Getting Things Done: The Inner Game

How We Don’t Get Things Done

Today I am going to write about a topic that simultaneously seems ridiculously simple and yet is deeply complex. This isn’t based on any article or book, only my own musings, so you have only me to blame if this makes no sense. The question is: “Why can’t we accomplish our goals? Why can’t we get things done that we tell ourselves we want to do? Why is getting things done so hard?”

After all, think about it this way. If you want to raise your right hand and touch your chin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. You think, “Move your right hand to your chin,” and your hand moves completely predictably and reliably. You don’t forget to do it. You don’t struggle to do it. It is easy, almost effortless.

There are so many other examples where we get things done without apparent effort. You go to a restaurant, order food, and eat. No struggle, no difficulty. You don’t have to make a list of what to do. You don’t make a list; “1. Order food, 2. Eat food, 3. Pay bill.” You don’t check off anything. It all happens without drama or hassle.

So why is it so hard to do things like paying bills, cleaning up the kitchen, or doing financial planning? Why is it so hard to exercise? Who exactly is running the show? Which self says, “You should exercise.” Which self refuses to do so? How many selves do we have?

This is a deep mystery of the self. It’s almost like we have multiple warring selves, some of whom want to accomplish tasks and be productive citizens and some of whom want to sleep all day, or go to the beach, or eat crackers in bed.

How can we make sense of this? I’m going to propose a model for understanding this. It will develop as I write, so hang onto your hats.


The first Big Question we need to examine is What Do We Really Want? Perhaps the problem is that we tell ourselves to do many tasks that we really don’t have any interest or intention of doing.

Why would we do this? Mainly because of social pressure, which we internalize. We are told you should clean up, pay bills, exercise, call your mother…and so on, and we end up internalizing these demands. But do we really want to do any of these things?

So when I tell myself, “You should pay the bills now,” do I really want to do this? I would argue that the behavior that follows answers the question. If I immediately sit down and pay the bills, then I wanted to pay them. But if I struggle, avoid, and don’t pay them without a lot of internal mental friction, then the answer is I didn’t want to pay them. I can force myself to do things that I don’t really want to do, but it’s hard, and takes extra time and effort. I want the bills to be paid, but I don’t want to pay them. That’s a common dilemma—we want the outcomes of an action, but we don’t want to do the action itself.

I am reminded of two stories that shed light on this dilemma. The first is a famous Zen story. A young monk visits the old Zen Master, telling the old master that he wishes to study with him to gain enlightenment. He goes on and on about how great it would be to study with the old master. The old Zen master says “walk with me.” They walk up a hillside, through a forest, and then come to a lake. The old Zen master walks out into the lake. Figuring that this is what Zen masters do, the young monk follows him out into the water. Soon the water is up to their necks. Calmly, the old master reaches out, forces the young monk under water, and holds him there with remarkable strength. The young monk struggles, and just when his lungs are bursting, he fights to the surface, and takes a huge breath. He looks with horror at the old Zen master, who simply smiles calmly and says, “Come back when you want enlightenment as much as you wanted that breath of air.”

Clearly we have no difficulty getting things done when we want those things done as much as the monk wanted that breath of air.

The second story is something I learned from a friend of mine who is a large animal veterinarian. I was always curious about the psychology of large animals like horses and cows. Carol worked with those, but also with more exotic beasts like buffalo. One time she mentioned a “buffalo bridle.” I was curious about what kind of bridle could be strong enough to control a buffalo, and asked her about it.

She looked at me with a sly smile, as if to say, “What a city slicker you are!” Then she explained that the buffalo bridle was not a thing, but rather something you know. Falling for it, I asked the obvious question: what do you need to know to control buffalo?

She said, “You only need to know two things.”

“What are they?” I asked.

“The first thing is that you can make a buffalo go anywhere you want…

as long as the buffalo wants to go there.”

“And let me guess the second principle,” I said. “You can keep a buffalo out of anywhere you want…. as long as they don’t want to go there.”

