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10 best tricks of fooling myself to work

UPDATE July 28, 2011: If you need to trick yourself into writing (blog post, article, book, etc), then read the Accidental Genius summary.

UPDATE April 29, 2011: There is a new post Achieving Goals Like a Mad Klingon if you want to trick yourself into achieving goals.

In order to be successful, we have to work hard, no matter what. We can’t always be at the mercy of our motivation.

I am lazy. But that’s okay, because I have some tricks for fooling myself into working, every single day. Actually, I’m quite productive thanks to these tricks. I’m going to share the tricks with you now.

I will mention my own software, a task and notes organizer Swift To-Do List, in 2 of these tricks, but these tricks can be done with other programs (or pen and paper) too.

1. The ultimate trick

When I really don’t feel like working, and it would take a superhuman force to get me working, this saves me. Every time.

Actually, I think what follows is the best way of fooling yourself to work, because it works so well. It’s scary-effective.

So what’s the trick? Well, when I have a “Task X”, and I don’t feel like doing it, and I would much rather do anything else, but I know that doing this particular task is the best choice, I do this:

I tell myself that I will merely write down the steps needed to complete the task. Just a rough draft, at first, and that’s it. Maybe just 3 steps. I then add more steps, breaking the 3 steps into smaller sub-tasks. I then add some details, and thoughts, notes of things that I shouldn’t forget when doing this task. I just think the task through and write everything down. After a little while, I will be a proud author of “The Complete Guide To Finishing Task X for Dummies”.

(The actual way I do this is that I open my Swift To-Do List and fill the notes of the task I want to accomplish with all the steps and thoughts.)

Now, for some unknown reason, when there is nothing else to think about, and there is no way to screw this task up, because everything is laid out in front of me, I just start working on the task automatically. I might do just the first baby micro-step at first, but that’s OK. It follows to the next, and to the next, and before I know it, the task is finished.

When I am thinking about how to accomplish the task, I am already actually accomplishing it. And once I think it through, it seems ridiculously easy.

2. Not eating at the computer

I don’t know about you, but I have never accomplished *anything* while eating at my desk. I usually just read articles, or gaze at the code in Visual Studio while day-dreaming, at best. What’s worse, I even don’t enjoy the food that much this way, as my mind is split among 5 different things.

Oh, and did I mention that my keyboard used to be a huge mess? I swear that there was a delicate living ecosystem inside it. Even if I am really trying to be super-neat, some of the foodstuff will fall into the keyboard. It happens to the best of us.

So what I do now is that I always sit to an actual table, like a civilized man, and enjoy my meal without staring at the addictive hypnotic evils of my computer screen.

Now, while I am enjoying my food at the table, I also kinda miss the computer. I’m eager to return to it and do some real work. The fake feeling of productivity while eating at my computer is eliminated.

3. Rudder of the day

When I sit down to my computer for the first time in the morning, I immediately start working. Because my brain is still half asleep, he doesn’t fully realize that I’m actually working, so he won’t protest. Poor little bugger.

Whenever I begin the day this way, the whole day flows in the productive-tone. But if I start by messing around on the social networks and reading news and articles, the whole day seems lazy and I accomplish a lot less in the end.

This trick has probably the biggest ROI (return on investment) of all of these. What’s the investment? Well, it takes just a little spark of my willpower to start working in the morning. This little morning-spark can ignite an enormous day-fire of productivity.

Being the navigator behind the rudder is easy in the morning. Much harder during the day.

Whatever you do, start working when you sit at your computer for the first time. Even if just for a couple of minutes.

In my opinion, any work done “first thing in the morning” counts triple.

4. Real relaxation

Fake relaxation sucks. When I need a break, I do not eagerly launch Facebook, ICQ or solitaire, but I actually get up and get away from the computer! :-) I can go for a walk, read a book, prepare myself a fruit snack/smoothie/juice, take a nap, do some yoga, chat with a co-worker, or just generally chill out without looking at the darn computer screen.

