Friday, September 09, 2016

How I Get Stuff Done

Over at /r/getdisciplined, the following advice was offered:

[Advice] This is the *real* secret to success...a million self help books boiled down to their essence in one sentence.

Learn to front-load your pain.

The author continues:

If you procrastinate, you're putting off more than your work. You're putting off the pain. Right?

But doesn't it always catch up to you?

What you have to do is front-load all those yucky crappy feelings. Go ahead and feel it now so you don't have to feel it later. And guess what? If you put it off, it gets amplified. Right now you're dreading doing your homework or writing an article or w/e, but what if you don't do it? And worse, what if you put that stuff off consistently?

That thing you feel crappy about? That thing you're dreading? That is exactly the thing you need to do in order to improve your life.

This got me thinking about how I get stuff done, and it occurred to me that I follow a related, yet different paradigm. I'd tersely describe it so:

Pump your legs.

Allow me to explain.

Imagine you're a 6 year old kid. You want to swing on the swing-set, but you know you're too old to ask your mom or dad to push you. Instead, you decide it's time to try the technique your parents have been barking at you for the last few months: pump your legs! You brace yourself and heave yourself forward with all your might. Nothing happens. Well, not quite nothing. You notice that you move forward ever so slightly. You try again. And again. At some point, something magical happens, you start to rock back and forth. Then you start pumping your legs like your parents told you. And just like that, your swinging all without any help. What started as an apparently futile effort morphed itself into a beautiful display of playground mastery.

And that's how I tend to tackle projects.

I start small. Do something. Do anything. At first, my attempts look clumsy and seem to make little to no progress. But after warming up a bit I gain that magic momentum where I start making more and more progress. Before I know it, the project I was dreading is something I can't wait to work on. You can forget questions of "where to put the pain" because there isn't any pain.

This approach works because of this mysterious property I'm referring to as momentum. But what the heck is it? I think it's is closely related to flow. Where flow applies to a particular work session, momentum is the result of stringing together sessions that hold the potential for reaching flow. Where flow makes a particular set of tasks seem effortless, momentum helps make the entire project seem on track and generally in the groove.

While my preferred strategy differs from the one offered on Reddit, it does have an important commonality: they both only work if you start today. Building momentum takes time, so procrastination is definitely the enemy.

So how do you prefer to get stuff done? Please share in the comments.


  1. Lists, lists, lists. I love them, and get lots of satisfaction crossing something off the list. My list making is so crazy that Jim found me an app (Our Groceries) that allows me to share lists. It gets used for more than groceries. I have used your "pump your legs" technique and that works really well for daunting projects. I particularly successful when I combine the two and have many small manageable tasks on a list.

  2. Jen that's so true about lists!

    My recent switch to using index cards for tracking TODOs underscores this. There's just something magical about crossing items off the cards, or even better, phasing out a card and starting with a fresh new one.

  3. Ben, this is off-topic but I wanted to thank you for the blog post regarding the lonely Windmill at Bailey's crossroads. I just moved to the area, parked my car at the nearby shopping mall so I could walk over and take a closer look. It seems that Arlington County or the Columbia Pike revitalization group or somebody should put a plaque up that explains what you shared. Incredible history in my new backyard. Thanks again. Tom

  4. Thanks Tom! That's one of the things I love about this area - there's interesting history everywhere.