Minor Achievements are the Gateway Drug of Productivity

Jeremy Hatch
Not my kitchen (though mine is pretty nice too). Photo by Milly Eaton from Pexels

This morning I was feeling unmotivated and out of sorts, or perhaps it was just laziness. My plans for the morning had fallen through, and I was experiencing the mild dislocation of having unexpected time on my hands: what do I do now? In the absence of any good answer, I tend to putter around the house and feel vaguely guilty, as if I’m playing hooky from something important I could be doing. And then that puts me in a mood where all the things I have been telling people I’m going to do, and have been planning to do, and actually really do want to do, simply sound like too much work even to start on.

So I started cleaning up the kitchen.

This is an old trick I have for breaking a listless mood. Somehow it’s easier for me to start cleaning the kitchen than any other room in the house, perhaps because everything has its place, and it’s so easy to isolate a small area and get it exactly right before moving on to the next. First, the counter where I make coffee and tea. Next the stovetop. And so on.

Each area is small enough that it usually only takes a few minutes, and I only commit to that little piece of it. Yet somehow I always want to do the next little piece after finishing the last one. It’s probably because it’s pleasant to work on an easy problem that has only one correct outcome. It’s always satisfying to behold a nice, clean, tidy kitchen. I always get a small sense of accomplishment at having set even one thing right. And today I ended up doing the whole kitchen, which set me up nicely for working on harder things.

Sweeping up the coffee grounds and wiping down an 18" square section of countertop is not much of an accomplishment, but it seems like my brain doesn’t know the difference between resetting a countertop and writing a blog post. When I stand back and look at my finished work, I feel the exact same sense of pleasure. Of course the glow from a finished piece of writing lasts quite a bit longer, and that’s one reason I don’t just do chores all day. But I think this may be the reason that a small and do-able project like cleaning up the kitchen often propels me into an entire day of productive work. It’s a way to get started that doesn’t require much effort or brainpower, and then once started, it’s hard to stop. I want to get more of that feeling of achievement from something more durable, before the fleeting one from the kitchen evaporates completely.

In fact, after I finished up with the kitchen today, I went straight to my computer to write today’s post. And now I’m moving on to the most complex and satisfying work of my day: four or five hours of teaching music.

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