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Why Task Lists Sometimes Fail

Strategies and goals

Task lists can help you get a ton of things done and give you peace of mind–but usually don’t. The average task list feels less like a train flying down the tracks of productivity and more like a train you missed, a train that’s going somewhere you don’t want to be, or a train wreck. Why? Here are the five main reasons.

1. The list isn’t really easy to get to and use
If you can’t pull up your task list in less than 30 seconds and easily update it, you’ll probably be too busy actually doing things to keep messing around with it. For a task list to be truly useful, it has to be easily accessible everywhere you might want to use it, and it has to be very easy to find, add, change, and check off items. Otherwise it’s a constant burden and an interruption, and it takes enormous effort to keep up with a habit like that.

Find a tool for tasks you love that’s available where you need it. Since I’m almost always near a computer, I like the free service called Todoist.

2. Not everything is on it
If you keep some of your tasks in your task list but others in other places–like sticky notes on your computer, scribbles on pieces of paper, or even physical reminders like leaving out something you need to fix instead of putting it on your list–then you can’t trust your list to tell you what you should be doing at all times, which is its job. An effective task list needs to have everything you need to do on it. This requires getting in the habit of immediately going to your task list to add a task whenever you promise to do something, think of something you need to attend to, receive something in the mail you have to respond to, etc.–or make sure all of your tasks get written down and use the paper management approach I talk about in this post about how to handle incoming paper and this post about organizing and filing.

3. It doesn’t get reviewed regularly
If you put things on your task list and then avoid looking at it again, then it won’t be up to date or useful. If you’re not looking at your task list regularly, it’s probably because your task list is stressing you out (see #s 4 and 5, below) or because it’s too much of a pain in the neck to use (see #1, above)–or both.

4. It lists wishes instead of tasks
Many task lists contain items like “Take care of leaky faucet.” This is not a task unless you already know how to fix a leaky faucet and have all the tools and supplies you need. A task is something that you immediately know how to do and can act on without having to figure out anything new; anything vaguer than that is just a wish, and when we look at wishes on task lists our first reaction is likely to be “Ack, I’ve got to take care of that … uh, but why don’t I [fill in your choice of procrastination here] first?” On the other hand, if the item is “Go to hardware store and buy 3/8 inch washer,” then you may think “Hey, I’m driving past there anyway … I’ll pick that up.” (Of course, once you check that off you need to immediately add the next step.)

If you have to figure out a task in order to do it, the task is figuring out what to do, for instance “Write down a plan for taking care of the leaky faucet.” Thinking things through is a perfectly good task, the first step in a sequence of steps that will eventually lead to a completed project.

5. No prioritization
If your task list is just a big mass of things that need doing, you’ll have to review and reconsider the whole thing every time you go back over it unless you take the “pot shot” approach. The “pot shot” approach can work–you just look for the first task you can do right now and tackle it–but it means you may spend all your time doing unimportant stuff.

So don’t let your task list stay a big mass. Break your tasks down into categories by the situation you’ll be in (at computer, at home, errands, etc.) and migrate more important tasks to the top. Then when you’re ready to consult your task list, just consult the right list for your situation and look at the top few items to see which one seems to be most pressing.

It may help to keep in mind that it’s not just a matter of knowing how to use a task list, buy also of being willing to adopt new task-related habits. Just knowing how to do it isn’t enough.

There’s a lot more a person could know about task lists, but the most important pieces are all in those five items. If you want more detail, I highly recommend Dave Allen’s book Getting Things Done, from which several of the ideas in this post were extracted.

Photo by GTD enthusiast MrMole


The Eight Things You Can Do With a Piece of Paper

Strategies and goals

In my recent post about getting files organized, I mentioned the importance to me of having something I could do with every piece of paper I processed. The set of options I consider is mainly based on Dave Allen’s process as set forth in his organizational book Getting Things Done, which I can’t seem to shut up about in posts lately. More on that book in a separate post. For now, I thought I’d briefly list all of the options I consider when I pick up a random piece of paper and ask myself “What should I be doing with this?”

