My Three Biggest Hurdles

I’m waiting for some vegetables to boil, and as I survey my living room I can see all the chores I’ve been putting off. Why does this always happen? One of the new things I learned last year was yes, it’s easy to get chores out of the way if you just start picking up one thing and keep going.

Here’s my three big hurdles. I’m constantly battling them.

  • Keeping a Regular Schedule. I sleep and wake as my interests dictate. Being a freelancer makes this possible. I know when my meetings are and when my projects are due, planning my sleeping cycles around deliverables and conference calls. I also regularize my schedule when working with a team. But for some reason…I just like staying up and up and up until my mind is tired. Then I sleep.

  • Doing Routine Things. There’s an energy-sapping field that I find difficult to cross unless I build up enough momentum to take a flying leap through it. This usually means that discomfort has built up to an intolerable level, which gives me the burst of energy to power through the problem. However, I wish I could just walk through that force field. Household chores, accounting, exercise, diet, and business would be a lot easier.

  • Starting New Projects. It’s weird, but it takes me a long time to start a project. New projects should be fun and exciting! However, I’m just as unmotivated in starting something new and novel as I am doing routine things. Again, wouldn’t it be nice to “just do it”?

You know, I wrote these down thinking I was procrastinating uselessly. I was going to leave it at that, but I think I can see the pattern…

  1. In the absence of direct and immediate benefit from the Action, we’re less motivated to do it, if jumping the Hurdle does not provide immediate and meaningful gratification by itself.

  2. The Path of Least Resistence is the path we take, if we’re pretty sure it’s not the Path of Guaranteed Immediate Destruction.

These are patterns that everyone has. A friend might wonder why I don’t do my sit-ups every day. I know it’s sheer madness to not build a strong and healthy body, and the friend shakes his head in befuddlement. Then I’ll look at my friend’s computer and wonder why he doesn’t take basic anti-virus precautions, keep the system purged, and back up his 10 years of work. I know it’s prudent. He knows it’s prudent. We both know better, yet he loses all his data and I get fat. I’ve known for about a year that when it comes to getting past my big three hurdles, it’s been external motivation that gets me moving 90% of the time. At the time, I thought this was one my character weaknesses. That bummed me out. Now I think the pattern may be universal. Hurdles that require external motivation are the ones that we haven’t personally experienced in a strong negative or positive way. They remain theoretical niceties unless we get our motivation from somewhere else. From a buddy. From the boss. From your family. From 9-11. Until we have personally experienced paradigm-shifting success or failure in the context of the task, we do not have the internal reference to motivate ourselves in isolation. That’s my theory, anyway. I suspect if you’re a self-motivated individual in general, you’ve internalized the value of motivation as a general principle from having witnessed that it works. That’s enough. For my hypothetical friend who lost years of work because he never backed up…you can bet he does it now religiously. I’m not yet at the point where I’ve noticed an attractive women checking out my bod, but when that happens I know there will be no turning back! :-) There are a few methods I can think of to externalize the motivation for my three hurdles:

  • Throw parties for people who haven’t seen my house before! This forces me to clean up.

  • Share and justify my financial statements regularly with my Dad. He’s an amazing person and quietly supportive, and if I have to show him what I’m doing with money…I want to have something good to say.

  • Promise to show those backburnered projects to interested people that I never want to let down. This forms an implicit alliance of mutual interest, and is a strong motivator to me. It presumes that the interested party also follows through, otherwise the alliance is a waste of time.

  • Find a buddy for the activity. This is a good approach for dieting and learning new skills, because you can bootstrap each other.

  • If you’re lucky, you know someone who has the peculiar ability to tell you what to do and you end up doing it without really questioning it. I know a few people like this.

  • Hang out with inspiring, motivated, energetic people. They’re catalysts! If you can get energized from the interaction, that extra energy has to go somewhere. It might go to one of your projects or chores.

  • Use environmental graphics and signs to remind you what you’re supposed to do.

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p>The general principle: tie the activity to someone or something in the outside world. Or, make sure that someone is counting on you to deliver results they’ll be using immediately. I can’t emphasize the word “immediate” enough. If you can’t arrange for immediate and tangible feedback, the game is over before it begins.

I’m also assuming that you have the means to accomplish what you want to do already; if you don’t, there’s no shame in not doing it. Not much shame, anyway :-)