Motivation Hack: Small Wins, Premature Overwhelm, and the Power of Getting Started

small winsLet’s be honest here.

At times, motivation can be damn hard to come by.

We want it. We crave it. We need it. But it often leaves us hanging out in the dust.

Lack of motivation appears to be a bottleneck for many people. According to surveys I’ve done, we strongly believe that lack of motivation is one of the greatest obstacles we face on our journey to a better body and a better life.

And I can definitely agree with that.

So here’s what’s going to happen.

Today I’m going to show you a really cool strategy that you can use to consistently dig up motivation even when it seems like it’s not there. It’s a simple strategy that you can learn how to use to motivate yourself to do anything.

And that’s the trick – learning how to motivate yourself. Because once you know how to do that, you won’t ever need to depend on external sources of motivation to get things done.

My goal is not to give you a fish. My goal is to teach you to fish.

The former will feed you for a day. The ladder will feed you for life. And I want to feed you motivation for life.

So let’s jump right into it.

Let me show you a simple motivation hack that’s as easy as getting started.

The Power of Getting Started

To demonstrate and exemplify the power of this motivation hack, I’m going to start off by sharing a day in my life. This happened a few weeks back…

It was a long day at work, like many others.

But poor sleep, rainy weather, and dark skies had me feeling lazy and tired all day. Two shots of espresso couldn’t even get me going.

When I finally got home, the last thing on my mind was working out. I wanted to. I even planned it earlier in the day. I knew it was something I should do. But I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. 

All I wanted to do was pour myself a glass of wine, crash on the couch, and catch up on some Breaking Bad episodes.

But here’s what I did instead…

I convinced myself to do something small and simple: to put on my shoes and go outside.

I didn’t think about where I was going or what I was going to be doing. I just focused on putting on my shoes, locking the door behind me, and stepping outside. 

That’s it. One simple task. Done.

When I stepped outside, I took a deep breath and looked around.

I told myself “Srdj, you’re outside. You might as well start walking”.

And so I did. I didn’t think about where I was walking, how fast I was walking, or how long I was going to be walking for.

I just walked.

Again, another small task complete. Check.

With every step I took, however, I felt a small jolt of energy rush through my body and suddenly I started to pick up the pace. My walk quickly turned into a brisk jog.

Game over.

The ball of motivation had reached its critical mass and I was rolling on all cylinders.

Before I knew it, I was running hard. As I ran by a park, I jumped on the bars and started doing bodyweight exercises on the playground. Dips, chin-ups, pull-ups, air squats, push-ups, you name it.

My muscles were aching. My heart rate was up. And I was bursting with energy.

I jogged back home with a big smile on my face.

After all, this was all planned.

Do you see what happened there?

I went from wanting to do absolutely nothing to going for a run and doing a high-intensity bodyweight workout in the park.

And all it took was a small, simple, and mindless task to get me started.

The act of putting on shoes and stepping outside is all it took. That action turned into a walk, a walk turned into a brisk jog, a brisk jog turned into a full out run, and a run turned into an intense calisthenics workout in the park.

That’s what I call a perfectly executed motivation hack: do something small to get started and let the motivation snowball effect take its course.

And you can use this hack to get yourself to do absolutely anything.

Don’t feel like making lunch for tomorrow? Just take some vegetables out of the fridge and start washing them. Before you know it, you’ll be dicing, chopping, and prepping enough food for the week.

Don’t feel like driving all the way to the gym? Just get in your car and start driving (hint: your stuff should already be in the trunk). Before you know it you’ll be pumping supersets at the gym like there was no tomorrow.

So why exactly does this work?

Small Wins and Premature Overwhelm

Here’s the key to making this hack work:

Do not think about the task as one big item. 

Instead, break your task into tiny little pieces and only think of the piece that’s right in front of you.

It’s kind of like driving in foggy weather. Even though you can only see 5ft in front of you, you still manage to get home dozens of kilometers away. That’s because you’re focusing only on one 5ft distance a time.

What this strategy does is it takes advantage of a psychological productivity hack known as small wins

Small wins are exactly what they sound like – small accomplishments. And they are incredibly powerful. I’ll explain.

Breaking a task down into tiny pieces and focusing solely on one at a time has two benefits.

The first benefit is that it eliminates what my favorite personal finance guru Ramit Sethi calls premature overwhelm.

What often happens is we overwhelm ourselves with a humongous task before we even get started. We think of all the things we’ll have to do to achieve that task and intimidate ourselves into paralysis. We scare ourselves into inaction. And then we claim we don’t have the motivation to do it.

By breaking that big task down into tiny pieces and focusing on one small and simple action a time, you eliminate the feeling of premature overwhelm.

You have one small, simple thing to do and you do it.

That’s why so many people use lists to boost their productivity.

But let’s get back to small wins.

Here’s the second benefit of breaking things down into tiny pieces: small wins build momentum.

The act of completing a simple little task, no matter how tiny, is incredibly motivating. Just a simple check-mark beside an item on a list can be enough to power you through the next step.

Every simple task that you complete builds on to the previous completion, creating a massive snowball of motivation.

And this can be extremely powerful.

So where does this leave us?

What we’ve done here is we’ve built a fool-proof system for defeating the obstacle known as lack of motivation.