When I return, I don’t do some random thing on “The Internets”. Oh no. I open my Swift To-Do List, see what’s next, and immediately start working.

5. “Back to work” mantra

I’ve learned this one from Brian Tracy’s Time Management and Maximum Achievement programs. I just keep saying “back to work”, whenever appropriate, until it starts humming in my mind automatically whenever something distracts me.

Completed a small task? “Back to work.” Someone interrupted me? “Back to work.” Answered a call? “Back to work.” Had to reboot my computer? “Back to work.” Velociraptor looking at me behind the window, then leaving? “Back to work.”

“Back to work” is my Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I just feel great every time I tell myself “Back to work” and resume working.

6. Always knowing what to do next

Whenever I finish a task of any size, and I do not know what to do next, my productivity goes to the drain. So, I’ve come up with an easy way how to avoid this.

Whenever I need to know what to do next, I just bring Swift To-Do List up using a system-wide hotkey and I immediately see what’s next.

Not having some productivity software associated to a system-wide hotkey is like riding without a steering wheel. You will get somewhere, but not where you want to go.

I have many separate to-do lists (a couple for each project), and I’ve created a new Priority called “Next”, highlighted by a bright green color. I assign this priority to tasks that I want to accomplish next.

View modes, filters, sorting etc make this really easy. I can also manually reorder the tasks (see a video) to decide the exact order of my tasks.

7. Sheet of paper with the most important task

Although Swift To-Do List is awesome ;-), good old physical paper has an intricate quality that no software can offer: It exists outside of your computer.

When I have 1-3 super-important tasks, I often write them down on an actual physical paper, and put the paper in front of me. It will be a constant physical reminder of what I want to do. Works like a charm.

And don’t forget the exquisite pleasure of physically checking the tasks off, and joyously manufacturing a paper-ball as a token of your greatness.

This has the biggest effect when you prepare such a paper before leaving work or going to bed, because it will be the first thing you see when you get back to work the next day.

8. Eliminating distractions

It’s a fact of this age that focusing is nearly impossible if you do not have some personal distraction-management strategy. I’ve ellaborated on this topic in one of my previous posts Create more productive environment at your desk (10 tips).

9. When falling asleep…

When you are falling asleep, think about the most important task for the next day. Your subconscious mind will do half the job for you during the night.

This might sound bananas to you, but I swear that it works. Your mind is busy during the whole night anyway (we all have dreams), so why not give it something productive to ponder on?

What’s your trick?

I lied. There are only 9 tricks. However, here is the Captain You to save the day!

See that comment box below? I would love to hear your tricks of fooling yourself to work, or any other comments.

Bring it on. How do you fool yourself into work?

Related Posts:


Swift To-Do List 11

The ultimate to-do list and notes software for Windows.

79 Responses to “10 best tricks of fooling myself to work”

  1. Jiri Novotny says:

    Checkout the new post Achieving Goals Like a Mad Klingon

    Renting an office and *not* working from home have also enormously increased my productivity.

    When I get up and go through “all the hassle” of commuting to my office, I would be a fool not to work, right?

    • Harry says:

      Plus one on renting an office. It’s difficult to understand how detrimental working from home is until you start renting your own office space!

    • I second that notion as well. It can’t be stressed how important it is to have a dedicated, focused place to work. I worked from home for years and once I finally moved into an office the business flourished. I think it is good for many reasons… One, it makes you more productive. You get more done, do a better job, and get things done faster. That means better service and more word of mouth. Two, the exposure of being in a real office (especially if you have presence on the road) is helpful. Three, it makes you accountable. This is huge. Now that you have real bills to pay for the business, it puts a fire under your butt to do a good job and make a profit. And fourth is credibility. People see that you’re serious about it and are less likely to worry about you just dissapearing. Moving to an office can be the single most important move your business can make!

