Tricking Myself into Action

Tricking Myself into Action

I was lying on my bed this morning at 7AM seconds before the alarm went off. There was a lot to do today! So I mustered my energy and willed myself to spring out of bed!

In reality, I had fallen asleep again and was just dreaming I’d gotten up. In round 2, lying face-down in my pillow, I began the negotiation process with myself:

MIND: Ok, Body! It’s time to get out of bed and start another beautiful day!

BODY: We don’t seem to be moving.

MIND: So just get up. That’s how it works.

BODY: Well, it’s not working. I think we’re going to fall asleep again.

MIND: NO! Don’t! We can do this! Let’s run through some of those work visualization tricks. First, think of three things to do this morning, using our “triburst” theory of short-term task targeting. Ok, we’ve got to do some curriculum writing, tradeshow stuff, pay some bills. That’ll be our first chunk!

BODY: Ok. If you say so.

MIND: Yeah! NOW, all we need to do is get up! So LET’S GO! Go go go!

BODY: But it’s so comfortable on the bed. It’s warm, and the sheets are so nice and fresh.

MIND: I agree, but we’re supposed to be active and full of energy! We like that once we get going! Remember momentum and small steps lead to productivity!

BODY: Yes, but to quote Bugs Bunny, “That first step is a doozy”. And to quote Demotivators, “Hard work often pays off after time, but laziness always pays off now.”

MIND: Now I know you’re just stalling for time by quoting my own stuff back to me. Ok, let’s get a little more specific and really focus on that first step. Apply some of those “two-minute” rules, visualize the very first action. And that’s getting out of bed. Simple. So let’s go.

BODY: Maybe you need to break it down further. Or you need to really give me a compelling reason WHY to get out of bed. I need some immediate gratification

MIND: Hm, well, if you don’t get anything done this morning, you won’t get to hang out with your buddies tonight, because you’ll have to stay up late and work.

BODY: Not immediate enough. I’m thinking, like, in the next 10 seconds.

MIND: Breakfast?

BODY: Not hungry. There’s also nothing in the house, and going out to eat by ourselves is boring. Plus we spend money and waste time, and I’ll get even fatter.

MIND: Well…I got nothing. We might as well lie here and see if we want to get up later. Set the alarm for another 30 minutes then.

BODY: Psshh! That’s a typical mind response. Have you considered that you might be coming at this all wrong?

MIND: Oh!? You have a better idea, muscles-for-brains?

BODY: Yeah. I know you’re in love with the idea that the mind can do anything once set. And I know that you’ve been thinking about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation a lot as “primary triggers” for productivity. But the one you’ve forgotten is that when the body moves, action follows.

MIND: But the body does what the mind tells it.

BODY: No, not always. Maybe not even most of the time. I would say most of our day is spent reacting to things: desires, bosses, loved ones, productivity systems, clocks, smells, and so forth. To consciously control our day, you need to be conscious of ourselves and what we should be doing…that’s all your doing as the Mind. If the Body is in control, however, then we’re just doing stuff and you’re along for the ride in a supporting role. And a lot more seems to get done.

MIND: Ok, I think I see what you’re saying. We tend to be externally motivated by people and things going on in the world that we can feel responsible for. We receive all those triggers through our external senses. Truly intrinsic motivation, for us anyway, is harder for us to harness. We end up writing blog posts usually when that strikes.

BODY: Right. Back to external triggers: you do realize that for a trigger to happen, we need to sense it right? You can’t react to an external trigger unless you are able to perceive it first. After you’ve locked onto it with your brain, you can operate pretty independently and dispatch orders to me to move around and make things happen under conscious control.

MIND: Hm, yes. Without that first stimulus, I wouldn’t have anything to do, because I wouldn’t have known about it if you hadn’t delivered the stimulus in the first places via the senses.

BODY: Yes, exactly. Now, let’s tie this back to our problem of getting out of bed. We have no immediate reason to get out of bed right this instance. That’s because we don’t have any immediate deadlines or desires: no one to meet for lunch, no deliverables today, though we do have to get a lot of work done. The physical comfort of the moment is overriding those abstract notions of work and distant reward. You could attempt to trick or reason with us, as you tried earlier, but we’re already totally onto ourselves.

MIND: Yeah. And I’m out of tricks at the moment. I could maybe think up some new printable form

BODY: Screw the form! Here’s my theory: if it’s external stimulus that is the vehicle for external motivation, perhaps we don’t need actual people. We just need to provide you with a physical body sensation. Something to override our awareness of the comfort of the now, which keeps us from making the future happen.

MIND: Like, a reason to get out of bed?

BODY: No no no. Something less than a thought. Something that creates a physical sensation that we can self-trigger easily, without any props, people, or complicated sequencing of body parts, all of which would require FAR MORE EFFORT than we’re apparently capable of expending at the moment.

MIND: Ok, so let’s get out of bed!