You now know exactly what to do when it strikes: do something small and let the process unfold.

Your Task for Today

Here’s what I want you to do.

Think about a common task that you often find yourself making excuses for why you’re not doing it. It can be going to the gym, preparing lunch, doing groceries, going for a walk, or whatever.

Grab a pen and paper and go through the system we just outlined:

Break your big task down into tiny pieces.

At the top of the page, write down exactly what the task is that you’re having trouble accomplishing.

Then, in the space that follows, break that task down into tiny pieces. In order, write down the exact little steps you need to take to eventually complete the task.

How do you know how small to go?

Simple: if you still feel overwhelmed by any individual piece, you haven’t broken your task down into small enough pieces. Each piece should be so simple that it almost requires no thought. Example: putting on shoes is such a small and simple piece that it requires no thought.

Keep this list on file somewhere. Don’t lose it.

Get started with the first small piece without any thought of what’s ahead.

The next time you feel like you’re lacking the motivation to complete that task, grab your list.

DO NOT look at it as a whole. Look at the first action item and do it. Follow the first few steps this way and allow the snowball effect to take care of the rest.

Use small wins to build your snowball of motivation and power through each piece.

Before you click away, here’s what I want you to do.

Scroll down to the comment section below and tell me how lack of motivation effects your life. What is it preventing you from doing? And what are you doing to conquer it?

And, if you found this post useful, hook a brother up and share it with your social circles. I’d really appreciate it.



16 thoughts on “Motivation Hack: Small Wins, Premature Overwhelm, and the Power of Getting Started”

  1. Hey Srdjan, just today I am crushing below numerous tasks at work, I don’t know when I’m gonna finish, I am going to a business trip tomorrow. All I want right now is to finish this and to go home to see my wife and 2 sons.
    So…. I broke this big task into small pieces and started devouring them. I will finish soon and feel good about it 🙂
    When I was reading your blog the other day I was thinking how it would be great if you give us some tips about the motivation. People need just a small “push” to start.
    Thanks for your motivation letter. 🙂

    1. That’s awesome Senad! Way to put the words into action.
      And isn’t it crazy how I’m able to read your mind? 🙂
      PS – I got some more motivation stuff coming up soon. Stay tuned!

  2. Srdjan, your article just describes my life. I am constantly overwhelm, but today in the morning broke that pattern just doing exactly what you say. Thanks for your articles, they are a constant source of practical wisdom. Blessings

  3. Your tips and ideas constantly hit the right note for me. I always find the hardest thing when working out is changing into my workout clothes. ( I really do not like wearing my workout clothes) Silly, I know, but once I find the motivation to get changed, I am committed. I shall now think of this article and break things down into smaller bits, remembering that the goal at the end will be worth all of these smaller bits.

    1. Karmon, the hardest thing about completing any task is getting started (even if it’s just changing into your clothes). It’s a huge barrier for us. But that’s because we’re always thinking about all the other things we have to do. By breaking tasks down into tiny pieces you effectively work your way around this barrier. You eliminate that feeling of dread.

      Let me know how it works for you!

  4. My lack of motivation is going to the I keep thinking about what I’m going to do the next day and that brings my motivation down and I keep making excuses

    1. That’s normal Jason. That’s exactly what premature overwhelm is. We think about the big picture and scare ourselves into not taking action.

      Try the task I outlined: break your next goal/task into tiny pieces and only focus on one piece at a time. See if it makes a difference. Then come back here and report your findings. Cheers!

  5. Srdjan,

    I face this type of situation (lacking motivation to train) all the time when I’m busy at work. What I find works well for me is taking that “first step” out of the office during my lunch hour and training then.

    That way, I don’t even leave it until after work when my willpower reserves are low and even if I end up having a super long day, I got my training in beforehand.

    Great post!


  6. Great article, Srdjan. Really liked your description of how just putting on your shoes and walking out the door led to a world of change.

    Many times we think that a workout has to start out and continue with 100% effort in order to be effective. But I’ve found that starting out slowly and then ramping up intensity based on how my body feels is much more satisfying both physically and psychologically. I call it the ‘Wave Workout’.

    That deep level of enjoyment naturally motivates me to keep working out. At 62, I’ve found that deep enjoyment is the key to achieve anything in life. Discipline and a hundred other mind tricks can produce results for a limited period of time. But finding a way to experience deep enjoyment in an activity is the recipe for lasting success.

  7. Great article. I am a single mom so I workout from home using DVDs. Many times I reach only as far as changing my clothes and shoes into workout gear and that’s it…never really move on to push “play”. ”Thanks for this article…..

    1. Jenelle, I think it’s important that you find what your trigger is – something small enough that you can do that will trigger action and get you to push that play button.

  8. I just ‘force’ myself. Many times I need more force! I will definitely try your small step approach and I know 100% that it would work.. even if we only do the ‘step outside’ part.. its a start and the next time (which might be when more time is available) one might find themselves down the street. *I just did a small step here this morning.. between writing this post. My bible, sat on the shelf, I walked down the hall to shut of an alarm I swing by my room and took it and put it on my bed. Step one: check!! <3 Thanks Srdjan. So far your blog has done what I had hoped it would… to motivate. 🙂

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