## Assigning Finishing Times Prior to Starting Tasks

I made a realization about motivation when I was working with my kids: there is a lot of power in assigning the finishing time of a task prior to doing the task. That is, it can be really helpful to know when you can stop because you have done enough. I give you five examples.

1. What prompted this realization is an effort I made to make my house cleaner. My wife and I have been trying to get our kids to pick things up for years without much success. We finally found a system that works. We have clean-up time every night (that I remember to have clean-up time, which hasn’t been often lately. This is the flaw in the plan). The fundamental rule is: you can’t clean up anything after the time is up. So we remind ourselves of the fundamental rule before we clean, we pick a random integer $x$ from $\{2,3,4,5,6\}$, we set the timer for $x$ minutes, and then we clean until the timer goes off. We then stop cleaning, I throw each kid into the air as high as I can (trust me—they find this fun), and we go on with our lives.

Our house gets cleaner, and there are minimal complaints from the kids.

2. My wife is good at cleaning things; I am not. She often asks me to do things like clean out our file system (with her help). I normally avoid this—I hate it. However, about two months ago she asked me to spend thirty minutes cleaning up our file system with her. This was no problem for me—I didn’t have the avoiding behavior at all. We cleaned for thirty minutes, and we basically did everything that we needed to do with the file system.
3. This is an important feature of Robert Talbert’s approach to grading. One important point is that you split up the grading into 15 minute chunks (e.g. “I will grade four students’ papers”, or “I will grade one question from the midterm”), and you just work on one 15 minute chunk at a time. Once you have done a chunk, you have no obligation to move on for a while—you can do something else. This helped me a lot.
4. I have pre-defined times when I work. I leave the house at 7 am, and I am back home by 5 pm. I do not work past 5 pm (except for semi-rare special events). I work hard all day in part because I know that it will end.
5. My college has a great program to education faculty and staff on diversity issues called “Becoming Community.” There are about 10 events per semester. One thing that is kind of genius is that they give a “certificate” to anyone who attends five events over the course of the year. I do not care about the certificate—I am not one to put such things on my wall (although I might make an exception for this one, since it might be helpful if students saw it). However, I am convinced that I am attending more events because of the certificate. Again, the certificate itself doesn’t matter to me; what matters to me is that they defined “enough” (as “five events”).

I am interested in this stuff in general, but I do not want to go to an event each week (I have too many other things that need to get done). If they did not have the certificate series, I probably would have gone to three of these events. Because they told me that five is “enough,” I am likely to go to six or seven. There is some psychology here—I know that I am going to fail at making all of them, but I know that I can make five.

I have found in all of these examples that it is really useful to let yourself know when you can quit without feeling guilty. Now I need to exploit that more. This is probably well-known among psychologists—let me know in the comments what psychologists can tell us about this. Basically, I think that I (we?) are sometimes afraid that a task will go on forever, and it is useful to know that it will end (and soon!). Also, I know that this is similar to the part of GTD where you determine the next “action” of a “project.”

There is one added benefit: I sometimes work longer than I need to. That is, I might grade two chunks of assignments instead of stopping at one chunk when using Talbert’s method (note: my kids never continue cleaning after the time is up, but that is fine!). As my dad often says: “The hardest part of painting a house is opening up the first can of paint.” It is much easier to start if you think that don’t think about having to paint the entire house.

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