Here are six techniques I used to coach marathon runners to get from the start line to the finish line, that you can use to move your list from “To Do” to “Done”

  1. Understand your big goal.
  2. Check your motivation.
  3. Give yourself a series of timed check points.
  4. Make some progress.
  5. Use visual cues.
  6. Incorporate rituals.

1. Understand your big goal.

Our big goal is to run 42k in a target time. To get there we need to meet some process goals (like training regularly) and some outcome goals (like hitting 10k at your pace time). Only things which move us to the big goal make it onto the list, anything else is irrelevant. Look at your To Do list and double-check that it relates to the big goal. How do “check email” and “attend weekly meeting” relate to your big goal?

2. Check your motivation.

Why are you doing this? How does it directly relate to you, and who you are? What turns “ought” into “have to”, or a duty into a necessity, for you. If you’re mostly extrinsically motivated, you’ll need some recognition from other people – make sure you get some. Intrinsically motivated people are more interested in mastering a subject, and having control over how they achieve this. Use this motivation to errr.. motivate yourself. Seriously, it’s easy to forget what’s driving you sometimes, don’t get bogged down in the minute to minute, day-to-day stuff, remember why you’re here and use it as a touchstone.

3. Give yourself a series of timed check points

The big goal might be to run 42km in 3 hours 40 minutes, but you need some check points along the way. You need them to check progress according to your time plan, and also to give yourself a pat on the back as you hit these mini goals. It’s important to review how far you’ve come, not just how far you have to go. Don’t actually try patting yourself on the back while you’re running, you’ll probably fall over.

4. Make some progress

Sometimes you just have to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. You’ve hit a wall and run out of mental tricks to motivate yourself. As Winston Churchill once said, “if you’re going through Hell, keep going”. Take a step, then another step. Walk when you get to a drinks station, but don’t stop. Do something, anything, however small, that advances you. Adjust the timing , but keep the momentum, and don’t stop. It takes sooo much effort to get going again.

5. Use visual cues

We looked at a map and turned it into an itinerary. “At 2 hours I’m running past the Berlin Opera house”. “My support group will be cheering me on at 13 miles, I can see my wife waving a banner.”

To Do list - personal kanban

My to do list is a personal Kanban – tasks move through from Backlog to Done

Here’s my visual system for work. It’s called a personal kanban – it’s ridiculously simple. Open tasks sit underneath each heading – I’ve removed them here, because you wouldn’t be able to read my writing so you can’t see my top-secret plans . I’ve found Apps and NagWare like Outlook tasks don’t work for me, because they’re static and a “Done” task just disappears. With this, one task moves from the Backlog column, through Doing, to Done. It feels more dynamic and lets me know what I’ve achieved, as well as what’s to do, which motivates me more. There are never more than five yellow sticky notes under the “Doing” sticky note.

6. Incorporate rituals

If you can make anything a habit, you don’t have to think about it. Marathoners will wear the same running shoes and use the same energy drinks or gels. They also run through the same check list before a long run or a race. Some runners have mantras that they will use to get into the right state.  They choose what to incorporate into their rituals. Some serving suggestions for you:

  • Make a review of your To Do list the night before,
  • Rehearse the first 5 minutes when you brush your teeth.
  • Remind yourself of your bigger goal before you start the day
  • Get one of the items on your list done before you dive into your email.
  • When you have your first coffee or tea, use that time to reflect on progress to date.

Feel free to make your own up, and let me know how you did.