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A Surprisingly Powerful Motivational Technique

Do you get discouraged pursuing your side‐project because you can’t find enough time for it?

You wake up. Check your email. You commute. Work. Shop. Cook. Clean. Try to make eye contact with your family and friends as they pass by in their own personal hurricanes. You get into bed, close your eyes and… There’s that alarm clock again. Twenty‐four hours, that’s all you get. And yet we all know people who’ve taken their spare time and carved it into something great: a garden, a small business, an extra qualification or maybe just getting through that list of books they’ve always wanted to read.

If your passion project is gathering dust in a corner of your bedroom or your brain, it may be because you’re thinking, ‘what’s the point? I can’t devote enough time to it to make any progress.’ And so plans get relegated to ‘someday’. And then to ‘maybe someday.’ And then to, ‘when I’ve retired/made a fortune on the stock market/caught up on “Breaking Bad”’.

1. Not enough hours in the day

A Strong Method Of MotivationActuarial student Chris didn’t want to wait for someday to come, so he bit the bullet and signed up for his first fellowship‐level exam. But when the self‐study pack arrived in the mail, he felt his courage shrink. How was he going to read and digest two thick binders of dense technical theory whilst working full‐time? The recommended study time for the course was 200 hours and the exam was only five months away. Forty hours a month? It seemed impossible.

But he’d already paid the exam fee, so Chris was determined to give it a shot. He sat down after work one evening, set his cell phone timer and began at chapter one. When the timer went off, he stuck a piece of cardboard up on the wall above his desk and drew a stroke on it. One hour. It looked lonely.

That first week, Chris only managed to spend four hours studying, but he was determined to do better. He started waking up earlier to study for an hour before breakfast. At the end of the first month, there were 29 strokes on his tally.

It wasn’t enough. Chris started listening to audio notes on the train. He got his boss to let him use the boardroom as a quiet place to go through old exam papers at lunch. If he was interrupted in the middle of an hour, he’d pause his timer. Weekends became routine: Wake up, study. Have breakfast, do laundry, study. Go for a walk, make lunch, study. And every hour he finished he would mark up on his chart.

Every week, Chris tried to do better. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t, but it turned out that competing against himself was enough motivation to get him through those two thick binders. By the time he came to write the exam, Chris had done 238 hours of studying. It won’t surprise you to learn that he passed or that he immediately signed up for the next exam.

2. Apply this technique to your own goals

You may think that putting a lot of time into your project isn’t as important as what you do with that time, and that’s true – but it’s a great place to start. Check up on yourself. Put up a chart, somewhere where you’ll see it everyday, and start counting the hours you’re putting into that goal, the one and tiny voice in your head nags you about.

The truth is, that many people think they’re spending more time on their projects than they actually are (just ask any student how many hours a week she spends studying). Counting your hours may start as a simple check, but it soon turns into a powerful motivational tool.

Here’s why you should be counting your hours:

1) Seeing your tally grow feels good. It may seem hard to believe at first, but you start to crave the little burst of endorphins that comes with adding another hour to the count. It’s a mini‐reward, and well‐deserved rewards keep us motivated.

2) Once you’ve invested thirty or forty hours in a project, you don’t want to see it fail, whether it’s learning guitar, building a website or going from mild‐mannered teacher to kingpin of meth‐distribution in the southern United States. (Seriously, what’s going to
happen on ‘Breaking Bad’?)

3) You’re competitive. When you see, in black and white, exactly how much effort you’ve put in, you’re going to want to beat your record. Very soon, you’ll be coming up with more ways to add hours to your chart. You may be surprised by how quickly they add up.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says that mastering a skill takes 10,000 hours. Why not start counting?

* Full disclosure: Chris is my husband.

lorin van rielLorin van Riel
Lorin is an electrical engineer living in Pretoria, South Africa. She loves her couch, good books and good books about couches. She would like to have a pet rhino but worries it might hog the couch. She thinks you should check out

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