Mark Morgan Ford writing on self-reliance

I’ve thought a lot about the failure-to-get-started problem.

I’ve read dozens of books and talked to many of my colleagues and posed the question to hundreds of my customers.

Everyone agrees that we stop ourselves from something new because it feels like a huge slog. That the huge amount of work combined with insecurity and the possibility of failure holds us back.

The three roadblocks I see repeated time and again are:

Lack of Confidence: People who haven’t yet been successful in life don’t believe they can be, even if they are fully prepared to succeed.

Fear of Pain: Some people see taking action as work — and work as a form of pain. These are usually people who have never experienced the pleasure of working on something they value.

Laziness: Besides the fear of work, human beings are programmed to be lazy. Being lazy means trying to get what you want with the least amount of effort. Some people don’t take action because they want to find an easier way.

But the fact that we feel these three things, even when we are ready, proves that we’re behaving irrationally.

So what stops us? If these three roadblocks are why so many people don’t take action when they are ready, what is the solution?

There’s no mystery to that. Behavioral scientists know that the way to change a person’s behavior is by motivating them through positive reinforcement. B.F. Skinner studied this concept and learned that some rewards strengthen certain behaviors by “reinforcing” the mind’s desire for them.

But the key to this is the “reinforcement schedule.” That is, people actually need to experience success and rewards on a regular basis in order for them to be motivating.

When an entrepreneur has the knowledge, they know well enough how long and hard the journey will be. They’ll see their goal as a stupendous task. A long slog. Which means that any sort of positive reinforcement could be years off.

If this is something you’ve had trouble with in the past, there’s an easy way to overcome it.

Just make your first step smaller. Much smaller…

Instead of seeing your first step as “Buy a house,” make it “List three local real estate brokers tomorrow.”

Making your tasks small makes them less scary. And it gives you more opportunities for positive reinforcement.

I reward myself constantly and for almost any sort of accomplishment, big and small. By attaching rewards to my desired behavior, I increase the likelihood that I will repeat that behavior in the future.

Over the years, I developed a reward system that works very well for me. Here it is:

I keep a daily list of every task I want to accomplish. When I complete each task, I cross it out (or change its color on my screen) to “signal” that I have accomplished it. This little gesture is like a tiny shot of endorphins. It picks me up and gives me energy to attack my next objective.

This reward, as you can see, is pretty mundane. But that’s the thing about rewards. They don’t have to be big or even special. They need only be enjoyable.

If you finish your list of real estate brokers, and then change that item on a task list from red to black, you’ll feel more confident taking the next step: calling and interviewing one of those brokers.

Doing this, making your tasks smaller and setting goals so that they’re easily attainable, is the opposite of what some productivity gurus say — the ones who call for big and ambitious goals. And there’s a reason those gurus say it. Many want their customers to fail so they can “sell them extra programs.”

It would be easy for me to consider my color-coded list of small tasks as simply an ordinary part of my day. But by looking at it differently, by seeing it as a source of pleasurable rewards for specific, desired behavior, it motivates me.

I think that is the key — breaking your objectives into smaller and smaller tasks. That way, finishing tasks will make for behavior-changing rewards. And the little pleasures you get from that are blessed gifts. Truly speaking, you are lucky to be able to enjoy them. Be happy about that and use it to your advantage.

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