    • Exactly, an office is a great way to increase productivity — I am never going to learn working at home :)

  2. I have just been motivated to get back to work after reading your article. Cheers.

  3. Nicetryguy says:

    Thank you for this.

    10. Controlling internet tabs. Email and work related only.

    Lest i be even tempted by the likes of Reddit etc

  4. Eric says:

    Deleting my social media apps (Facebook, Tweetdeck, etc) from my iPhone and turning off my wireless too for good measure.

  5. Susan Potter says:

    I _really_ like your tips 1, 2 and 3. Another ‘trick’ I have employed to good effect is changing scene to work from a coffeeshop, library, restaurant or similar venue. The benefits for me are twofold as far as I can see:
    * If I have been hung up on a particular task in the home office or a client’s office for a while already then the new work venue doesn’t have that history in my mind associated with the task I am procrastinating on (a fresh start); and
    * When in public spaces I don’t want to be seen just browsing the web, emailing, RSS feed reading or on social networks; even if other people are probably not looking at my screen the possibility that they might keeps me away from those time sucks.

    • Owen says:

      I actually completely disagree with this trick. Changing venues often just trains your mind to think of this excuse not to complete something in the office: “Oh, this isn’t an office-worthy task; I’ll do it later at the Whole Foods.”

      But i do agree that serious relaxation should be done outside the office, and for most intellectuals serious relaxation involves some sort of work– writing in a journal, reading a deep book, working on orthogonal computing problems. For these I recommend your public venue changing algorithm.

      • Samuel Mac says:

        function changeVenue() {
        var MyVenue=new Array();
        MyVenue[1]=’first venue’;
        MyVenue[2]=’another venue’;
        MyVenue[3]=’a really really cool venue’;
        MyVenue[4]=’a really really cool venue’;
        MyVenue[5]=’a really really cool venue’;

        var venueNumber=Math.floor(Math.random()*6)

        Algorthimth created!

    • Kim Smith says:

      I totally agree, Susan! Some days working at home can be so distracting with the household chores and “home-life” stuff that needs to be done that just getting out and working somewhere else can really help me to focus! And some days, when I’m really tired, the activity of strangers around me keeps me awake and alert. Working alone in your home office can be too quiet sometimes and I need that feeling of interaction around me, even if I’m not interacting with anyone.

      I also agree that it helps to get into a different situation when you’re “stuck” or feeling the pressure of procrastination. It really does help you to make a fresh start!

  6. Nali says:

    thinking about 3 things to get me focused and back to work:
    Opportunity Cost
    and focusing on ONE thing till finished.

    one of these three jump at me when a move astray.

  7. Jiri Novotny says:

    Susan: Wow, the second reason has never occurred to me. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Jiri Novotny says:

    Nali: “focusing on ONE thing till finished” can be combined with my tip 7 – that works *really* well

  9. Mike Cane says:

    The Ultimate Trick is one I learned in the 1980s. Being young, single, and living alone, I often wound up turning my place into a hovel (paper-wise, I never had food growing mold on it!) and would be discouraged about cleaning it. What solved that for me was the trick of just starting small somewhere, anywhere. So, clear off a tabletop. OK, that went well. Now let’s see if I can just do this corner. Ah, that was good too. And it went on from there, tiny step after tiny step. Seeing *somthing* being accomplished created momentum, even if it took hours to complete.

    Of course, the Ultimate Ultimate Trick is Do It Now. That is, don’t delay, don’t start a chain reaction that’ll grow as the days pass. Getting things out of the way ASAP is even more rewarding than conquering one small step at a time. So, don’t leave that magazine on the table (as I would in the 1980s), put it in its place *now*.

  10. Stan says:

    Well, my ultimate trick is hidden behind /etc/hosts :) facebook.com http://www.facebook.com news.ycombinator.com
    After this little trick I’m several times more productive!

    p.s. I can also confirm that the work in the morning has the greatest ROI :) . Especially work that requires creativity and critical thinking.

