energized, not drained. We’re going to let you in on somewhat of a productivity secret. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but it works.

Before You Start: Assess Yourself

“Which goal has eluded me? Which goal have I not been able to achieve?”

We don’t want you to start with something completely new like training for a marathon when you’ve never run a mile in your life. We want you to assess those things that bother you just enough that you want to change them. For example, you may exercise once a week, but perhaps haven’t been able to convert that into a daily habit yet. Or maybe you accomplish your day-to-day work but haven’t been able to devote enough time to more long-term, strategic projects.

We want you to think about one of those goals, something that’s bothersome that you haven’t been able to achieve. Before we let you in on the secret, let’s take you to the car wash.

Step 1) Start Earning Your “Free Car Wash”

“How can I trick myself into believing I started yesterday?”

Two researchers wanted to see which of two car wash loyalty cards would be more persuasive. At a professional car wash, the researchers gave out 300 loyalty cards. Half of the loyalty cards had eight spots that needed to be stamped in order to get the ninth free car wash. The other half of the loyalty cards had 10 spots that needed to be stamped to get the eleventh free car wash, but the first two spots on the card had already been stamped. Which loyalty card would get YOU to go to the car wash more often to eventually redeem the free wash? Think about it. Both require only eight visits. Would it make any difference to you?

In the study, when customers had to get all eight spots stamped for a free car wash, only 19 percent followed through and redeemed the free car wash. When customers had to get 10 stamps but the first two had already been completed for them, 32 percent redeemed the free car wash. What was going on?

When two stamps had already been placed on the 10-spot loyalty card, people felt that they were already in progress, that they had already started working on getting that free car wash.

How can you do the same? How can you trick yourself into believing you’ve already started your project? One coaching client we know does just that. She creates her Tina’s Ta-Da! List, just like you probably do. The difference? The first two items on her list are things she has already completed, so she can feel the joy of immediately crossing them off. In fact, another client, Bob, always writes as the first item on his to-do list “make to-do list” and immediately crosses it off.

Step 2) DON’T Finish Your Work at the End of the Day

“How can I return to a project I’m energized about?”

We told you there would be some counterintuitive advice. You might think that to increase your productivity, it would make sense to try to finish projects.

Not so fast. There is some thorough research on the effect of interrupting yourself and leaving a project unfinished until you return to it. Consider our client Samantha. Samantha used to stay late at the office to finish her work. At the same time, she found that nearly every morning, she struggled with which project to work on first and was unmotivated and unfocused. Then we told her about research that demonstrates that people better remember those activities that they leave unfinished. Samantha started outlining the work she wanted to accomplish the next morning. What happened? Samantha found that when she returned to her desk the next day, she was full of energy for completing the previous day’s work. In some cases, she had even had a few additional thoughts about her work between going home and returning to the office in the morning. The best part for her though was that she felt more focused in the mornings, and had clear projects to jump back into.

Step 3) Make a “Gladly Do” List

“How can I make my steps so simple that I actually look forward to my to-do list?”

One of our colleagues, Joanne, attempts as much as possible to be in control of her day. A lot of psychology research shows that some of the most engaged workers are those who feel in control of their own work. Joanne breaks down her tasks and projects into items so compact that she actually enjoys the specific actions. In fact, she calls her to-do list the “gladly do” list. How could you break out the steps of a project to the degree that each of those individual steps feels the opposite of overwhelming? How could you break out the steps of a project into “gladly do” actions?

After: Reassess and Celebrate Your Progress

“How have I been tricking myself into getting more done?”

Finally, once you try to trick yourself into starting a project, once you curtail the urge to complete all of your work by the end of each day and once you convert your “to-do” list to a “gladly do” list, make sure to go back and reassess your progress. Sometimes, we make the mistake of assuming that a certain technique works for us.

Check in with yourself, and reassess whether these trick-yourself steps have helped you get more done without working more hours.

Finally, not all the car washes, finished presentations and to-do lists in the world are going to compensate for the calmness and pride of putting a dent into a project that had been unfinished. We wish you all the best with your project!

Get Started Today:

1) TODAY Ask the three most important questions:

  • What can I do if I only have five minutes?
  • What can I do to move this project along by just 1 percent?
  • What’s the smallest step I can take right now for the biggest, most positive impact?

2) EVERY DAY Keep a daily 10-minute appointment with yourself.

The best way to break a work project into daily workable chunks:

  • Schedule a 10-minute appointment with yourself on your calendar with a reminder alarm a few minutes beforehand.
  • Use that 10 minutes daily to work on or plan out the project; it may feel unorganized and unclear at first, but keep at it – it takes a while to sort through the initial vagueness of organizing a project.
  • Keep using those 10 minutes (you will get a lot of mileage from having that same appointment with yourself at the same time and in the same place each day); now use those 10 minutes to complete one or two small tasks related to the project each day.

3) EVERY WEEK Track weekly progress:

  • If you are a visual person, hang a calendar in your office and mark off the days when you work on your project.
  • If you love using apps for your lists and productivity, then create a simple way to track your consistency. One of us created a spreadsheet with weeks across the top: “Week of January 6,” “Week of January 13,” etc. Consistency can be as simple as a yes/no question: “Did I exercise today? Yes/no.”

Margaret H. Greenberg and Senia Maymin, are organizational consultants and executive coaches. You can find more information at ProfitFromThePositive.com. Their new book is Profit from the Positive: Proven Leadership Strategies to Boost Productivity and Transform Your Business. “Trick Yourself into Getting Started” is one of more than 30 research based tools in their book.

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