BODY: Try something a lot simpler. Instead of telling me to get out of bed, which requires dozens of muscle groups, just tell me to wiggle my fingers, which is a lot more focused and easy to do without shifting position.

MIND: Oh, this is stupid. We should just get out of bed.

BODY: Just tell me to wiggle them! Yeah, that’s right! Keep wiggling them!

MIND: Now I’m getting bored.

BODY: Vary the tempo! Drum things! Maybe get the toes in on the action!

MIND: This is pointless. Let’s get up.

BODY: Ok. Ally-oop!

MIND: … Hey!

This might have been a one-time trick that worked for me this morning, but I think there IS something to using the body to kick-start the mind into doing things, especially when it’s lazy. The bodily motion that worked for me today, wiggling my fingers, actually put my mind into an action state. That such a small effort could trigger that where all the rationalization and logic failed is an interesting notion. Perhaps wiggling my fingers simulated typing; I may have stumbled upon a kind of productivity kata for myself.


  1. Lee Hambley 18 years ago

    Hey, that was amazing – the same thing happens to me every morning – i try and reach for my iPod – that I fall asleep wearing, and the tiny finger movements to get my playlist on; and 40 seconds later i’m dancing towards the bathroom :)

    (I just subscribed to your feed, and love getting these things =] )

  2. Milo Riano 18 years ago

    Two things: The first one is your tired and overworked but fail to admit it, so get some time off and sleep.

    Second is just do it without thinking. The more you thing, the more reasons you come up with for negotiation. Just do it…

  3. Dave Seah 18 years ago

    Lee: Heh, I’m glad you enjoyed it! Welcome to the feed!

    Milo: Two good tips! I’m not sure they apply 100% to me, though.

    I generally am pretty well-rested, and with the exception of last week was doing pretty well on energy management, which is as you are saying is very important.

    The second one is important as well, but difficult to apply if you’re not the “just do it” type of person. This is something that “just do it” people completely fail to see. I’m just not naturally wired that way, so thinking in terms of cause and effect is my way out. I can’t help but think too much about things, and trying to change that may actually be counterproductive.

  4. Kyle 18 years ago

    I use the same physical motion trick myself when I have to get out of bed but my body just won’t compromise.  My wife says that she always knows when I’m waking up when I start wiggling my feet.

  5. Barry Meehan 18 years ago

    You kill me. These thoughts bounce around my head in an abstract ether. But you are able to place them into the written word. I love that. Tell you what though, have kids… you’ll be out of bed before 6 am for the rest of your life!


  6. James Mason 18 years ago

    Half way through I thought “you should wiggle your fingers, that’s what I do…”

    heh ;).

  7. Michael Vanderdonk 18 years ago

    Of course, what happens when you don’t actually want to move even one part of your body?

    Do the simplest thing you can, that will alter your body, and your thinking, and your performance.


    Or more specifically, change your breathing pattern from however your are breathing when you are stuck in that moment…

  8. Steve 18 years ago

    I also go through the same thing every morning but my solution is pretty simple.  I have a dog so it’s pretty much get up or sleep an extra 30 minutes and face the consequences (i.e. clean up the basement because Beast usually needs to go out at 6am)

  9. damon 18 years ago

    I like to imagine a cool running stream, or the sound of the sink and the urge to get out of bed and use the loo overcomes me.

    Fantastic dialogue!

  10. Dustin Boston 18 years ago

    Okay man, I have to tell you that you are absolutely sick. ;) Does anyone seriously have that kind of conversation with themselves before they wake up? I think all my wife thinks is “coffee…must…have…coffee.”

    Anyway, I’m totally just joking. Really funny post.

  11. Rob Drimmie 18 years ago

    There’s a possible connection here to the “just 5 minutes of work” productivity techinique.  Convincing yourself to do 5 minutes of work gets you sucked into a few hours worth.  Convincing yourself to wiggle your fingers gets you out of bed and moving.

  12. Senia 18 years ago

    Very fun post!  Mucho cool!

  13. Johnny 18 years ago

    Dave, I loved this post!  Made me laugh out loud the whole time. I think every designer/developer goes through the same thing!

  14. Don 18 years ago

    Woah, Dave. Your body sounds way smarter than my mind. Bummer.

    Another great post!


  15. Martin Muehl 16 years ago

    Really fun post! Made me laugh sitting in the Starbucks (I print out the best posts I find).

    It’s really about tricking yourself to do just a really small step in order to do what you want. I realized this during training for my first marathon. I used to skip trainings for different reasons (weather, no time, …) which were all just excuses really. As soon as I started not to think of going for a long run, but just to put on my running clothes, skipping training didn’t happen any more (at least not on a regular basis :-)

    A good morning routine, as mentioned before, can also really be helpful. Try to keep your brain shut down when the alarm goes off and get up instantly whithout thinking of it.

    Something I tried recently might also help to get up in the morning: Practice it. Lay down in your bed, get/jump up and head to the kitchen. Do it like 20 times a day for a week. May sound ridiculous but helps the body to realize it’s no big deal.