Getting Shit Done: Momentum Edition

Suburban Construction

You have a seven pallets of bricks that need to be moved from the driveway into the backyard. Your resources are your arms (flex!) and a wheelbarrow.

There are a few ways this can go.

The very stupid way

You stack sixty-three bricks on the wheelbarrow, making a tottering ziggurat of baked clay. The wheelbarrow is now so heavy that you must use all of your strength to get it off the ground, and you don’t push the handles as much as you shove them wildly in the direction of the backyard. You get two metres before your wrists give way and the wheelbarrow clunks to the ground.

You pant and wrench the handles up again and shove, to hit a hidden rock which creates a death-wobble and dumps the entire load on the ground. Your back aches once you’ve gotten all the bricks into the barrow, and your hands feel raw and sulky. It continues: lift/grunt, shoveshove, drop, rub hands, sigh deeply, lift/grunt, repeat. You get to the destination and unload the sixty-three bricks. The strangely light wheelbarrow is shoved back to the driveway where you do some math.

You’ve moved 63 bricks, leaving 469 on that pallet. With another six untouched pallets, you still have 3661 bricks to move. That’s another 58 loads of back-sproinging misery.

You burst into tears, rub your much-abusΓ©d hands, and quit for the day.

The very smart way

You load twelve bricks, pick up the handles, wriggle experimentally, and put it down. You remove four bricks, leaving eight. Now the wheelbarrow feels like it has no weight in it at all. You walk at a jaunty pace toward the backyard. You hit a small rock and the wheel bounces, making the bricks clatter. You stop, remove the rock, and merrily push the rest of the way.

You jog back – healthy! – and load up with another eight bricks. The weight is completely negligible, and you know you can walk all day if you need to.

After you stop for a glass of lemonade, you try ten bricks in the barrow. It feels pretty much the same as eight. (Are you getting stronger? It appears so!) By now, you have the path smoothed out, and the effort required to get started on each load is almost unnoticeable.

By the end of the day, you’ve moved eight hundred-odd bricks, and you’re ready to do it again tomorrow. Your hands are a bit chafed, but they’ll be okay. And you think you might be able to start on fourteen bricks soon!

The moral of the story

If you want to build anything big, you’re going to need momentum.

When moving things, the most effective way to build momentum is to push them downhill. Objects want to go that way; gravity is on your side instead of working against you.

When moving ourselves, the most effective way to build momentum is to start with something much less challenging than our capabilities. We want to succeed; our mind is on our side instead of working against us.

Start insultingly small and simple. If you need to tidy the house, put away the shoes near the front door. If you’re creating a magnificent website, start with the contact page. If you’re starting a business, buy a box to put the money in. Make your first task something you can’t possibly fail at.

When you start with the easiest possible work, there’s almost no friction. Confidence is sky-high – I can’t possibly fail at this, tra la la la! – and your energy seems limitless. So you expend your energy with no strain, no tiredness, and no injury. Strike that off the to-do list!

Everything is so easy that you keep on working. (More easy success! your brain says. Gimme gimme!)Β  Without even noticing you build your muscles, and your definition of this-is-easy-peasy work grows without announcing itself.

Eventually, when you have to start really pushing, you have the muscles, the experience, the confidence and the momentum to push a thousand times harder than you could on your first day.

It’s always easier to move something that’s already in motion. And when you’re starting, the easiest things to move are the tiny ones.

Go take care of a teensy thing and report back!

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Creative Commons License photo credit: TheGiantVermin

35 thoughts on “Getting Shit Done: Momentum Edition

  1. “More easy success! your brain says. Gimme gimme!”

    Had to smile at that line cuz it’s so, so true! And we forget and think it’s supposed to be hard, that life IS hard. But what if…it’s not true after all? That we’ve bought into a myth?

    You’ve taken the blinders off once again! Woohoo!

  2. Yes yes! So true. It’s a great feeling, looking back and feeling like you accomplished something. That alone is a massive confidence boost and makes it that much easier to move on to the next task.

  3. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This post just put my whole project into prospective. I am building a blog day by day and struggling with the complexities – the navigational stuff, the ‘about me’ page, adding kick-ass content. Right now it feels like its Me vs Blog – The blog is winning!

    This post just smacked me straight in the face! I’ve realised that I’m trying to run before I can even walk.

    Thanks Catherine. I found your site a couple of weeks ago and after months of dreaming and zilch, zero, nudder doing, suddenly I am moving and it feels goooood.

    Right, off to write a contact me page – easy peasy!

  4. I’m accustomed to accomplishing things, but this advice just turns EVERYTHING on its head. Start laughable small… I wonder where I can apply that to? Once again, you knock it out of the park.

  5. Ok, I’m back. So, I realized what I pick are stretch goals… Theoretically doable, yet going to require me to up my game. What do you think are the relative merits of the two approaches?

    1. They’re not at all contradictory. This is about action, not goals… so you can have a delightfully stretchy goal, but make sure that your first steps toward it are teeny tiny baby ones.


  6. Another home run, Catherine. Making the steps to the big honking goal easy so that you build momentum is one of my favorite tips to give anybody. Now I’ll just give them this post, since it’s more fun to read. πŸ™‚

  7. Ha! More math! You’re going to get hooked on it πŸ™‚

    Love the idea of a first task that is failproof – brains like to feel good πŸ™‚

  8. I used to be the same way. If I thought I could possibly manage to get all the groceries inside in one trip I’d try it. Sucks when you get to the door and realize there is no possible way to open the door other than to set down a ton of bags.
    Over the past two years, I’ve gotten into the baby steps routine. I write down each step because checking things off my list makes me feel better and less overwhelmed.

    Great post.

  9. What a bright, cheerful, and sunny site! I definitely don’t like doing things ‘the very stupid way,’ tho is hasn’t stopped me from killing my wrists and wobbling all over the damn place.

    Strategizing is good!

    Btw, I like how the Joy is larger in header:)

  10. Oh so timely, thanks! I get overwhelmed when big stuff happens (regardless of how excited I might be about it – a change of job, moving interstate). I hadn’t experienced it with my creative passions, until now. Lots is happening, and my body is responding by freaking out. Start with the small stuff… I can do that!! Small is good.

  11. I love the concept of starting with something easy, that you KNOW can DO WELL. Once you’ve completed that task, you’re able to boost your confidence and move towards your goal, one step at a time.

    Since we live in this World of Instant Connections, it’s worthwhile to keep in mind, as you pointed out, that how we approach a goal when we begin makes a huge impact in how we end.

    I think the hardest part about this advice, Catherine, is we live in a “Me! Me! Me! Now! Now! Now!” world. Everyone wants instant gratification and instant results – someone swallows a magic weight loss pill and expects to see their tummy shrink and a six-pack appear by the time that pill lands in their stomach!

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