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 youd been kicked in the stomach. Sometimes
the sheer size of a project can demoralize anyone.
But lets 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.
Thats 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. Its
a mess. Its confusing and enormous. You may not even know
where to start. You feel overwhelmed. I know people who dont
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
its 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
This method doesnt make you motivated,
really. It prevents you from being demotivated by the hugeness
and complexity of your goal.
Youre already motivated. You chose
your goal because youre 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 youre 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 wouldnt 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?
Youd have a chance. And because you had a chance, you wouldnt
lose your fighting spirit so easily.
Thats 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
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 Id 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 didnt make a to-do list yesterday.
Sometimes I dont. 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
arent important to completing my list, and since my list
is a consciously-chosen list of what is important to me, they
werent 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 havent 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 didnt 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 wasnt
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 youre breaking your big goal into smaller
subgoals. If those pieces arent 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.
take the first one. You only have to think of that one now. You
dont need to think about the others youve
got them written down so you wont 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 doesnt feel as if youve really gotten
For example, Ive been working all
night editing this section. When Im done, I will close
my computer. There will be no visible indication Ive 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 is the second of seven principles
of Cultivating Fire.