“You don’t have to believe in yourself, you just have to do the thing.”
Author Holly Black said this at the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend (more on the Festival in my weekly newsletter, which you can get by signing up here) and it’s been haunting me all week.
I am lazy. My natural inclination is to do nothing, all the time. If no one interrupted me, I could probably read for at least seven years before noticing any time had passed.
I’ve spent years searching for the magical cure to my laziness. I’ve tried using SMART goals, building habits and creating detailed Calendars for Change. Nothing stuck. I’d be hyper productive for a few weeks and then drift back into my natural state of being.
I suspect I’m not alone in this.
There are tons of blogs, books, and speeches floating around in the world about how to do things. How to write a book, finish a screenplay, paint a painting. For those privileged enough to have a dream beyond mere survival, one of the great struggles of life is getting yourself to do the things you actually want to do.
This struggle is nothing new. Paul wrote about it in a letter to the Christian church in Rome in the first century.
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
(Romans 7:15 ESV)
This is the story of my life. I hate passivity and laziness, yet I often live in those states. I know what I want to do, but the gap between it and what I actually do is vast. It is exhausting, to fail at something so simple.
Ben Hardy has written, “it’s actually far more exhausting to not work than it is to work.”
This is so true. Pursuing goals take energy, yes. But not pursuing thing them takes even more.
Most of the advice I’ve seen about how to make yourself do the thing you want to do essentially boils down to: if you really want to, you will do it.
This is not true. Plenty of people want to start companies, travel the world, or direct movies. Most of them take no action toward doing these things.
I’ve always found this advice useless. I want to do so many things and I do so few.
This year, though, I’ve discovered the secret to making myself productive and achieving my goals. It’s simple: trick myself.
That’s right. The easiest way to start is to trick yourself into doing it. Once I threw away all that hogwash about chasing dreams and artistic passion and focused on what actually motivated me, I discovered that playing mind games was the best way to get myself to do the things I wanted to be doing.
Here’s a few tips for tricking yourself into doing something:
1. Figure out what motivates you
First, it’s important to identify what motivates you. I am motivated by external expectations.
I don’t bail on plans with friends and I always turn projects in on time at work. It’s meeting internal expectations that I struggle with.
You might be the opposite. Maybe it’s easy for you to finish something when it’s a personal project, but you bristle at the thought of an employer deadline or outer expectations.
Gretchen Rubin has written an entire book about the four ways people respond to expectations called The Four Tendencies. You can take the quiz to found out how you respond to expectations here.
Once you’ve identified what motivates you it’s time to figure out how work within that framework.
This is tricky for internal goals—it can feel hopeless. How on earth can I motivate myself to do something if I only do things for other people?
Simple. I turned my internal goals into external deadlines. I will not work out unless I have to. This year I started signing up for races and telling people I was running them. Now I have to train because I’ve spent money on a race. I love deadlines and so this system works really well for me.
Don’t expect yourself to magically wake up one morning feeling motivated to make all the changes you want to in your life. Identify the things that have actually motivated you in the past, and figure out a way to create a similar set of circumstances in your present.
2. Put your pride on the line
Shame is usually a negative thing, but I’m not opposed to using it to motivate myself. When I tell my roommate I’m waking up early to go on a run, I’m more likely to do it because I don’t want her to wake up before me and notice I’m still in bed.
Put your pride on the line for your work. Post publicly about what you are doing. Tell a few friends. Tattoo a deadline on your body. Whatever works for you. Higher stakes will lead to better results.
3. Build momentum
Different goal setting systems recommend different goal sizes. The SMART system suggests setting achievable goals. Others recommend wildly unachievable goals. I’ve found the best way to meet goals is to find a sweetspot between what you can realistically achieve and what you would achieve in your wildest dreams. If you start out too small, you may forget why you needed a goal in the first place. If you start out too big, you’ll grow discouraged and give up.
The trick, as always, is to find balance. If you want to run a 5k, starting with a goal of walking fifty feet a day will probably not help you. It will be so easy to achieve, you’ll wonder why you need to train for the race at all. On the other hand, if you start with a goal of running three miles on your first try, you will likely be discouraged by how hard it is. (Unless you are one of those people who can just run forever without ever trying, in which case, I hate you.)
The key word here is momentum.
Momentum is the word my friends and I use to make ourselves go out in the city. Nightlife in New York doesn’t really get started until midnight or later, which, for someone like me who is socially akin to a grandmother, is asking a lot. We use the word momentum to get us pumped.
When we leave the apartment at 10, cold and tired and thinking all our plans of dancing and “having the best night ever” were foolish, we start yelling “momentum!” It’s weird, but it works.
The real trick to doing the thing you want to do is building momentum. You don’t wake up one morning with the strength to finish something. You take one step, then another, and build a consistent work ethic.
4. Objects in motion stay in motion
Once you’ve figured out how to motivate yourself and have started building momentum, the trick is to keep moving. Operate by Newton’s first law of motion: objects in motion stay in motion.
Just because you’ve started doing the thing you want to be doing doesn’t mean you’ve earned a break. Keep working. It is much easier to keep moving than it is to start moving. You’re in motion, congratulations. Don’t stop.
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