I use closely-related variations of this for e-mails, physical objects, ideas, recollections that I need to do something, and anything else in my life I might need to deal with. By putting something through this process, I can take it off my mind because I know I’ve captured it and know what to do next. If you know everything that I might do with a piece of paper, I can make it stop nagging me.

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Effective Organization and Filing Are … Fun???

Strategies and goals

Partly as a reaction to reading Dave Allen’s organization book  Getting Things Done, I’ve carved three days out of my schedule between this week and next to take care of innumerable little tasks; organize papers, projects, and records; make progress on a couple of small projects; and so on. Today was my first day, and much of it went into getting paper-based information organized. While I’ve had filing systems working in the past, in recent years my system has been “put it in a pile where I can dig through and find it if I really need to.” I had been envisioning filing papers as a Big Job that needed to be done all at once and then repeated regularly, and for me, organizing papers was wasn’t enough of a priority to put in that time at this stage.

Allen’s book has given me a newer and more pleasant perspective on the issue. He points out that papers that haven’t been dealt with, and in fact all things that haven’t been dealt with, tend to be an irritant until they’re taken care of. In other words, one of the immediate rewards of getting my files in order would be more peace of mind. He also outlines a system for keeping files always up to date, with no need to make a big filing push at any time. It was largely this system for paper files that I used to inform my recent post on keeping on top of e-mail all the time.

While it may sound bizarre, filing papers today was actually fun, because Allen’s system helped me get into flow with the filing: in other words, I was continuously involved and challenged in the task, I knew exactly what I needed to do, and I could see how well I was doing as I went.

I won’t and can’t reproduce all of Allen’s system here, although I highly recommend his book if you’re interested in getting more control over the many obligations, objects, papers, tasks, priorities, and other elements that pass through your life.

I had actually started filing using Allen’s system a week or two before I began going through large stacks of to-be-filed papers, just to handle some new papers that were coming in. In other words, I’m already treating filing like a habit instead of something to be done every once in a while in chunks. It’s important to handle these kinds of obligations that way to be able to keep up to date once things are off to a good start. Trying to do filing in a “big push” is likely to mean keeping a “to file” pile after that, which will require another “big push” in future. By contrast, Allen’s system depends on setting eyes on a piece of paper once and then trying to decide where it needs to finally go or what it needs to finally do.

I purchased (inexpensively, through eBay) a simple label maker to make the labels for my file folders. While a label maker may sound like it’s approximately as useful as a banana hammock, the difference in clarity and professional appearance of the printed labels on folders compared to the old hand-labeled folders is striking. I can much more easily find a file using these labels. I use a label maker instead of the computer to make the labels because Allen’s system depends on being able to make up a new file instantly with very little fuss, even if it’s just one folder for one piece of paper, and putting labels through a printer is usually too much of a hassle for repeated little jobs like that.

With a stack of fresh folders, the label maker, and a good system, I was able to sit and plow through piles of paper fairly efficiently, and most importantly to be able to decide then and there exactly what to do with each piece of paper–whether that meant capturing a task from it in my task management system, filing it in an existing folder, making a new folder and filing it there, recycling it, etc. Seeing chaos reduced to order step by step like this is powerfully motivating–and well worth trying if you can make the time to get started.

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How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done by Turning a Project into a Habit

Strategies and goals

One of my first posts when I started the Willpower Engine site was about the two uses of self-motivation: acquiring habits and getting projects done. What has become clear recently is that projects can and sometimes should be treated as habits to acquire. There are two main reasons to do this: first, the habit approach can relieve a lot of stress, and second, the habit approach can be very productive.

How to make a project into a habit
First, how can a project be turned into a habit? A habit is something you do regularly, usually with the idea of continuing forever, while a project is a set series of things to do with a clear end point. How does one translate into the other?

