Most sage wisdom from the ages will tell you some variation on this:
Start at the beginning.
There’s nothing really wrong with that advice. There’s some truth to the notion that when you feel overwhelmed, or reluctant to start, thinking of the smallest “first step” you can take will help get you over the hump and on your way.
That’s not bad advice.
But I’m gonna let you in on a little secret:
If you want to increase your motivation and your self-discipline, start at the end.
In other words? Begin with the end in mind.
Credit Where It’s Due: This is one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (non-affiliate link).
How to Start at the End to Increase Productivity
It’s super-easy to implement this strategy right now. Here’s how it works:
- Before you start on any task, pause and ask yourself: “What’s my desired outcome here?”
- Figure out the answer to that question and state it to yourself, or write it down on a scratch pad.
That’s it. Three simple steps. Takes less than a minute.
A Few Examples
In my experience, this strategy is best employed in three specific scenarios:
- When you’re getting ready to deal or communicate with other people, especially when the conversation might be a bit awkward, heated, or conflict-oriented
- When you’re about to start a chunk of creative work on a project or goal
- When you’re doing work that you innately resist or feel less-than-motivated to do
Here are some examples of each of those categories, and how beginning with the end in mind can help you get better results in each.
Touchy Interpersonal Communications
Let’s say you need to email a response to a client who thinks you should be providing additional work on a project for no extra compensation.
Asking yourself “What do I want to happen here when this email is received and read?” can help you choose and carefully craft the tone of the email. You’d probably use very different language if this is a client you really want to keep versus one who has been making unreasonable demands all along and generally been a nightmare to work with.
It also helps you center yourself emotionally, and thus restrict the substance of your email to just those points that are relevant.
That will in turn help prevent “dumping syndrome” – where you and the person you’re squabbling with end up bringing all kinds of past crap into the current debate and things inevitably go completely off the rails. In the business context, dumping all over each other will only waste your time and your client’s as well.
Thinking about the potential finished product — in whatever form or medium you’re working with — will help you dive in and achieve a Zen-like state of focus: what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.”
Flow is that ideal state of über-productivity, where you’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, with zero peripheral thoughts or distractions entering your consciousness or awareness. It’s highly conducive to greater creativity.
And the simple act of articulating your desired outcome before you begin will help you get there more quickly.
Tasks You’re Resisting
Beginning with the end in mind is particularly helpful when you’re staring down a dreaded task, something you don’t want to do, something that you’re obligated to do.
Tasks like that are hard to get started. Taking that initial step is absolutely challenging.
But taking a moment to think “What’s my preferred outcome here? Why am I doing this?” can literally give you a reason to move forward.
Especially powerful? Taking it one step further and figuring out what goal you’re furthering with this task – even if the goal is one of those “well, duh” goals that you haven’t even bothered to write down. Things like “raising healthy, confident kids.” Or “keeping my business going.” Or “ensuring my good reputation in my field.”
You might have to get a little creative with your answer. It might not be a direct link from task to goal, but if you can figure out how the two are connected, you’ve got instant motivation to get it done.
And if there truly is no connection? Then you’ve got a different problem, and should spend some time figuring out just how and why you obligated yourself to do it in the first place. Then resolve to not let items like that back on your to-do list in the future.
Bottom Line: Implementing Outcome-Based Productivity
For one full day, take a moment before you do any task, and ask “why am I doing this? What’s my preferred outcome?”
Seriously. ANY task. Even brushing your teeth.
Yes, it will add thirty seconds per action to your day. No, I’m not recommending you do this always. But it is a great way to begin conditioning yourself to think this way, and I’m betting that, by the end of the day, you’ll be experiencing a significantly more positive frame of mind and greater personal efficiency.