On Your Mark. Get Set. Start.
When a runner is getting ready to run a race – whether a sprint or a marathon -- the runner typically has a routine or series of actions to prepare for that race. There is, of course, a lot of conditioning leading up to race day. A couple of hours before the start, a runner might pop a few Advil and drink a lot of water. He might eat a hearty breakfast to provide the body with adequate fuel. Then shortly before the start, he might check the laces on his running shoes. He might also do a lot of stretching and warm-up exercises. When the race is about to start, the runner will probably line up at the starting line, get into a running position, and listen for the countdown, whistle or buzzer that signals to go. Each of those actions work as tiny cues to get the body’s adrenaline pumping and prime the runner to go swiftly from inertia to movement.
Mark Twain once said that the secret of getting ahead is just getting started. Going from inaction to action is probably the hardest part of getting just about anything done. It takes the most energy to go from total inactivity to motion – whether that motion is simply thinking through a problem or physically acting on it. A major factor in procrastination is simply the inability to start. Once the person begins, getting a project, task or job done becomes significantly easier. If starting is the hardest part of any job, then perhaps one key to success is simply in identifying ways to help launch the starting process.
The Human Law of Inertia
In 1686, Sir Isaac Newton first presented his three laws of motion in the "Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis". His first law of motion – the Law of Inertia – basically stated that every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. This is normally taken as the definition of inertia. The point is that if there is no net force resulting from unbalanced forces acting on an object, in other words if all the external forces cancel each other out, then the object will maintain a constant velocity. If that velocity is zero, then the object remains at rest. But if an additional external force is applied, the velocity will change because of the force. Newton’s three laws of motion is studied by engineers, astronauts and physicists the world over and serves as the foundation for classical mechanics.
However, Newton’s law of inertia can, in a sense, be applied to human behavior, and specifically work behavior. A person will remain at rest or in uniform action unless compelled to change by the action of another force (which, in the case of people, might be internal or external). If there is no net force acting on the person, then the person will maintain that level of activity. Or, if there was no activity, then the person will continue to remain inactive. Only when an additional force is applied will the activity level change because of the force. What this boils down to is that a body at rest tends to remain at rest, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Bodies will continue in their current state, whether at rest or in motion, unless acted on by a greater outside force. A person, having once established a trajectory, will continue on that course unless acted on by a greater force.
Like a ball being pitched or an arrow being shot, a person is set on a path by a force or set of forces and will generally continue on that path, for better or worse, unless other force alters its course. Certainly Nike’s marketing team understands that what often stands in the way of action is the impetus to star. Hence their slogan, “Just do it.” The just speaks to the need to just begin…. just stop making excuses… just act.
So what qualifies as a ‘force’ on a person’s life to ignite action and/or change a trajectory? The forces impacting a person might be internal or external. There are many forces, big and small as well as seen and unseen, acting as forces on a person, especially at work.
Internal and External Factors
There are biological forces that impact action, such as hunger, fatigue, or exhaustion. Those factors might change a trajectory, such as declining focus or concentration on a project because of appetite and low blood sugar. Or those factors can prompt action, such as drinking a cup of coffee to stimulate greater focus and energy. There are also emotional forces that can stir action, such as the stress or pressure of an approaching deadline or the positive feelings of self-worth that comes with doing a job well.
Likewise there are many external forces that can also spur action. At work, customers, coworkers and bosses are all forces impacting each person’s action or inaction. A phone call from a coworker can spur action. An email from a client can prompt a response. An upcoming meeting for which a presentation is needed can fuel a project toward completion. For a salesperson, there’s the financial reward that comes with landing a sale which definitely can ignite action.
Here are some tips to help get started.
1. Find internal motivation.
Getting started is easier if an individual taps into the value a task has. As a first step, when struggling with getting started, the person should ask, “What is the value to me of doing this task?” For example,
- I really don’t enjoy unpacking my briefcase when I return from a business trip, but I need for my things to be organized when I sit down to work the next day.
- I really dislike preparing for meetings, but I will prepare for this meeting because it is important to me that the project goes well.
- I’m so tired at the end of the day to even think about exercising. But I know when I exercise I feel better physically and emotionally.
2. Clear the plate.
By determining which projects should be tackled now, later or not at all, the individual can minimize the possibility of being overwhelmed by all possible To-Dos. Once the tasks to keep are decided, determine what to do with the tasks that cannot be actively pursued at this time. It means either deferring to a later date or indefinitely, delegating them to someone else or simply removing them and determining that it cannot be done.
Once tasks to keep on the plate are chosen and the value of those tasks is thought through, it is easier to focus on how to get started.
3. Set the stage.
Create an environment that is conducive to getting started on a project. The person should get the proper amount of sleep, nutrition and exercise to feel energized. The physical environment should be free of clutter and have the supplies and tools needed to function well. Get support from people that can spur the project along. Create a plan that takes into consideration any specific challenges.
4. Dispel fears.
Here is some final advice. Studies have repeatedly shown that once a person starts a task, it's rarely as difficult or daunting as initially perceived. Usually individuals who put off a task later wish they had started earlier and thought the task was actually interesting, and that they could have done a better job with a little more time. That’s the point. Just getting started is the key. Once started, tasks seem less onerous. Once started, returning to a task is less difficult. There is a greater feeling of control and optimism once a job has begun. The momentum helps to keep things going, proving Newton’s Law of Inertia once again.
The person should dig down and honestly admit to any fears related to the task. Fears should be identified and dispelled. For example, a fear might be that the project is overwhelming. The way to address it could be: “While the project feels enor mous, it can be done when broken into smaller bite-sized chunks.” Or, the fear might be that he/she is not smart or knowledgeable enough to do the task. The way to address that fear would be: “Besides being educated and experienced, I can research and learn any part of the project that I don’t know how to do.”
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing." Walt Disney