It’s true that not all projects can be made into habits: the ones that can are those that require a lot of the same kind of work over a long period of time–especially if that work is something that will need to be done again in the future. These kinds of projects include many kinds of organization, creative or constructive habits, lifestyle changes, etc.

For example, the project of writing a novel can be made into a habit of writing every day for a set period of time or a set number of words. The project of decluttering a house can be made into a habit of organizing the house a little bit at a time on a regular basis. The project of documenting all of the in-house software at a particular company can be made into a habit of noting details of any in-house software product that comes in sight plus a habit of fleshing those notes out into full-fledged documentation.

When changing a project into a habit like this, there’s less emphasis on the overall structure of the thing and more on the day-to-day work. If there’s too little emphasis on the overall structure, than part of the habit should be reviewing the overall progress of the work.

The kinds of projects that don’t make good habits are ones that involve very different kinds of work over time, like starting a business, and/or that have a clear stopping point after which you don’t intend to do much of that work again, as for instance if you were doing a one-time renovation of your house.

Relieving stress
Making a project into a habit can relieve stress in two ways: first, it narrows the scope of what needs to be done at any given time to something very small and manageable. Instead of filing all of the papers lying around your office, you just need to spend 15 minutes at a time filing papers. Instead of losing 50 pounds, you just need to track what you eat, exercise regularly, and make good food choices (still a tall order, but much more feasible than losing 50 pounds in a single go).

The second way making a project into a habit relieves stress is that when this transformation is made, the project no longer needs to ever get done. Instead, the intention is to keep working on it, writing another symphony after this one, maintaining weight after losing it, keeping the office organized once it gets organized in the first place.

The advantage of maintenance
Another advantage of changing a project into a habit is that many projects need maintenance even once they’re complete, like keeping a decluttered house from getting re-cluttered or keeping on top of new sales prospects once you’ve caught up with a backlog.

Handling multiple habits at once
I’ve mentioned a number of times that it’s generally a bad idea to try to take on more than one major goal at a time, because even one significant effort or life change generally requires enough attention and focus that introducing another goal tends to serve as a destraction that causes the first effort to fail. In other words, second and third and fourth goals will suck away focus from the first goal until it dies from neglect or crashes spectacularly because attention was elesewhere.

One way around this limitation, though, is to bind habits together. For instance, if you’re trying to simultaneously organize your home, your office, and your finances, your discipline can be devoting fifteen minutes (for instance) to each of those tasks every day, at set times. (“Every day” isn’t a strict requirement, but it is much easier to acquire a new habit if you practice the behavior pretty much every day.) When you’re thinking about your goals, then, you would be thinking about whether or not you’ll be able to accomplish those three things in their regular times, whether there’s extra time that can go to one of them, and what specific issues may be arising with any of them.

There is a drawback to this approach, which is that with it, there is less attention to give to specifics and problem-solving for any one goal, so it may still be best to stick with one intention at a time if this causes problems. However, if the main task is to stay on track and remind yourself to do something, this “binding” approach can work just fine. And even without binding, the approach of turning a project into a habit can be of great use.

Painting courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum


5 Ways to Strengthen a New Year’s Resolution

Strategies and goals

In recent articles I’ve posted about choosing a New Year’s resolution and why New Year’s resolutions often fail. Now that 2010 has begun, here are 5 ways to make a New Year’s resolution stronger.

1. Schedule a regular time to think about it
New goals can tend to get shoved out of the way when things get busy or complicated. To make sure that they always come back into the spotlight, it’s important to take time to think, talk, or write about that goal on a regular basis. This kind of attention helps encourage problem-solving and makes more opportunities to reflect on and reinforce the kinds of behaviors that will support the goal.

2. Set waypoints
If your new goal is a long-term one, getting to the vision you have for yourself may be a long, challenging trek. Setting waypoints makes goals more immediate and rewarding. For example: if you’re decluttering your house, make each room a goal of its own, the entire focus of your attention until it’s done. While working on that room, you deliberately give yourself permission not to worry about the rest of the house. It’s a lot easier to come to grips with organizing a room than organizing a house, and worrying about the whole thing at once will only get in the way of the large job at hand.

