Getting Things Done by Making Slacking Hurt

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At a certain point this year I found myself frustrated and feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere on several different projects, while at the same time feeling like I was working too much and not having enough fun. I needed motivation, and I needed priorities. I came up with something that helps me with both and has been really successful for me. In brief, I started using a system where every Sunday I write down a small list of things I want to achieve in a given week and then hold myself to it absolutely.

Having some long-term goals helps prioritize tasks, but I mostly focus on short-term tasks, for reasons I explain below. These, by the way can be anything, even something like “get to bed before 10pm five nights this week” or “go skiing”. They always include some fun things, usually including at least four exercise days. This article is one item on this week’s list and so was this morning’s run. The key is that they are things I not only want to do (write, run) or have to do (paint the house), but things I will do that week, not things I sort of vaguely might to do that week if I get to it.

Failing Has to Feel Like This
Failing Has to Feel Like This

If I fail, I “fine” myself $250. If I finish it, I award myself $50. The 5:1 ratio there is not accidental. Humans tend to be more attuned to voiding pain than to seeking pleasure. Losing five weeks of reward for a single failure is really powerful. The reward money goes into a pot to spend on things I otherwise wouldn’t spring for. Wireless headphones for example, which I most definitely don’t need, but not things like shoes or pants. Having a defined list, a defined deadline and $300 riding on it helps me stay on track. It’s been an interesting experiment (going on about three months now). Depending on how miserly you are, maybe $300 won’t do it for you. Maybe you need to make it $3000. Maybe $30. One thing is certain: for the system to work, it needs to be an amount of money that will hurt and the loss has to be bigger than the gain. We humans are wired that way. It also helps to have it allocated toward something you really want, so you tell yourself you’ll get that plane ticket or iPod Touch when, and only when you’ve saved up by ticking your list every week. So if you go five weeks and you’re almost there, missing one goal that week sets your iPod purchase back six weeks! Then you have a dilemma — stay up until midnight writing that article or wait an extra six weeks to buy your bauble. It’s powerful.

So what have I noticed as a result of my experiment?

Short-term tasks allow for accountability.

It’s hard to be accountable on a daily or weekly basis for progress toward long-term goals. Something that will take a year to achieve or perhaps that I may never really achieve is just too abstract. That abstraction makes those type of goals very easy to avoid, shirk and procrastinate on. Because I choose actions I can control and that are achievable, I can hold myself accountable every week. Focusing on a weekly list of discreet tasks that I must finish has four consequences:

  1. My weekly tasks are not all that ambitious. I set targets I can meet. This helps me be realistic and really prioritize.
  2. My weekly tasks are things I can control. So I would never say “Talk to Bill about X.” I would say “Make at least three attempts to reach Bill to discuss X”.
  3. I have more true free time because when my list is done for the week, I’m done and can pitter and putter guilt free.
  4. I rack up victories, not defeats, successes, not failures.

The last of these may be the most important. At any given moment, I have 200 years worth of things I would like to do in theory, but the list grows faster than I can knock things off. Life is just too damn interesting! The downside of there being so many interesting things to do in life is that they pile up and that can lead to feeling that I just get further and further behind on those long-term goals and that’s depressing. Actually knocking of a list from start to finish every week can really change how you feel about the freedom and control you have in life.

Small steps are easier to take than giant steps.

As a mountaineer I have never found summits very motivating. I need to focus on the experience and on very small, intermediate milestones if I’m to get anywhere. On a long, steep snow slope, I often play the 50-step game, that is telling myself I will take 50 steps before I rest. Then I play the ten breaths game, that is, I’ll only rest for ten breaths, then start plodding again. The summit is too abstract. I focus on the immediate task and the experience and find that much better at keeping me going.

I once read something in Hindu literature which, sadly, I can’t find again, that said roughly: “If we dare too much, we will be destroyed, but by advancing in small steps, the gods themselves can be defeated.”

Any process you don’t break down into manageable components becomes overwhelming. Breaking it down into small unintimidating chunks makes everything more pleasant and manageable. Having these very discreet and achievable lists is like that. It’s a lot less intimidating to get going on something I can finishthis week.

It’s ultimately not the goal that matters

Mark Twight, one of America’s great alpinists, notes that it’s possible to “fail upwards”, that is climb yourself into a situation unintentionally where your only recourse is to continue up, possibly in bad style and often at increasing risk. He sees that as a failure because you reach the summit not because you choose to, but because you have to. Conversely, it’s also possible to have a great climb that ends in retreat, but retreat on your own terms, which can be a success (you have a great time, you learn a lot, you live). Ultimately, the value lies in the climb, not in the summit.

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