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  • Writer's pictureElana Duffy

Motivation (and posters) aren't always enough. Try action instead.

Social media inundates us with short motivational phrases that are the modern-day equivalent of magic spells, meant to transform us instantly into better people. Just do it. Walk the talk. Live Strong. And the new trendsetter, the hallmark of the post-modern 21 century worker: get shit done.

Yes, motivation is essential to success, and in principle there is nothing inherently wrong with these t-shirt-ready slogans and mantras. I just prefer to have some meaning with my motivation. Maybe the instructions come in the package with the t-shirt or poster, but aren’t these slogans long on cleverness and way short on the “how?”

Specifically, how can you turn “get shit done” into a plan, a routine, a way of thinking that really does allow you to, well, accomplish that?

The ideas for how to do that came to me a couple months ago during the record-setting winter in the Boston area. While I was on a brief vacation, my landlord sent the email I had dreaded all winter: a water pipe had burst in my unit. Fortunately they noticed it quickly and prevented widespread damage. Nonetheless, the maintenance team would need to dry the unit, then rip out and replace drywall in three rooms.

When I returned from a partially-working vacation, I faced the first clean-up challenge. The crew was on its way to repair the damage in a room which served as a library/archive. They would arrive in three hours. Rescheduling was not possible, because ice dams and burst pipes had damage over two dozen units in my development. That meant I had three hours to empty a room completely, down to bare walls and bare carpet.

The task was overdue anyway, ahead of my pending move to Chicago. I had budgeted an entire weekend for that job, and now had to do it from a cold start in a tiny fraction of that time.

I got the work done. About 2 ½ hours later, as I looked at a stack of boxes in the garage and then walked back into the room (have you noticed how much bigger rooms look when they are empty?), I tried to figure out why it went so smoothly and how this could apply generally to other tasks, large and small. Here are six insights:

  • We sometimes overestimate how long tasks take: Another way to say this is that we really have no idea how long most tasks take. In an effort to manage expectations or give ourselves some flexibility, we tend to pad time schedules. Part of the problem is that we see a lot of tasks or projects holistically, rather than breaking them down into discrete pieces. It takes about two minutes to select books for a box, pack them, seal it, and bring them to the garage. Once I figured that out, I knew that my old estimate of “it should take a weekend” was nonsense.

  • We wait too long for circumstances to be "just right": Yes, timing matters, but ideal timing is an illusion. This manifests itself in excuses such as “I’d rather wait until so-and-so is back” or “That would be easier when the weather is warmer”. Perhaps all true, but the difference these changes in conditions make are often marginal. And this leads to the next point.

  • Starting is everything. This is simple physics. A body that is at rest tends to stay at rest. A body that is in motion tends to stay in motion. If you pick one task, any task, and start the process, you’ll find that momentum comes quickly.

  • We over-prepare: Ever complete a task and then look around at all the crap you really didn’t need or use? The 80/20 rule applies here. Quickly come up with a list of things you feel you will need, and when you hit a roadblock, either get the needed tool or person, or improvise.

  • We overthink: The elegant solution is the enemy of the practical solution, in much the same way that best is the enemy of good. We all love coming up with that surprising, original way of doing something. If inspiration strikes, great! If it doesn’t, re-read the four points above and get started.

  • We multitask: The secret to emptying the room in 2 ½ hours was that all I did for 2 ½ hours was empty the room. No Present Tense work. No phone calls. No coffee breaks to brainstorm or check my progress or pat myself on the back. The temptation to multi-task is constant, and we are all prone to doing it. But old-fashioned focus and concentration has its merits.

Slogans, mantras, and mottos are wonderful. They are even more effective and inspiring when you have the steps or the process to put them to practical use.

Frank Luby is co-founder and CEO of Present Tense LLC, a communications company dedicated to helping people express their ideas through better business storytelling. To learn more about Present Tense LLC, please visit us at and follow our regular blogs and posts. You can also follow Frank on Twitter: @FrankLuby

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