3. Read and learn
Find books, online forums, blogs, in-person groups, magazines, articles, or any other resource that will help you learn how to pursue your goal better, or even just inspire you to keep pursuing it. Learning more about your goal gives you more power to move toward it, keeps it fresh in your mind, and often provides a vision of what things might be like as you see more success.

4. Be prepared for a few failures
If habits were the kind of thing we could just switch off, there would be no need for willpower. Trying to change a bad habit, adopt a good one, or make regular progress to achieve something challenging is difficult and is likely to involve some setbacks now and then. If and when these come, unless you’re defusing a bomb or building a card house, all is not lost. It will help enormously to step back and try to recover soon from a problem rather than saying “Oh, I blew it–now it doesn’t matter what I do.” Failure is a normal byproduct of success, and a lost battle isn’t the same as a lost war.

5. Stay inspired
Taking on anything challenging means that there will be times when you don’t feel like working on your goal and are faced with the choice of pushing ahead or giving up. At these times, it makes a real difference if you’re in touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing and have kept your enthusiasm for it alive. Visualize what things will be like as you make more progress; review the things that draw you toward your goal; reflect on past accomplishments; explain to friends or family why you’ve chosen the path you have; or do anything else you can to keep yourself inspired. Inspiration does not automatically create willpower, but it certain does help fuel it.

Photo by Tim in Sydney

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Why Do New Year’s Resolutions Fail?

Strategies and goals

In many past and contemporary world cultures, the beginning of a new year has been a time to repent old mistakes, reflect on choices, and aspire to better things in future. Our own tradition of New Year’s resolutions reflects this. Unfortunately, our tradition of failing to meet our New Year’s Resolutions is almost as strong as our tradition of making them. Why?

There are 4 key problems with the way New Year’s resolutions are usually made. Avoiding these problems can transform what might otherwise be nothing more than a well-intentioned gesture into a personal victory.

1. Only make a New Year’s Resolution if you’re not in the middle of another life change
If you’re already working on fixing your financial habits, don’t try to take on weight loss or learning French or organizing your files at the same time. Every change in habits or substantial project requires attention and focus. Trying to spread that attention and focus too widely typically brings all of the efforts down, because in this situation, there’s not enough brain time to fully support any one of them.

2. Make only one New Year’s Resolution
This is another part of making sure you can focus your attention: to make real progress, hold yourself to one new goal at a time.

3. Plan immediate steps, not just long-term ideals
While it’s important to understand your ultimate goal, it’s also important to define what your first steps will be toward achieving it. A goal of “Write a novel” or “expand sales into the northwestern states” is so large and complex that thinking about trying to achieve it directly is overwhelming and tends to sap motivation. It’s much more effective to focus on what the very first steps to achieving the goal might be, like choosing a novel premise from a list of book ideas or researching demographics for target markets.

4. Set aside a regular time to refocus and do feedback
Any attempted change in habits or push to accomplish a project will falter and fail unless your attention is brought back to it on a regular basis. With some projects and responsibilities, like taking care of a baby, you’re naturally prodded to not forget. On most, though, keeping attention focused means setting aside time–preferably at least a couple of times a week–to review progress so far and plan ways to stay on track and improve.

Our New Year’s Resolutions are traditionally made regardless of what else we’re doing in our lives, in bunches, with only large goals in mind, and without specific plans for follow-through. By bucking this trend and carefully nurturing one new goal at a time with specific, short-term steps and regular feedback, we can participate in the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions without participating in the tradition of  failing to keep them.

Photo by hebedesign

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Choosing a Goal That Will Change Your Life

Strategies and goals

There are at least three good times to target a new life goal:

1) When a person doesn’t have a goal at the moment and decides to improve life by getting one
2) When the goal or goals a person has already been pursuing turn out to be no longer necessary or not as high-priority as they once were (or once seemed), or
3) When work toward a current goal has gone so far that everything needed to keep on track for that goal has become habit, or in the case of a goal that’s a specific project, when that project is finished.

