Here’s the deal. You have things you know you need to do; clear out those piles of paper on your desk, finish the board report, make an appointment with the dentist, call back Aunt Winnie (who is going to spend most of the call asking what took you so long to call), exercise, file taxes, write Thank You notes, etc. You know you SHOULD do those tasks, but you just don’t. And then you feel bad that you didn’t, and the undone tasks loom larger and larger in your psyche. They weigh you down, make you feel bad about yourself and make it harder to switch off and rest at the end of the day.

How do you break the cycle and motivate yourself to get a bothersome task done? Here are 4 ways:

Connect it to something you value

When my clients tell me that they want to do something but aren’t doing it, I always start by helping them uncover their true motivation for the task. We start with the “why.” Why do they want to do this thing? What is truly compelling to them about it, not to someone else. And the compelling reason actually needs to be something positive, not just relief from a negative thought or consequence.

Here’s an example. Telling yourself that you have to go to the gym because you are a disgusting, fat blob is actually NOT the best way to motivate yourself to lace up your shoes. Connecting a negative thought or emotion to the task will make you feel worse and, in the end, leave you reaching for the remote or diving into a bag of chips. Instead, ask yourself what reward YOU actually get from completing the task, what YOU actually want from it. Finishing the report could lead to someone on the Management Team hearing your ideas for a new strategic approach which could lead to an opportunity to reorg the department the way you want. Going to the gym leads to sleeping better which leads to more energetic mornings at home (a lot less yelling at the kids! Yay!) and better days at work. That energy you bring into work leads to you coming up with a brilliant solution in an important meeting, which saves the company from complete and utter ruin. Cue the image of you receiving a standing ovation from your boss and coworkers while money rains down from the conference room ceiling. Also, somehow, you’re in a ball gown or tuxedo and your hair looks fabulous. Much more compelling right?

Bottom line: If you can find compelling reasons why YOU actually want to do this thing and pinpoint the results YOU will get, you are much more likely to activate your motivation to get going.

Break it down into super small steps

I love the framework Martha Beck uses of taking “Turtle Steps” toward a goal. Break a bigger task down into very small steps, and then break those small steps into even smaller ones. Then do one of them at a time. Set a timer for 15 minutes and finish as much as you can during that time. Then stop and schedule another small step for 1 – 2 days later. For example, if the task is to create a website for your side-hustle idea, start by emailing 2 entrepreneurial friends to ask who created their websites. A few days later, spend 20 minutes browsing websites in the industry to get ideas. A few days later, read one article about what pages you need on a basic website. Each time you take one turtle step, you get the thrill of marking a task off your to-do list and the feeling of progress keeps you motivated to continue. Since none of the Turtle Steps is hugely onerous all by itself, you’re less likely to get stumped by it.

Solo is a no-go

Don’t do it alone. Ask someone to do the onerous task WITH you or FOR you. If it’s a work-related task, can you delegate it to someone who reports to you? Or can you ask a peer to trade tasks with you? If it’s a personal or home-related task, can you get your partner or a friend to do it with you? Or, my personal favorite, outsource that puppy. Find an expert and pay them to do it. Voila! Task complete, money well spent.


Treat yourself

As adults, we just don’t treat ourselves enough, but it’s important to celebrate the small wins, not just the major milestones. You cleaned off the huge stack of mail on the dining room table? Make or order in your favorite meal. Scheduled your annual physical? Sounds like you earned an afternoon in your favorite coffee shop with a cinnamon chai latte and a good book. You finally finished that big report? I’m a huge fan of sneaking out of the office to see a movie in the middle of the day. (Hey, it worked for Don Draper.) Remember to celebrate not only the completion of the overall bigger task but also some of the “Turtle Steps” you take along the way. Hit send on those 2 emails about website designers and then let’s see you do a “touchdown dance” complete with a victory lap around the office, high fiving your co-workers and spiking your stapler! When you reward yourself for taking action, you connect the action with pleasure, and that makes you more likely to do it the next time.


I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Which of these strategies resonated with you? How do you motivate yourself to do that thing you don’t want to do?


In my Real-Time Leadership newsletter, I share what I’ve learned from coaching 100s of leaders. If you would like to hear how other leaders are learning to stand out, inspire their teams, and re-ignite the joy in their work, sign up here.


In my Real-Time Leadership newsletter, I share what I’ve learned from coaching 100s of leaders. If you would like to hear how other leaders are learning to stand out, inspire their teams, and re-ignite the joy in their work, sign up here.

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