“Exactly!” she said.

So that’s another clue. We are a lot like buffalo. We get lots of things done, mainly the things we want to. And we are really good at not doing the things we don’t want to do.

So there you have it, a simple theory of why we get things done or don’t get things done. The things we get done easily are the things we wanted to do, and the rest is just a bunch of internalized “shoulds” that we never really wanted to do in the first place. In this radical notion there is nothing wrong with our “getting things done” mechanism. We simply have to stop fooling ourselves that we want to get all these things done. Accept our limited ambitions, and be done with it!

But there is a problem with this elegant and simple model. If this model is right, then what do we do? How can we get things done? It wouldn’t really work very well if everyone stopped doing the things they don’t want to do, like paying bills, cleaning the dishes, taking out the garbage, going to meetings, and so on. Unfortunately, sometimes we really need to do the things we don’t particularly want to do, like working at job, for an example.

Yet there is a simple allure to this model. And maybe we can use it to sort out the genuine wants from shoulds in our lives. Here’s an exercise. Take out a piece of paper right now. Make four columns vertically. In the first column list all of the tasks you find hard to get done. You can stop after 10 or so.

Next, label the second column “Want Rating.” In this column I want you to rate the degree to which you want to do each thing. This is your genuine desire to do the task, not the degree to which you think you should do it. Use a 0-10 scale where 10 is intense wanting.

In the next column rate the degree of should that you feel about the task. Again use a 0-10 scale.

Now look over the tasks where the rating for want is low, and should is high. In the last column write down what would happen if you never did the task. What would be the consequences?

This exercise can help sort out the wheat from the chaff, and help us eliminate thankless tasks or at least outsource them. For instance, I hate mowing the lawn, and can’t think of anything I’d rather not do instead. So I pay a gardener to do it. And I hate paying bills, so I don’t. Instead, I have most of my bills automatically deducted from my checking account or Visa card. If we analyzed all of our lives this way, perhaps we could spend more time doing our wants, and less time doing shoulds, and thus find happiness.

But let’s continue on our journey into the land of getting things done. Another question we need to ask is how can we want to do certain tasks? How do we increase our wanting? How do we become like that monk who desperately wants that next breath of air?

A Brief Digression into the Language of Wanting

But before I discuss that I want to take a slight detour through the intellectual forest, and talk about how we figure out what we want and perhaps more important, what we don’t want.

People often talk about doing things in terms of “having to.” “I have to go to work today. I have to take out the garbage, I have to pay the bills, I have to exercise, I have to take the kids to school.” Then there are other things that we don’t use this language about. No one really says, “I have to do the crossword puzzle, or I have to watch TV, or I have to kiss you.” But the truth is that the words “have to” don’t mean what they say. I don’t really have to go to work today. I don’t have to pay the bills. I can let the kids stay home and watch television. I can even let the garbage rot in the pail.

But we choose to do these things, mainly because we don’t want the negative consequences of not doing them. I don’t like the smell of rotting garbage, nor do I like bill collectors or truant officers banging on the door. The reason we don’t use the “have to” formulation for doing crossword puzzles, or watching television is because we enjoy them, and there are no negative consequences for not doing them.

Another difference is between process and outcome. Tasks that are easy are usually fun during the process of doing them, and have a good outcome. So watching a good show on television is fun during the watching, and leads to a satisfying outcome, assuming you are not watching the cliffhanger “24.” But paying bills is a mostly thankless process, and the only outcome is that you are poorer.

Another distinction is that easy tasks lead to some reward in the outcome, while hard tasks often the outcome is simply the lack of any negative outcome. When I pay bills, at the end I am a little poorer, and my creditors richer. All I have accomplished is to avert financial disaster.

So what happens if we change the inner and outer language we use? What happens if instead of saying “I have to _____” we instead say, “I choose to do_____” or even “I choose not to do _____?”

What is interesting is that saying “I choose not to do ____” is very powerful. It forces one to confront one’s actions as a conscious choice, rather than pretending that forces beyond your control are determining your actions.