  11. Jiri Novotny says:

    Stan: Haha, the /etc/hosts/ trick works for me too, but only until I start using web-based proxy sites like anonymouse.ws. Oops, I suppose I shouldn’t have told you that! :)

    • Pothik says:

      Put youtube.com in C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts and then tell me what happens. In my windows vista it is tracked as potential threat by “Microsoft security essentials” (MSE). The message is exactly – “Security Essentials detected a potential threat on your computer. Click Clean computer to remove this threat.” If I click the “Clean computer” button then the line with youtube.com is gone in C:\Windows\System32\drivers\etc\hosts. Funny from MSE or conspiracy from youtube?

  12. I really liked the third one. It did me laugh. It is so true.
    Once I had to write an important paper I didn’t want to. So I bought chocolates and for each paragraph I wrote I could eat a bit. It didn’t work but that’s fine… I always ate more chocolate than paragraphs but in the end everything went great.

  13. Jiri Novotny says:

    Matheus: Thanks for sharing.

    Perhaps if someone else was handing you the chocolates, it would work better :))

  14. Dave Cheong says:

    Great post — thanks for sharing! I thought I’d provide links to a couple of articles I wrote a few years back which might be useful for you and your readers regarding keeping focused and being productive:


    Hope it helps. Best wishes.


  15. Henry David Thoreau says:

    “It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.”

  16. Dave says:

    I find if I’m making something that’s going to make me money I get overwhelmed by all the things I have to do, so I keep triking myself that it doesn’t matter this is just a bit of fun that I’ll open source and it’s just for fun. The enjoyment in doing my work returns and I can think a lot clearer

  17. Sam says:

    Great tips! I am guilty of opening up news feeds the first thing I do when I get to my desk. I will try it the other way this week.

    My favorite part of the article though was when you mentioned ICQ. Makes me all nostalgic =)

  18. Really good stuff here!

    What I like about these ideas is that they’re all efficient and realistic. While you can very well get an office to create more urgency, I don’t feel that’s nearly as effective as internalizing why you are doing it all. After all, we all can’t just throw money at every problem.

    I particularly agree with the visual roadmapping techniques here. If you break down goals into finer tasks and attach real dreams to your ultimate goals, things really take shape. That leads me to my own little technique for getting things done…

    Focus on your WHY. In a perfect world, all you would need to do in life is pursue your passions and success would come easily. That’s just not realistic. You can’t circumvent the mudane and we’re all charged with the responsibility to be responsible. Life is a delicate balance between doing what we want and what we need to. Of course, without a powerful WHY, a purpose that keeps you focused and truly drives you, you have no real deliberate direction – anything can happen (often in a bad way)!

    Any time you’re doing some work that feels beneath you or is just boring, remember that we all have to become masters of the mundane. More importantly, remember your WHY. Why are you on your current path? Your WHY has to be powerful. It can’t be something you’re willing to give up easily or a material thing that represents nothing truly spiritual or fulfilling for you.

    If you focus in on your WHY and don’t eventually feel driven to work on even the most mundane of projects or tasks, then you are not dreaming big enough. A good why should make you cry any time you truly consider never attaining that goal. It sounds cliche, I know, but I feel it’s the best way to stay engaged and create the urgency.

    Any time I feel like putting things off, I look at the big picture (my WHY and my visual road map to success). It really helps keep me persistent each day. This also helps you naturally find ways to limit distractions and get others around you on-board with your vision and goals. Of course, we’re all allowed a little procrastination – can’t be all work and no play! ;o)

    • Jiri Novotny says:

      Thanks for sharing. The techniques I describe here are indeed mainly for the short-term productivity. Sometimes you know *why*, and you know that the grand scheme of things is awesome, but you need a push in this *particular* moment.

      That being said, closing eyes and visualizing your epic success really does wonders.