Should I always have a goal?
It’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone who has achieved every goal that would ever do them or others good–which suggests that if it’s practical, it’s probably worth having a goal nearly all the time.

But there’s that limitation, “if it’s practical”: is it always practical? Probably not absolutely all the time: if a person is dealing with a major crisis in the family or temporarily working 80 hours a week to deal with a short-term problem, there’s probably so much time, attention, and energy going into that short-term problem that long-term goals would wither from having too little effort going into them.

At the same time, for many people it feels like there’s always a special situation or problem going on: financial crisis after financial crisis, or having to work 80 hours week after week, or constant breakdowns in an important relationship. Even though these can be real crises, the fact that they’re continuing over a long period of time probably means they’re systemic problems: in other words, there’s some underlying difficulty that probably needs to be addressed if these crises are going to stop. Addressing that underlying difficulty would be a goal.

What if I need to pursue two or more goals at once?
Often there are battling needs in our lives that present multiple, top-level priorities, all of which need to be addressed at the same time. Right?

Actually … no. The idea that priorities “need” to be addressed is a broken idea, because “need” is absolute. “Needing” to be done doesn’t mean a thing necessarily can be done, or that it’s the highest priority, or that absolute devastation will occur if it’s not done. A more effective way of looking at things that seem to need to be done is to phrase them in terms of actions and consequences, for instance “If I don’t get the house cleaned before my friends come over, they will see my house dirty” or “If I’m late paying that bill, they’ll charge me an extra $25 and call to ask me where the money is if I don’t call them first.” This is instead of “I need to clean the house!” or “I can’t miss paying that bill!”

The reason I’m pointing to this problem of thinking of priorities as needs is that with rare exceptions, we really can’t take on more than one significant goal at a time. Successfully pursuing a goal means changing habits, devoting thought to the subject, and pulling time and energy away from other tasks. It’s true that if someone has a lot of extra time all of a sudden, for example due to recent retirement, it might be possible to pursue more than one goal at a time, like getting fit and starting a consulting service. Most of us, though, have lives that are already full of other things, and even if some of those things aren’t necessarily a good use of our time, in most cases we’re used to doing them, and it will take a lot of focus to change over to doing something different.

The upshot is that even if there are several really pressing problems to address at the same time, the most effective way to deal with them will be to decide which will pay off the most extravagantly if it’s done first. For instance, if you are constantly overcommitted and don’t have enough money to pay your bills, both of those are pressing problems, but in many cases it will make sense to deal with the overcommitment problem first, because if that’s addressed effectively, there will be more time to address the financial problem, which may in many cases require extra time if a solution is going to be worked out.

Making multiple goals into one goal
There actually is one approach to choosing a goal that can accomplish multiple major life priorities at the same time, which is to focus on process and organization instead of on the goal itself. For instance, I could adopt a goal of trying to do a very good job of making every choice, however small. Practicing this goal would mean things like regularly thinking back over good and bad choices made to try to repeat the good choices and improve on the bad choices; becoming more mindful of thoughts; and possibly adding healthy improvements to life, like meditation or more exercise.

A goal like this could simultaneously help in a lot of areas of life: eating better, making better use of time, improving relationships, spending money more wisely, and so on.

Other goals that serve multiple purposes include communicating better; getting very good at tracking, organizing, and prioritizing tasks; and improving mood. If there’s more than one thing you really want to accomplish in your life at the moment, ask yourself: is there any kind of practice I could learn that would benefit all of these areas?

New Year’s resolutions and other big goals
As we move toward 2010 and (for many people) New Year’s resolutions, I’ll be looking at ways to make and keep a resolution that will really make a difference. This article is the first in the series. The others will be posted over the coming week, right up to New Year’s Day, on my regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.

