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Small Change | How To Trick Yourself Into Getting Stuff Done

I don’t like to be bossed by anyone, not even myself, which is problematic when you are trying to set personal goals. I also hate failing, which makes the whole goal-setting experience very stressful and paralyzing. Every once in a while, I get fired up with ambition and resolve to make some Major Life Changes (capital letters). I’m going to lose weight. Write a book. Clean out the garage. Cook healthful gourmet meals so my family can have a sit down dinner every night. I read books and blogs and articles on how to be a better achiever and make copious notes.

What I discovered is that you can procrastinate FORVER reading about how to set and achieve goals. As it turns out, there is a lot of busy work to get through before you actually start getting your shit together, at least, according to the experts. You can journal about it. You can make a vision board. You can make charts and diagrams and discuss and meditate, and all those things are really good, but they are so much work. And you haven’t even done anything yet! It is usually at some point during this process that I give up, because who has the time? And also did you see all the new shows that just came out on Netflix?

I finally came to a realization: conventional goal setting doesn’t work. Our reptilian brains are wired to resist change – to avoid discomfort. We humans avoid pain and fear. In fact, the fear of failure actually motivates us to stop working toward a difficult goal. On the other hand, our brains also reward us with delicious hits of dopamine as we get closer to achieving a goal. A study on neurophysiology published in Nature in August 2013 suggests that our ability to predict success has a significant effect on our behavior. In other words: if we think we’re going to succeed at a given task, we’ll stick with it, and along the way, our brain rewards us with happy juice.

Berry Hard Work by JD Hancock

I have become proficient at tricking myself into accomplishing things by lowering the proverbial goal posts. I don’t feel like working out, but I can do ten crappy minutes on the treadmill. There is no way I can carve out time to write 2000 words a day and finish that book I keep telling myself I will write. But you know what? I can do 500 words a day. 500 shitty words, even. My closet overfloweth to the point where messy doesn’t really cover it and we’re now venturing into the territory of “don’t open the door, we mustn’t make it angry.” That Martha Stewart style makeover isn’t going to happen, but what if I just picked out five items to put in the bag for Goodwill? Piece of cake. This is basically the mental equivalent of “just the tip.”

I’ve come up with three easy steps to fool yourself into getting stuff done:

1. Set small, specific, ridiculously easy goals. Not too many to start. You can always set more later. “I’m going to wash the dishes.” If that’s too much, start with “I’ll just do a few dishes.”

2. Lie to yourself. Sweet talk yourself like you’re on a third date. “I don’t have to file all the bills right now. I’ll just do this one.” Just cuddle with your goal. See how you feel. You can always stop, but if you feel like doing more, go with it.

3. Praise yourself lavishly. “You got the kids to school on time. GOOD for you!” or “You had a healthy lunch. What a superstar you are!” Give yourself stickers if it helps.

Success breeds confidence. Don’t listen to people who roll their eyes and mock you because you are feeling good for achieving your tiny goals. They are poopyheads. YOU are a shower-taking, dish-washing, half-assed exercising rockstar. Keep taking small steps, and one day you’ll look up in surprise and realize that you sweet-talked yourself into doing some pretty amazing things.

What are some of your small goals? There’s no such thing as a goal too small or too ridiculous. Share in the comments!

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Photo credit: Creative Commons License Berry Hard Work by JD Hancock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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About Nanea Hoffman (287 Articles)
Nanea Hoffman is the founder of Sweatpants & Coffee. She writes, she makes things, and she drinks an inordinate amount of coffee. She is also extremely fond of sweatpants. She believes in love, peace, joy, comfort, and caffeinated beverages.

7 Comments on Small Change | How To Trick Yourself Into Getting Stuff Done

  1. Oh, how many ways can I relate to one single blog posting?? TOO MANY!! I could have stood in front of a mirror and written these same exact things about myself!!
    I swear…I am the Queen of Procrastination!! LOLOL I can’t wait now to try and inject myself with some brain “Happy Juice”!! I look forward to your next posting!! ♥

  2. I have been slowly picking away at 12 years of clutter from my failed marriage. Yes, failed marriage – God I love failure! Anyway, it’s seems like week after week I take another overloaded giant trash bag of donations to Casa de Los Ninos. I tell myself I’m going to sell that thing and I never do. So I’m purging slowly and methodically. I suddenly get the bug and I begin tossing. It feel so good. I have so many overwhelming goals but like you I do them in bits and pieces.
    Viva la dopamine!

  3. I love the cuddle with your goal. I do that one when I don’t want to work out, just do five minutes and the next thing you know its over.

  4. A girl after my own heart! I have spent my life (60 years, minus 5 days) not accomplishing my huge goals because I am overwhelmed by them. You finally opened my eyes to success. I hate failure, too. Usually, it’s easier to fail than to fail. Yep, it’s failure either way. I will now try to successfully do one load of laundry tonight and tomorrow I will take one thing to the thrift store and drop it off. I should have my house organized in, say, another 60 years!

  5. I do this all the time. Then I look at what I managed to get done for the whole day and see I wrote 7000 words, got the whole house picked up, and managed to carve a big chunk out of the novel I was reading before the kid made it home from school.

    Thanks for sharing. Also, I love the picture with the strawberry miners.

  6. I put dishes in my dishwasher today! Yahhh me!

  7. Varina Suellen Plonski // January 18, 2014 at 10:36 pm // Reply

    Love this! I am a shower-taking, dish-washing, half-assed exercising rockstar! In 2012 at age 59+ I joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and wrote 50,330 words, despite having a car wreck that totaled both cars, spent 5 days doped up on muscle relaxants and spent more than a week searching online and physically for a new car. I can’t tell you how much dopamine that released at 11:58 pm on November 30th when I achieved my goal! During 2013 I spent adding to the first draft of my novel and starting revisions. Step by step, day by day I am achieving my goal and BEING what I always wanted to be – a writer! Sure, the house is a wreck. So what? I do the dishes every day, I clean the litterbox (okay, sometimes intermittently), and I do the laundry at least every two weeks. If I can do it, YOU can do it!

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