Burn the Boats

When Hernán Cortés and 600 men arrived in Mexico in 1519, after a long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, he gave a rather interesting order.

Burn the boats.

The Spanish conquistador’s order was given prior to his stunning mission of battling, defeating and plundering the riches of the entire Aztec Empire.

Or so legend has it.

Historical lore also has Alexander the Great using the same strategy with his heavily outnumbered Greek army upon their arrival to Persia.

Burning the boats was also a major strategy in Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise, “The Art of War”.

From the Greeks, to Asia, to Imperial Spain, the strategy of ‘burning the boats’ has been seen throughout history. Why?

How could intentionally destroying your own resources on the eve of battle serve as a strategy for victory?

And what does this bit of military trivia have to do with procrastination?

Image from Jason Fried’s short, inspiring work manifesto, “Rework”

The “burn the boats” strategy — that is, making failure to achieve a desired outcome more painful — is an effective way to ensure victory because it eliminates an important obstacle to accomplishing your goals.

That obstacle is a thought. The thought that if ‘things don’t work out’ you always have an escape plan to fall back on. Knowing you have an escape plan will prevent you from giving every ounce of effort needed for victory.

When you burn the boats you are also igniting a burning desire to succeed. You have no choice. You win or you perish.

So how can you use this strategy to overcome procrastination in your work and life?

Burning the boats in the modern world takes 3 steps.


1. Commit your procrastinated task or project to paper.

Be specific about what you want to accomplish. “Email 10 people about job openings” is a better commitment than “start looking for a job”.

2. Find someone to hold you accountable.

Find a single person or crew of accountability buddies (accountabilibuddies). It helps if your acountabilibuddies have similar aims in life, but this is not necessary.

I recently met a tight group of friends that have been helping each other succeed with their boat burning strategies since high school.

At the beginning of every week all of these friends set their goals and punishments for failing to reach their goals. On Friday, they come back together to see each other’s progress. They celebrate the wins and hold each other accountable for the losses.

3. Decide a punishment for failing to reach your goal.

Q: What does the above mentioned crew use in lieu of burning actual boats?
A: Things they really, really don’t want to happen.

Their punishments span from 4:30am runs to the pouring an entire bottle of expensive red wine onto a favorite shirt.

You may not want to take it as far as these guys, but do make the punishment painful enough to motivate you to action, such as… giving your accountabilibuddy one hour of free access to your Facebook page to thoroughly embarrass you or buying ALL of the drinks when you go out.

And if burning the boats suggestion that I have offered sounds a bit childish, remember this. To accomplish your goals or shape your life, one of the biggest problems you need to solve is getting yourself to do the work.

The most successful athletes, entrepreneurs, writers, programmers, sales people, etc. have figured it out and just pound out what they need to do.

But many others put off their dreams because either fear, lack of motivation or both get in the way.

I hope this little bit of military history will help those who are not to “adult” to know when they need help lighting a fire under their own ass.

You’ve got this. I believe in you.

The complete article was originally published on AsianEfficency.com