Photo by simonsterg

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The Six Basic Requirements of Self-Motivation

Strategies and goals

building blocksIf you’re a regular reader of The Willpower Engine, you may be wondering by now what purpose it’s supposed to serve to keep reading new ways to break down self-motivation into one simple concept or another. In one article, I say that willpower is exactly like owning a dog. In another, I say that willpower is a matter of thinking more of the right things and less of the wrong things. And so on.

There is a point to these different perspectives, even though each is a simplification, because each one comes at motivation from a different perspective. The point is that it’s much easier to find and fix the problems with our self-motivation if we keep examining it from different angles. So for today’s article, here’s another way to look at self-motivation: do your self-motivation efforts have all six of these basic requirements?

In order to motivate ourselves, we need to decide what exactly to motivate ourselves toward. That is, we have to have a clear, attainable goal that tells us what we want to achieve.

Once we see where we want to get, it’s essential to understand what steps are needed to get there. Someone who’s trying to organize needs to learn organization techniques. Someone who’s trying to lose weight needs to learn how much they should be eating each day and how to exercise effectively. Someone who’s trying to renovate a house needs to know how to put up wallboard.

We are very, very unlikely to be successful in achieving goals we don’t care about, for fairly obvious reasons. It is possible to start caring about a goal (for instance, by carefully considering the benefits), but the self-motivation machine groans to a halt when it runs out of passion.

Pursuing a goal means devoting time to it, and if a person hasn’t been pursuing that goal already, the time needs to come from some other activity. In order to pursue a goal successfully, therefore, it’s essential to carve out time to do that and to know what to do less of in order to free up that time.

Even if we have a goal, know what needs to be done to achieve it, desire the goal, and set aside time for it, it will not do itself. At a certain point it’s necessary to make a decision to put out effort. Sometimes this is easy, especially if desire has been stoked up. At other times it requires a conscious resolution, saying to ourselves, “OK, now it’s time to put on my sneakers and run.” or “That pile of papers isn’t going to file itself! Let’s get started.”

Lastly, like a plant that withers and dies without water, goals weaken and get forgotten if they’re not regularly showered with attention. All this means is making a resolution to turn the mind to the goal on a regular basis. One very effective approach to regular attention is a feedback loop. An even more powerful (but more labor-intensive) approach is decision logging.

And that’s it. The reason there’s so much information on this site is that none of these six requirements is always simple. Sometimes it’s hard to choose the right goal, or to know the best way to pursue it once chosen, or to find the time or ignite the desire or to make the effort or to focus the attention. Yet anyone who does all six of these things will make meaningful progress toward their goals: there’s no inborn talent for motivation, no secret ingredient, and no insurmountable barrier. Which is a good thing: just doing these six things takes work enough!

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How to Make Self-Motivation Easier, Part I

Strategies and goals

Piece of cake

Changing habits, making good choices, or really pushing hard toward a goal can get very difficult when it comes time to act. Probably you’ve had experiences, like I have, where good intentions beforehand weren’t enough to force a good choice when the time came. Continuing to try despite not always succeeding is key in developing good habits, but it’s not the only way to be more successful with self-motivation. In fact, there are a lot of things we can do to make self-motivation easier. While you might already know some of these ways, especially if you’ve been reading this site, the reason for this article is to ask the question, “Are you doing everything you can to make progress toward your goal easier?”

To help provide a good answer to that question (and to offer some areas to look at in case the answer is “no”), here’s a list of many ways to make willpower and self-motivation easier. After all, making the task easier usually means getting better results for less effort: it falls into the category of the time-worn advice “Work smarter, not harder.” There are limits to how much willpower we can summon up on a moment’s notice, but there may not be limits to the advantages we can stack up beforehand.

Decide what to do and make plans
Probably the single most important thing any of us can do to facilitate good choices is to understand what those choices should be ahead of time. If the task is studying, then how much studying needs to be done, and when should it happen? If the task is some kind of daily upkeep, like following up on e-mails within the day or keeping the dishes from piling up, what’s the exact plan for how these things will be handled?

