How I get myself to do things.

I’m not a productivity guru who writes books and calls himself a doctor and uses buzzwords and gets flown in to talk in front of companies full of tired, tie-wearing employees to smile and ramble on about how good I am at what they can’t do. However, I have a loosely-defined method for motivating myself to get something done. When I say method, I really mean a handful of tips that I use at the same time. When I stick to this method, it works. When I stray, I end up relying on the deadline to push me forward, and that’s a terrible feeling.

I know that motivation is something incredibly hard to come by, simply because I have to pull it out of myself. It’s like taking the trash to the street once a week. You know you have to do it, but you’ll be damned if you’ll muster up the willpower to get it done before the trash guy shows up, looks for your garbage, scratches his beard, shrugs, and moves on, forcing you to wait until next week to take out the trash.

In real life, that trash guy is your employer, and if he moves on, waiting until next week doesn’t really work. I promise I’m better at analogies than that.

Liquid motivation

I find that coffee helps. No, seriously. I don’t mean to state the obvious, but coffee genuinely helps. And, when it’s done right, it’s delicious. You have all this energy you didn’t know you had, and you find yourself doing things just because you are too energetic to be lazy. There’s a point after drinking an acceptable amount of coffee (if you drink coffee, you know how much that is) that you feel ready for something. Caffeine may seem like a bit of a cop-out, and in a way it is. But the ability to call upon reserves of energy at will is something too valuable to pass up for someone as greedy as me.

The first 10 minutes

The crucial part is pointing whatever energy you have, coffee or not, at something meaningful, and focusing it there for ten solid minutes. If I can drum up the energy to point myself at a task for ten minutes and work at it, I’m hooked. I’ll work on it until something more pressing happens, like food or class. Usually food.

Getting those ten minutes becomes very hard when you don’t have some sort of goal, sort of like flooring a Bugatti Veyron without your hands on the steering wheel. On top of that, goals become very hard to manage when you don’t have some sort of means of tracking them. Sticky notes work well, as does something like Evernote, or Google Keep, or Workflowy. It’s not possible to keep track of all of the things you have to do in detail without help. Poke around with a few different systems until you figure out what works for you, and then chart out what the first 10 minutes of any given task should look like.

Stalling Out

Sometimes, all the coffee and planning in the world can’t help. Nothing is perfect, and that is especially true for things like motivation. People are all different, and being reasonable about these differences can help.

For example, if it’s 4 in the morning and you’re already a pot of coffee in (and you’re not Steve Ballmer), there’s really no sense in pushing yourself any more. While being tired (or drunk) can lend creativity, tired work is never good work. Well, tired anything is never good anything. Except sleep. I digress.

Additionally, if you’ve been working at the same problem for a stretch of time, forcing yourself to work on it more won’t help very much. People much smarter than I have said so, and have coined the term “incubation” to define the phenomenon. So, go take a break. Bike a bit. Grab dinner. Find some new music. Tackle a different problem. Avoid Reddit. Then, try the whole thing again.


I have to admit that I’m partially writing this in anticipation that I’ll rely on good looks and wit (neither of which I have in particularly impressive quantities) to get through an assignment or something in the near future, and then find myself in need of motivation. Future me, go do your homework.