Sunday, November 20, 2022

Not motivated? Try the assembly line approach.

Last week I looked at my task list for the day and then looked away.

I just didn’t feel motivated.

But I had a backup plan!

I returned to the list and set a goal of completing the entire thing.

To get started, I read the first task and then worked through it until completed.

Then I went to the second one on the list and did the same thing.

And so on, in the order listed, until every task was complete.

Why did this work?

I knew that if I took action, no matter how slight (in this case, simply reading the task),  my “motivation” would return.

It’s the cognitive equivalent of Newton’s second law: “A body in motion remains in motion.”

Taking action is what leads to motivation, not the other way around.

I call this strategy the “assembly line” approach. It is my nearly no-fail way to work when I don’t feel like doing anything or when I’m avoiding specific tasks.

How does this work?

Think about how a real manufacturing assembly line works.

The outcome of an assembly line is a product: a car, bottles filled with ketchup, and so on. A switch that turns on the moving belt has to be flipped to “on.” Once the belt starts, the unfinished product moves down the line to the next station to be worked on. 

My task completion assembly line has these same components:

First, I decide on a product, usually a defined batch of tasks to complete.

Then I take an action that switches my mindset from “not working” to “working.”

When I complete an item, I use a predetermined rule to move to the next one without having to think.

Step 1. Define your product

A “product” for this method is a completed batch of work.

I use this method for any kind of batched work, including a short list of tasks, new mail messages, email messages I have been avoiding, phone calls, routine paperwork, and clearing up papers haphazardly strewn around my workspace.

Step 2: Take action to "turn on" working.

When I am unmotivated, I need an initial action that requires no thinking—akin to flipping the “on” switch for the assembly belt.
Pick something for which you feel no resistance at all. In my task list example above, my first task was to continue revising this post! My no-resistance action was to copy and paste the text I had already written in Evernote (my note-taking app) into Scrivener (the app I use for final drafting).

I use a variety of these no-resistance actions. Among them: copying my last paragraph to start work on a writing project, opening the app I need, moving from the kitchen to my home office, or setting my Pomodoro app timer.

Each of these signals to my brain that it’s time to work.

Step 3. Decide on a method to move from one item to the next.

Mark Forster first introduced this idea by recommending the use of a "mechanical" method to decide what task on your list you to do next.

This eliminates the time spent ruminating (in my case at least) about “What’s the very best next task?”

When working from a task list, I just go to the next task on the list.

(Here’s another example. Close your eyes, put your finger on the list - best done on paper! - and do the task you are touching. Or put the list on a dart board, and have at it!)

Here is my assembly line process for four kinds of work to give you some ideas.


Product: Tasks on a defined list completed. For example, my “MIT” list (the 3 most important tasks for the day) or a set of tasks I have been putting off.

On switch: Reading the first task

Mechanical rule: Go to the next task on the list.

Papers strewn about my workspace

Product: All the papers in the stack handled (recycled, filed, added to my task list, or the required task completed).

On switch: Gather the papers into one stack, and pick up the top one.

Mechanical rule: Take the next paper on the stack.

New email messages

Product: Empty inbox (all messages deleted, filed, replies made, or marked to come back to later).

On switch: Open my email app.

Mechanical rule. Start with the most recent message and then go to the very next one.

So really, who needs motivation when you have a method!