Anticipate problems
If you ever find yourself explaining away self-motivation problems by saying “I was going to ____, but ____,” this may be a sign that you need to work on anticipating problems. Someone who’s trying to eat more healthily will be much more successful if they figure out what the options and dangers are before they walk into a party or a restaurant, for instance. Someone who’s self-employed and is trying to get in more work time will want to figure out ground rules for situations like when friends visit from out of town or for how much time–if any–it’s OK to spend doing things like volunteering or socializing during the work day.

Improve your tools and environment
In other posts I’ve gone into some detail about the value of choosing the best tools and setting up an encouraging environment for work on your goal. For example, a more welcoming environment can help a writer write more; having the right software or paper system can help another person organize much more easily.

It can help sometimes if we think of ourselves as our own assistants. We have large, important goals, but often moving toward those goals is much easier when we do some grunt work ahead of time. To help facilitate a study session later in the day, try laying out books and other study materials on a table or desk so that starting requires just sitting down. To eat better, shop better.

On Monday I’ll continue with Part II and five more ways to make self-motivation easier.

Photo by Somewhat Frank

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How to Support Someone in Pursuing Their Goal

Strategies and goals


Have you ever listened as a friend talked excitedly about a new goal–a diet, an organization system, a new way of talking to their kids–and worried that they might not make it? Since it’s easy for motivation obstacles to derail even the best initial efforts, often someone working on a new goal will soon give up or lose their way.

But motivation is easier when there’s someone supporting you. This post talks about a few effective ways to provide that support.

Work Alongside Them
One of the most helpful things anyone can do to help another person make progress toward a goal is to work alongside them. You’re offering a variety of benefits when you go out and exercise with someone who’s starting an exercise program, or sit down and read or study along with someone who’s trying to learn a new skill or subject, for instance. Doing these things with the person you’re supporting provides more structure, heightens awareness of how much and how often they’re working on their goal, offers someone to talk to if things get difficult, creates expectations they can aim to fulfill, and shows sympathy and support.

Share Goals and Progress
If you’re working on a completely different kind of goal than the person you’re supporting–for instance, they’re trying to declutter their house and you’re trying to start up a part-time consulting business–you can get together regularly to talk about how you’ve each been doing–your successes and failures, insights and questions. In addition to being an excellent way to establish a feedback loop, these kinds of conversations provide a low-pressure way each of you can talk frankly about how you’re doing to someone who understands how much work it can be to change your life.

Ask Them About It–Often
Simply asking about someone’s progress and listening uncritically, not offering advice unless asked and encouraging them to build on any successes or good ideas, can be of enormous value. When someone asks me about a project I’m working on, it forces me to ask myself how I’m doing with it, reminds me of my own priorities, makes it clear that other people care about my goals (usually because they care about me), and helps encourage me to make progress so as to be able to have positive things to report the next time I’m asked.

Help Make it Easier
Particularly if someone has good morale but limited resources, it can be helpful to assist them by providing necessities. They might appreciate help getting space to work in; some uninterrupted time; healthy foods; access to exercise equipment; helpful resources from the library, bookstore, or Web; or even just items that make the effort more pleasant. If they work in a particular area, you could provide something that makes that area more efficient, comfortable, or appealing, like a better chair or some art you know they’ll like, which can help support their motivation by increasing the appeal of their day-to-day work on their goal.

Learn More About What They’re Doing
Especially if you already talk with the person you’re supporting about what they’re doing, it can help to study up on the subject so as to be able to have meaningful conversations, ask good questions, know what kinds of support they might need, and point them to good information. Depending on what their goal is, there are good materials available on the Web, in the library, from people who are already successful doing what they want to do, and in many cases on this site (like my eBook on Writing Motivation if you want to help support someone with their writing, or my posts on weight loss for people working on fitness).

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