Don’t rely on willpower to finish your projects. Tell a story instead.

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Photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash

I’ve always had an easy time getting things done. For my entire working life, I’ve worked on multiple projects at once. As an academic, I juggled teaching with research — usually three or four research projects and two or three teaching assignments.

But shortly after I became a solopreneur, I found myself with half a dozen projects in different stages of “done.” I couldn’t seem to finish them. It looked like I’d have nothing to show for all my efforts.

Lots of creative juices were flowing in the wrong direction.

While I worked in my home office, I glanced enviously at what other people were doing. They were writing books, accepting speaking engagements, appearing on podcasts…and they were posting on Facebook about traveling, attending concerts and rescuing dogs at the shelter.

At the same time, I was overwhelmed with ideas. I was in full creative mode but suppressed any opportunity to do what I’d enjoy. I had to finish these projects.

Willpower and guilt just made me a rebel.

Willpower wasn’t working for me. I could reason logically with myself, “Sure I need to get this done. But going to the gym is a virtue too! And it’s such a gorgeous day: the dog will be much calmer if we take an extra walk.”

Accountability buddies didn’t work either. I felt like I’d hired a nanny to send up periodic scolding. Never an obedient person, I resisted being prodded.

The solution came to me when I stepped away for a vacation.

I’d made plans several months before to travel around Europe and visit a couple of places on my bucket list. I couldn’t cancel without incurring huge fees. I had to go.

I felt totally guilty.

Going on vacation when you’re juggling multiple work projects can feel like eating ice cream before dinner. It tastes good but you have that little voice nagging, “This isn’t what’s supposed to happen.

Vacation forced me to replace the old patterns of thinking.

Fortunately, I was too busy to think about work, beyond checking email. I was in too good a mood to be self-critical. I was defining myself as a person who knew how to have fun, not a person who was a non-finisher.s

As you probably guessed, I became insanely productive when I got home. All the projects finished themselves in a matter of weeks. I’d accepted some new assignments that were moving along. And I had time to do things I enjoyed.

I didn’t bring on the willpower. I started telling these stories.

(1) “Why I’m Not REALLY Getting Stuff Done”

My old stories used to begin, “I used to get things done. But now I’m the kind of person who gets distracted and never gets around to finishing.”

That story did two things. First, it reinforced my identity as a non-finisher. Second, it didn’t make me feel good. So I’d go off and do something to cheer myself up.

On vacation, I had to say, “I’m not interested in doing these things right now. Soon a time will come when I’ll be ready.”

No blame, no shame. Just a matter-of-fact statement. It was like writing a story about someone else. Most of us wouldn’t write something mean about a client or friend, yet we have no qualms about berating ourselves at length. Totally unproductive!

(2) “What Would Happen If I Finished This Project”

This story is the single most powerful method to cut through excuses and figure out why you’re not getting things done. It’s all too easy to tell a story that’s guaranteed to kill the motivation.

“Cathy finished writing her book and … now she had to go through the real hassle of self-publishing: finding affordable people who’d do the formatting, editing, and cover design.”

One client who dreaded pitching her ideas for podcast guesting. She realized she was telling herself a story about getting rejected … and even making a fool of herself on the air.

Another client was applying for corporate jobs. His story would end, “And then Thomas was stuck at a desk for sixty hours a week, arguing with an unreasonable boss…”

No wonder his resume never got done.

(3) “My Story Has A Happy Ending”

A lot of people get taught a variation of this technique: Come up with your “why.” Why do you want to finish this project? Do you want a great vacation? A new home? A way to pay off your debts easily?

To be motivational, your story needs 2 things.

Make it real.

You have to believe it’s realistic. Otherwise, you won’t be grabbed at the emotional level, where people begin taking action.

Make it yours.

Your ending must appeal to your own personal style of getting motivated.

I know some business owners who claim they were motivated by fear. “If I don’t make this work, I won’t be able to pay the rent.”

That doesn’t work for me. It’s too scary. I need something small, positive and fun.

When I was writing my thesis for my Ph.D., I never thought about finishing my degree so I could earn more money. People in my field were well-paid and I’ve always been lucky with finding jobs.

But I began to plan my graduation party. I got someone to bake a cake. I designed clever invitations. I reserved the graduate student lounge for the day.

I was determined I’d show up in my cap and gown, ready to party. And I did.

Oh yes, right after the party I went on a six-week trip to Europe. But the party was first and foremost in my mind.

What motivates YOU?

It’s critical to find what motivates you to take inspired action. And that source may be different from what motivates your mentor, your best friend, and your colleagues.

It’s especially important when you’re self-employed on your own. You need a reason to get up each day, go to your desk and go to work.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a huge goal that feels like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow…or if you just want to attend a special conference, move to a new place or just host a party, as I did.

You spend lots of time talking to yourself, telling yourself stories, and asking yourself “why.” Only when you review your stories and recognize the way you talk to yourself can you find your way to motivation that leads to genuine accomplishment.

Motivate yourself by telling the right stories.

Do it with intuition, self-reflection or consultation with a business coach. The wrong story will bring regrets and frustration; the right story will give you access to a whole new world.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

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