      For those interested in long-term productivity: Check out my summary of The Now Habit book. It’s the best book on procrastination I’ve read.

  19. Carolyn says:

    Wow, great suggestions. Shame on me, using your article to put off work. ><

    My trick is to have a few really great pens. My favorite pen is such a joy to write with that I look forward to making my to do list in the morning. (I get mine at muji.us.)

  20. lara says:

    I trick myself into working on a particular task by telling myself I’m just going to do it for 15 minutes and then I’ll do something else that I like. Of course, once I’m already doing the work, I don’t even think about stopping until I really need a break!

  21. Mohan Arun says:

    As for how to fool yourself into completing a task you want to complete, I believe two methods work best for me:
    - breaking down the task into chunks that can be done in half hour or one hour every day
    - starting with a simpler version of the task that can be done now, and complete in five minutes flat.

    The point behind the second technique is that, most of the tasks in our todo list remain ‘untouched’ for so very long (never started). If you could just complete a basic version of it then our mind adapts to it and actually begins wanting to do it and you will be to find time in your schedule for it because you like it, not because you have to do it.

  22. Pete says:

    Pressure makes you work. But at a certain point it starts being counter-productive.
    Just before lunch I told myself: finish that and then you can go eat something. Because I know that after lunch, I will not be able to work. (digestion)

    • Jiri Novotny says:

      Pete: That’s true. But it also depends on what kind of food you eat. For example, freshly squeezed fruit/vegetable juice will not make you sleepy, usually quite the opposite.

  23. Steve Taylor says:

    I’m a recent convert to the Lean Startup philosophy after attending a startup bootcamp. Since then, I took my prototype (never intended for release), tidied it up a bit and launched my site. Rather than being the manifestation of my grand vision for the site, what I released was the MVP (minimum viable product). There are many good reasons for this approach. One of the biggest is that it motivates me to finish what I started because the site is quite crappy at the moment and all my millions of imaginary users can see that.

  24. Adam N says:

    Get a Mac really helps. I’d love to try your software, but there’s no Mac version. Would you recommend OmniFocus or something else for Mac?

  25. Jiri Novotny says:

    Steve Taylor: Now we are talking! Getting *something* out there ASAP is the way.

  26. Jiri Novotny says:

    Adam: Yup, check out Things or OmniFocus. You will have to find something that suits your style of work.

    We are currently fully focused to the Windows market with Swift To-Do List, but mobile, iPad and possibly even Mac versions are likely coming this year too, so keep an eye on us.

  27. Jonatan says:

    Hi, great tips! I also love Susan Potter’s first tip.

    About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on how you can use measurable statistics to motivate yourself to do some boring tasks. It only works for tasks where you can actually measure the progress with hard numbers, but for those cases I think it’s awesome :). http://heyman.info/2010/mar/17/hack-your-motivation-statistics/

  28. Brian says:

    Keeping my laptop unplugged.

    If I can see the battery life draining, I am much more likely to get on with the next most important task as soon as possible.

  29. Joe says:

    I read this article instead of working.

  30. David says:

    Dammit! Just woke up and started reading a few articles. Broke the 3rd commandment… snap off to a lazy day, I guess. Well this is the last article for this morning “shower, breakfast and get back to work”.

    I’ve often found it quite iseful to set my phone to flightmode. No whatsapp notifactions, facebook pops and distracting ringtones. When I’m ready to face the world again I let the critter back online and return all missed calls and messages. Works for me.

  31. IA1989 says:

    This is fuckin cool Jiri. Can’t believe lazy people are everywhere. Wee need to cooperate. Thanks for this Jiri.

  32. David says:

    One of my favorite tips is to “leave the last panel blank” the night before. I mention it here: http://david.dlma.com/habari/leave-the-last-panel-blank

  33. Paulius says:

    I used to think about my tasks believing how easy would be to accomplish them, but never doing them right away. At the end of the day I would realize that I know how to do everything, but actually done absolutely nothing. Recently I have managed to trick myself into doing things right away. It works like a charm: think->do.

