According to this post on Zen Habits, all the motivation hacks in the world can be broken down into two categories: 1) make things enjoyable, and 2) use public pressure. The theory is that if only you can find the joy in your work and hold yourself accountable to others, you can find the motivation to tackle anything.
The post is a great read, and it really resonates for those huge personal projects, like write a novel, or run a marathon, or learn Spanish, or launch a business – those projects that aren't already part of your daily work.
Projects that are part of your daily work come with their own motivation. After all, there are set deadlines, your coworkers are relying on you, and if you don't do your part you'll no longer have a job. Talk about pressure!
But what about those projects that don't fit either of those descriptions? They're not lofty, transformative personal goals, and they're not a deadline-dependent part of your job. They're those "I should probably do that some day" projects we all have waiting in the wings: that overflowing file folder, that box of receipts, that office restructuring project, that unraked yard. Those projects that always seem vaguely pressing, but not important enough to make time for.
We all have a tendency to stay static, but sometimes just taking a few small steps can help shake off our lack of motivation and get us to work.
Step 1: Organize
Sometimes we lack motivation to tackle a project because it's so huge and amorphous we don't actually know what we need to do. Try getting yourself organized, and see if that project doesn't start to seem a bit more manageable. For me, this step often involves a bout of cleaning, since clutter makes it hard for me to think straight. Help clear mental space for the project by clearing your desk and getting your physical space in order.
Then get organized on the project. Figure out what supplies or information you need, and collect it all in front of you. Write down the list of tasks you need to complete, and batch them into categories: people to contact, emails to send, things to look up. Figure out which tasks need to come before others, and which have specific deadlines.
Try to complete this step before you let yourself get distracted by individual tasks, so you can get a complete picture.
Generally I find that once I get myself organized I realize it's not as big a project as I feared. Plus, the path forward is a lot clearer, which makes it much less intimidating.
Step 2: Tackle something
At some point, you'll actually need to start working. You need to keep an eye on Step 1, and recognize if you've crossed the line from organizing to procrastinating. Once you feel like you're prepared, it's time to dive in.
You can do this however you like – tackle the fun stuff first or tackle the hard stuff first, whichever will be more motivating to you. Sometimes if I'm facing a long to do list, I'll tackle all the short projects first, which can knock off 6-8 items in a half hour. My list always looks so much more doable after that!
Step 3: Measure your progress physically
A system of physical reminders can help keep you on track, and motivate you to keep moving forward. That's why so many organizations use those fundraising thermometers – it's so gratifying to color in the progress.
For me, I love a good visual progress report. I draw squares beside each task on my paper to do list, so I can give them satisfying CHECK! whenever I complete something. I keep a calendar above my desk where I write my daily word count for a personal fiction project, and I even give myself a gold star when I hit a certain word count. I put a big red checkmark on my calendar whenever I exercise.
Create a system that shows that you're moving forward, and put it somewhere you'll see it every day.
Step 4: Set a time limit
If you're having a really hard time, set yourself a limit – say, twenty minutes. During that time, you can't check Facebook, go make coffee, or answer emails. Once the time is up, reward yourself with something relaxing, like chatting with a coworker, or going for a walk. I'll sometimes reward myself with an art project. One business owner I know rewards herself with knitting breaks to keep herself motivated to finish an onerous task. Just choose something that will hit those pleasure endorphins!
Step 5: Find ways to make it fun
Can you listen to a podcast while you file papers? Can you get together with a coworker in the break room and work on a hard task together? Can you put on some awesome tunes? Or figure out some way to turn the task into a game?
This isn't always possible – for example, if you're having to proofread, or attend a meeting, but if you can focus on trying to find a bit of joy, it may make your dull task go by quicker.
How about you? How do you motivate yourself to tackle a project you've been putting off? Tell us in the comments.