Motivational Principle Number Two: Make a List, Put it in Order

Imagine you face an enormous pile of chopped wood that must be stacked neatly against a wall. The pile is so huge, your stacking-job will take weeks to finish. The moment you are told to do it, you feel like you’d been kicked in the stomach. Sometimes the sheer size of a project can demoralize anyone.

But let’s say I was your boss and asked you to just pick up one particular log and stack it against the wall. How does that feel? Easy. When you come back, I ask you to “pick up this one here and stack it next to the other one.” Piece of cake, right? My requests seem simple and easy. Not overwhelming at all.

That’s what making a list and putting it in order does: It prevents a big project from overwhelming you. It is demotivating to have a large, unorganized mess to sort out. But doing one thing after another toward a goal you really want, seeing regular progress, and crossing off the items as you complete them, is very motivating.

Once you set your goal, you are in the same position as having one big pile of wood to stack. It’s a mess. It’s confusing and enormous. You may not even know where to start. You feel overwhelmed. I know people who don’t get any further with important goals than just thinking of a goal that would truly satisfy them (and that they could actually accomplish if they put in the work), feeling overwhelmed because it’s such a big goal (and they underestimate their own capability), and dropping the subject right there.

In other words, they think of the big pile of wood, feel completely dwarfed and belittled by the idea, and give up on the spot. The goal hardly had time to be imagined before it died.

There is one good way to tackle a big goal: Make a list and put it in order.

Make a list of what you need to do, and put it in the order it needs to be done. This is one of the most powerful principles of accomplishment ever invented.

Alan Lakein is the author of the most famous book on time management, How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. When he first started out, he simply asked highly successful people how they accomplished so much. The first person he interviewed said, “I make a to-do list.”

Lakein went on with the interview, almost dismissing that answer as too commonplace.

But the next high-powered executive he interviewed gave almost an identical answer. And the next. And the next. The principle — make a list — is so simple, so basic, so commonplace, and it is not astounding in any way. But it works, and it works better than anything else.

But there is one thing you have to do to make it work: You actually have to make a list and put it in order.

This method doesn’t make you motivated, really. It prevents you from being demotivated by the hugeness and complexity of your goal.

You’re already motivated. You chose your goal because you’re motivated. But once you start working on it, you can feel completely demoralized when you see the size of the thing you decided to do.

Imagine you’re a gladiator and you step into the arena expecting to face someone your own size, knowing you have skill and feeling fairly confident...but what you see is a hundred men walking into the arena. Realistically, you have no chance of winning. You wouldn’t be motivated to even try.

Having a big goal can be overwhelming like that, and can take away your motivation just as fast.

But what if you (as a gladiator) could fight the hundred men one at a time, a different one every day? You’d have a chance. And because you had a chance, you wouldn’t lose your fighting spirit so easily.

That’s what a list does for you. It takes this large group of tasks, this big mess, this big army, and makes them get in single file so you can deal with them one at a time. This makes your goal feel more possible. And it actually makes you — in reality — more likely to achieve that goal.

When a goal feels more possible, it not only prevents demotivation, it keeps you focused. I spent most of the day yesterday, for example, cleaning up loose ends, doing email, searching for a song I’d heard and wanted to buy, and finding a book (online), etc., etc. — in other words, I piddled away my time until I ran out and had to go to bed.

I didn’t make a to-do list yesterday. Sometimes I don’t. If I had made a list yesterday, none of the things I just mentioned would have been on it. And if I was working from a list, I would have either not done those things, or hurried through them in half the time (because they aren’t important to completing my list, and since my list is a consciously-chosen list of what is important to me, they weren’t really important, period).

That kind of piddling away time is not at all unusual. It is amazing how much time almost all of us waste on unimportant things when we haven’t made a list.

One way to stay motivated, then, is to break a large task into its smallest units and do those one at a time. You are essentially breaking your larger goal down into smaller targets — reachable, achievable targets. Aiming for that kind of target makes you want to get up off your duff and get at it.

The way I wrote this section (Cultivating Fire) is a good example. I had accumulated material for years, and the file was enormous. I didn’t know where to start.

So I read through the file, just reading each piece of paper, and started a list of principles or methods. When I was done, I had about twenty principles, but I realized some of them were really subcategories of others, so I wrote out a shorter list with subcategories. I had seven main principles.

All the material in my file fit into one of those categories, so I sorted it all into seven piles.

It already felt less overwhelming. I was beginning to have something I could work with. Then I put those seven principles in order. Then I took the first principle (with its own stack of notes) and set the others aside. Now this principle was my project — much smaller and more attainable.

I sorted the items in that pile, gave it some thought, and finally I could begin writing.

In other words, I took a big, confusing project, broke it up, and sorted it, and then it wasn’t demoralizing in the slightest.

Whatever your goal, when you sit down to make a list, simply break your goal into pieces — projects or tasks. Basically you’re breaking your big goal into smaller sub-goals. If those pieces aren’t small enough, put them in the order they should be done and then take the first one and break that one into pieces.

Then put those in order. Some tasks need to be done before the other ones. Some tasks are more important than the others. Put them in the best order you can.

Now take the first one. You only have to think of that one now. You don’t need to think about the others — you’ve got them written down so you won’t forget them. You can take your attention off of them for now. Concentrate on the first item until it is finished. Then cross it off, take a moment to enjoy that, and then look at the next one. And so on.

This way of working keeps you focused. Focus helps keep you motivated. Sidetracks have a harder time worming their way into your activity, slowing down your progress and diluting your motivation.

Another nice feature of working this way — besides the motivation and lack of demoralization — is the satisfaction you get. Often modern tasks leave no visible impression. They may be necessary and important, but when the day is done, it doesn’t feel as if you’ve really gotten anything accomplished.

For example, I’ve been working all night editing this section. When I’m done, I will close my computer. There will be no visible indication I’ve done a darn thing today, but I spent nine hours working! That can feel demotivating after awhile. Your actions seem futile. Or at least it can be a lot more motivating and invigorating to have some visible indication you're moving toward your goal.

When you make a list and check them off, by the end of the day you have a record, a visible record, of your accomplishments. It makes you feel more satisfied. You have made visible progress.

The principle is simple but very powerful: Make a list and put it in order. It is an important key to keeping your motivation strong.

This article is excerpted from the book, Cultivating Fire: How to Keep Your Motivation White Hot.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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