    Also /etc/hosts on facebook.com does its job pretty well :)

  34. Pierre says:

    Really nice blog post, Jiri, but I’m afraid the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42 ;-)

  35. thomas says:

    Ping pong works for me… a ten minute game with my work neighbours gives my conscious brain a rest, gets lots of oxygen into my bloodstream and inevitably involves a lot of laughs… afterwards anything is possible

  36. Ori says:

    My trick no. 10:

    If it’s very hard for you to start a certain task, compromise. After 25 minutes, if the task isn’t complete, rest 5 minutes doing anything you like, then continue the task. If it is finished, start another task with the same loop… After 115 minutes (work+rest sessions), rest 25 minutes.

    This is from the Pomodoro Technique and helps you to stay productive at work. This technique to split the work and rest works especially well if you can get distracted easily.

  37. Darren says:

    Definitely turning off social media would be one of them although if I had this morning I wouldn’t have found this great article! ohhh the paradox!

    In my mind I have relabeled Facebook and Twitter as ‘Marketing sessions’

    I often find completely changing locations is a good one or playing some motivational music that kills everything else in the room. I quite like the recent Tron soundtrack for this.

    Having said all of that, I have probably had my best ideas when I have been procrastinating….the challenge is with getting the core stuff done too!

  38. Martin Lucas says:

    Really like the first ‘trick’ mentioned – I’m definitely guilty of putting tasks that are too big on my to-do list, still working on the habit of breaking them down into smaller chunks.

  39. skaz says:

    Focus, focus. Where for art thou?

    I decided eating at my computer lost its taste after losing a bit of corn chip inside my macbook keyboard. It was a delicate toothpick operation to get it out.

  40. D says:

    That’s a clever question: How do you fool yourself into work?

    Answer: By doing exactly what you just did. Simply fooling others to do it for you so you don’t have to do it yourself ie: listing only 9 tips so someone else can think of the 10th one for you.

    I LIKE IT!!

  41. Randy says:

    If I get stuck on a particular task, I switch to the next one. The solution to the first task almost always pops into my head before I finish the second task.

  42. Randlos says:

    A nice visual trick for me is an appropriate wallpaper. If you don’t, your subconscious will take note of it!


  43. Valerie says:

    One trick is that I set a timer. I set it for 20 minutes. In that time, it’s work, no internet browsing or distractions of any kind. I find that 20 minutes is a realistic amount of time to get into a groove. Once it goes off, I am usually so focused that I just reset it for another 20 minutes and keep going. If I am tempted to go on Facebook or go get a snack, I wait until the timer goes off. Then I do whatever I want, then reset the clock and start again.
    It seems so easy, but it is really effective.

  44. [...] read in our lives? Enough to know they are compulsively addictive, but not necessarily effective. This post from the creators of Swift To-Do List software, however, stands apart as truly entertaining and wise. You may not follow all of its tips, but one [...]

  45. I set a timer for 15 minutes, thanks to Flylady. Invariably I will keep working after the timer beeps. I don’t get distracted because I’m racing the timer. Occasionally I will stop after the timer beeps, for a short rest (if I’m really wiped out) but then I get back to it as soon as possible.

  46. Colleen says:

    The ten-minute rule works great for me. My biggest productivity bug is actually cleanliness. I set a timer and HAVE to clean for ten minutes. Once I get started, even when the time is up, I want to keep going.

  47. Bjarte says:

    I tend to work best when properly rested. A little bit of exercise (not too much!) doesn’t hurt either.

  48. Jiri Novotny says:

    If you liked this post, you will love my new post “Achieving Golas Like a Mad Klingon”: http://www.dextronet.com/blog/2011/04/achieving-goals-like-a-mad-klingon/

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