Your top priority is not necessarily the most important task on your list, nor is it necessarily the most urgent one. It is the one you decide you should do first–prior to the others. Often, as soon as you identify your top priority by naming the reason it’s #1, you will be motivated to jump into action.
But sometimes you won’t be. Either you are unmotivated, or you feel pulled toward some secondary task, something you have already determined is not your priority now. A distraction.
What do you do? I don’t recommend you wait until you feel the motivation to get started. At a minimum, you’ll suffer costs of delay. In the worst case, you’ll never do the task that matters most.
But I also don’t recommend that you shut down your thoughts and force yourself into action, despite the lack of motivation. That is a prescription for killing creativity and hating the most important work you do.
So what do you do in that moment? How can you stay loyal to your values, without shutting down your mind? Here are three steps you can take to move into action:
1. Acknowledge the situation.
Acknowledge that you are not motivated to do what you have concluded you need to do. You are in conflict. That means you are in for some unpleasantness, no matter what you do next. One thing you know for sure: you will not be brilliantly efficacious in the next five minutes.
Acknowledging the situation helps you manage your own expectations. We all prefer to be “in the flow” when we do work. That’s not going to happen here. The best you can do is to ensure that the next few minutes are only unpleasant, not painful. You can handle a little unpleasantness and not knowing what to do.
Steps 2 and 3 are designed to ensure you keep the unpleasantness to a minimum.
2. Turn your attention to the priority
Turn your attention to the priority without officially starting work on it. You may feel conflicted about doing the task, but thinking about it more is always doable.
How do you turn your attention to the priority without actually starting? Often I just make a list of 10 things I know about the task. Some of the items on the list might be subtasks. Some might be reasons the task is important. Some might be background information. The 10 things can be trivial or profound. They are just the first 10 things that occur to me.
This is a simple task that requires you to hold your goal–the priority–in mind for at least 3-5 minutes. Holding the goal in mind is the fundamental way that you control your mind. It changes the mental situation.
When you hold your goal in mind, three things happen:
a.) You activate knowledge relevant to the goal. Information from the subconscious is triggered in response to what is already in conscious awareness. Associated information gets triggered. This shifts the thoughts that occur to you. You hear fewer distracting thoughts, and more thoughts relevant to the task, including information about the value of the task.
b.) You quiet the impulse to do something else. When you put your attention on listing facts about the goal, you ignore the distraction instead of suppressing it or denying it. By the time you’re finished, the distraction will have faded away, without any particular effort on your part. You distract yourself from the distraction.
In contrast, if you deny or suppress the distracting impulse, it will come back as soon as you let up your guard. Your focus moves to what you are denying yourself, rather than on what matters.
c.) Focusing on the goal activates positive affect. Because you are thinking about the goal, you start seeing opportunities to act, which cause hope. You remember why you care, which causes desire. You reflect on past steps you’ve accomplished, which causes satisfaction.
Focusing on the goal means focusing on values rather than disvalues. This shifts your mood, outlook, and motivation.
To sum up, holding the goal in mind for a few minutes shifts the parade of thoughts going through your mind so that they are on topic, it dispels the distracting impulses, and it activates motivation for the priority.
This step takes some effort, and may feel uncomfortable, but it transforms your mindset.
3. Ensure the priority is doable now
Finally, now that you’ve warmed up what you know about your priority, you can check to make sure it is formulated such that it will motivate your action.
Your top priority is a specific kind of goal, with a specific standard. You may have heard that goals should be SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timebound. That’s helpful, but it’s not enough to ensure your priority propels you into action. Goals on different timescales need different standards of doability, different degrees of certainty, and different depths of passion.
A priority is on the short end of the goal-setting spectrum. It needs to be what I call a “task”–i.e., a single step that takes less than 2 hours to complete. Something this short can be unpleasant, as long as it’s not painful, but it needs to be highly doable. You need to know what you’re going to do, and that you can complete it in a short amount of time.
Why less than two hours? Two hours is an objective upper limit–it’s about as long as most people can sustain work without a short break.
An open-ended task that goes on and on without a clear ending point is a slog. A slog is inherently unmotivating. In contrast, when a finish line–any finish line–is within sight, the desire for closure is strong, and you will feel motivated.
When you set a priority, you need to design your task so that you reach some kind of closure by the end of this expenditure of effort.
If your priority can’t be completed in an appropriately short time, it needs to be redesigned. There is always a way to spiral, layer, scale down, or otherwise carve up the task so that you can reach a stopping point in a defined amount of time.
For example, writing this article took longer than I had hoped. As I neared the end of my two hours on the task, I realized I was not going to finish.
At that time, I had a hard stop in 15 minutes for another appointment. This article was still my top priority, but since I couldn’t finish it in 15 minutes, I redesigned the task. I took the 15 minutes to summarize my notes so that it would be easier for me to pick up again after the appointment. In this way, I stayed on task with my top priority, and fueled my motivation to keep at it when I got the next window of time.
How to redesign tasks so you can get some kind of closure in a defined time is a big topic. But it is always possible. Psychologically, it is necessary so that you always have a legitimate sense of having acted to gain and/or keep your values, and all of the positive affect that comes with that.
These three steps: acknowledging the situation, turning your attention to the priority, and ensuring the priority is doable now, all take effort. But none of them are painful or hard. You can choose to take these steps, even when you are unmotivated. They take a little determination, but they don’t require shutting down your mind. On the contrary, they activate the knowledge and motivation you need to get that priority done.