by Susan McCarthy
If you're struggling to get started on a big project, you may need to shift your focus to more immediate results.
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For me, this year has been all about starting things – writing blogs, guides, and books; designing courses; starting a diet; starting an exercise routine; crocheting items to give to charities; volunteering for both the Friends of the Library and Garden Club in my town; reading books; exploring new interests and hobbies, starting another diet; hurting my knee with that exercise routine only to discover that I have arthritis; and, and, and.
Oh, did I mention that for every five things I started I maybe finished one of them?
So, it seems to me that I have no issues with starting projects – it’s finishing them that’s the problem. Or is it? I recently gave myself a long weekend to finish a series of tasks – finish some fall cleaning projects, complete a couple of craft projects I wanted to mail out, and finish the seven books I was simultaneously reading, and a few other things.
Yes, my list was probably too long for the time I designated as Finish It Up Weekend (there was an expletive tucked in there too to further express my frustration with myself). But I figured that whatever I got done would be a bonus and might free up the logjam of tasks and energy surrounding this to-do list.
Quite a few tasks got done … and quite a few got ignored as I went off to do things that weren’t on my list. Why would I do that? What about Finish It Up didn’t I understand?
One task on my list was to finish reading Michelle Segar’s book from 2015, No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness, before I had to return it to the library. Of course, reading about motivation seemed like a good thing seeing my struggle with staying inspired.
Although Segar’s focus is fitness, helping people find and maintain their determination to become active (spoiler alert: she believes that coming from the attitude that “everything counts” is the best incentive for movement). So, what could I extrapolate from the book about finding and maintaining motivation for projects?
Go for the Immediate Benefits
As Segar points out, the human brain is hardwired to seek out immediate results over long-term ones. But, of course, there are big projects that you can’t complete in a single sitting – how do you handle those? How can you feel both immediate gratification and success that you’re moving a project forward?
Start by breaking that project into small chunks that can be completed in a single sitting (so, let’s say no more than two-ish hours).
When I put a big project on my to-do list, I’m making it more difficult to complete. I know that I can’t write 50,000 words in a couple of hours, so it’s hard to get started because, obviously, I won’t be able to finish the task. Giving myself a smaller goal – 500-to-1000-words, I’ll have a better chance at feeling successful.
And, let’s face it, doing something is always better than doing nothing. If you’re looking at a big project, identify the smaller tasks that you can complete within a short period. Seeing that small next step on a to-do list is more inviting than a project you know you won’t be able to finish. (If you keep adding those small next steps to your to-do list, you will work your way through that project.)
This isn’t about doing the simpler parts of a project, but about breaking down a big project into small actions.
Make It Enjoyable
If you dread doing a task, maybe it’s something you feel that you should do as opposed to something you’re choosing to do, you’re not going to want to do it. If it’s a small enough task, then you might be able to push through it.
But, what if it’s a big, multistep project, like decluttering your garage or a project related to work? Then, look for your Why.
Why are you doing that project? What benefits do you hope for? If you don’t know why you’re decluttering your garage, or you’re only doing it because your spouse keeps complaining about the mess, then you’re making the project more difficult for you to complete. You’ll want to look deep and understand the benefits you hope for receive.
Maybe that project at work that you’re less than enthusiastic about could lead to recognition or monetary benefits that you are interested in. Understanding your why doesn’t make the project any easier, but you’re finding your inspiration.
That inspiration should also involve immediate results. Thinking, “I’ll feel so happy when the garage is organized” isn’t particularly encouraging because you might have 10-20 hours of work ahead of you. Filling a box with items for donation is worthy of a Woo-hoo! Each damaged item that gets tossed deserves a Yes! That’s your immediate benefit.
If you’re not enthusiastic about sorting through your stuff in the garage, you could remind yourself that you love your spouse and you know clearing some stuff means they’ll be able to park their car in the garage so they won’t have to deal with defrosting and scraping icy windows first thing in the morning. Because you care about your spouse and you know tackling this project will be a positive boost to their mood, you know that time at home will be more relaxed – a benefit to you that is more meaningful than the idea of a decluttered garage.
Focus on One Motivating Factor
It might seem that you could increase your drive by focusing on multiple factors. Clean garage! Happy spouse! No arguments about parking the car in the garage! Loving feelings! Relaxed time at home!
However, Segar’s research showed that summoning more inspiring factors in working toward a goal only succeeded in diluting or cancelling out an individual’s Why. Instead of feeling pumped up by all the reasons Why you’re doing something, you’d be left feeling ambivalent.
So, how do you choose the best, most persuasive Why? According to Segar, “The Right Whys are the motivators of sustainable behavior change because they reflect roles and goals and are very personally compelling. They are energizing and empowering.”
Reading about motivation helped me understand why I was avoiding some of the projects that I’d started over the course of the year. In some cases, the project was so big it seemed too discouraging to start. Sometimes, I wasn’t clear why I’d decided to do something and so it was difficult to persuade myself to get to work.
In both cases, I couldn’t see the immediate benefits I’d receive by acting. It was difficult to work toward a vague feeling of accomplishment that would only occur someday.
And if you’re having a difficult time getting started on projects, consider how you can make them more personally compelling – why are you bothering to work on this project? If you feel energized when you think of a reason, you know you’ve hit upon the Right Why for you.
Also, check that you’re not listing a multiple-hour project as a single item on your to-do list. Ask yourself, what’s the very next step I need to take? If it will take you longer than a couple of hours to complete, break it down to a smaller action. Can you break the actions within that two-hour block into smaller tasks? All the better to feel frequent bursts of success and be encouraged to continue working on that project.
Chances are that you’ll calmer or more energized or more productive while working on the task and that immediate gratification will continue to motivate you.
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Hi, I'm Susan
I’m the chief (and only) Organized Squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life. In these articles, I meld my nearly 30 years as a teacher with my new career as a professional organizer to show you how to clear your cluttered home and schedule to create the life you want.