And sometimes, when we say, “I choose not to do ____” we discover that that is just fine. For instance, my garage is a mess, but this weekend I choose not to clean it up. Instead I will take a bike ride.

Capitalism is to some extent based on altering what people choose to do. Forbes recently had a survey of the highest paying jobs in the United States. Almost all of them were medical jobs. Surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists, and oral surgeons were all on the list. CEO’s were actually a little lower on the list.

Let’s think about this. We tend to think of these as good jobs. But let’s get real. Surgeons stick their hands inside the bloody guts of sick people. Anesthesiologist watch people sleep and try not to fall asleep themselves. Dentist and oral surgeons poke around people’s smelly mouths with small sharp tools. In order to get people to take on high stress, bloody, and often disgusting jobs, we pay them really well. Imagine if these jobs paid $40,000 a year. No one would do them. Most jobs that pay well require either lots of training, high stress, or great talent, and people are willing to work towards these jobs because they pay well. Salary is one way we get people to want to do things more than they would otherwise want to do them.

I often do a mental experiment with clients. When they are struggling to get something done, I ask them if they could do it if, upon completion, I wrote them a one million dollar check (and the check wouldn’t bounce.) Invariably, they say they would have no problem. So this tells us that one of the challenges of getting things done is that hard tasks have inadequate rewards. Or the rewards are too far off in the future to matter much. If I tell them instead of giving them a million dollars on completion, I will pay them 30 years later, then my offer loses most of its appeal.

How to Alter What We Want

So if my simple model is correct and we fail to accomplish things because we don’t want them enough, how do we change our wanting?

It seems that the key is to understand the basic principles that make us want to do things. Those things we do easily either are pleasant and fun during the actual process of doing them, or they have powerful rewards that follow their completion.

So understanding this we can begin to think about modifying tasks so that we can get them done. The first step is to improve the actual process of doing the task. For many boring, repetitive tasks, the easiest way to do this is to add another activity you do simultaneously. For instance, I usually clean the kitchen while on my headset phone talking with my mom or my brother long distance. This makes the experience almost painless, and I also benefit from staying in touch with people I love.

Or I will watch a baseball or football game on TV while sorting and filing papers. I have a rolling filing cabinet which I roll out into the living room, and this makes filing fairly painless.

Or I will listen to a podcast while grocery shopping.

Almost any task can be improved by adding good music, or an audiobook to the background.

The other strategy for lowering the aversiveness of tasks is time. If instead of trying to do an hour or two of boring paperwork, I instead break it down into 5 or 10 minute pieces, I can tolerate that much more easily. Some tasks are just too annoying to tolerate for very long, so breaking them down into smaller pieces makes good sense.

Another strategy is to change the reward structure. Let’s say you have 4 hours of filing to do. Although your papers will be filed at the end of the day, this is too small a reward to really motivate. You could break it down into 10 minute pieces, but this would mean you’d be still filing in 2050! The best strategy here is to create an artificial reward structure. Establish a reward you get when finished. Maybe you get to buy that Ipod Shuffle ™ you didn’t really need. I like to think in terms of an hourly rate of pay, even for nonwork tasks. I’ve set mine at $30 per hour, so after a four hour task I get to spend $120. Yours might be higher or lower, just be sure it’s high enough so that you are motivated. Pay yourself well for scut work!

This is the end of Part 1. In the next Part I will talk about the perils of prediction, the limitations of memory, and I’ll comment on the official Getting Things Done system.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

1 thought on “Getting Things Done: The Inner Game

  1. Good stuff! Clear and down to earth. However, the suggested approaches seem like they would work best for “mindless” chores, not for more mentally challenging assignments at work. At least the examples given so far seem more of the chore variety. How to apply the techniques to more involved tasks like writing essays on psychology? 🙂

    For the self-reward approach, how do we keep ourselves from cheating and giving ourselves the promised treat even when the task is not finished? If the answer to that is willpower, then how do we develop willpower?

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