Motivating to do the things you calendared

March 11, 2024

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A woman emailed me asking me about having the self-discipline to do the task you calendared when the time rolls around. Let’s discuss!

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Full Transcript

 Episode 45. Motivation

[Upbeat Intro Music]

Kelly Nolan: Welcome to The Bright Method Podcast where we’ll discuss practical time management strategies designed for the professional working woman. I’m Kelly Nolan, a former patent litigator who now works with women to set up The Bright Method in their lives. The Bright Method is a realistic time management system that helps you manage it all, personally and professionally. Let’s get you falling asleep proud of what you got done today and calm about what’s on tap tomorrow. All right, let’s dig in!


Hey, hey! All right, so today we are going to talk about motivation, and I’m sure that this is a topic that will come up again in some other episode. But the reason I’m talking about it today is I got a question from one of you, and the question is:

“I feel like for all time management and productivity systems there is a high component of self-discipline involved. I can put stuff on my calendar, yet if I don’t make myself do what the calendar says then it doesn’t matter. I find that one of the things I struggle with the most is the motivation and self-discipline to actually get things done. This is also the voice of an epic procrastinator, and hard external deadlines are often the only true motivator. Some major internal reframing is in order for me, personally, which is a work in progress, and I don’t expect you to solve what is a giant issue for many in one email blast. But I’d be curious about your take on the self-discipline aspect as I suspect it may be a slightly different perspective than others I’ve read.”

So I think there is a lot that goes into this and that it’s very person-specific. So I’m gonna throw a lot of very random, unrelated things at you, [Laughs] and take what you want, leave the rest. Everything I say is not supposed to apply to every single person. It’s a little bit of a what works for you, take it, and leave the rest.

Clarity is Motivating – 1:45

So the first thing I want to say is that clarity is motivating, and what I mean by that is when I think about (I really am obviously biased) time management, I think about The Bright Method. So focusing on The Bright Method and just kind of giving you insight into my approach to this issue is that, in its most simplistic form, in the highest-level overview of what The Bright Method is, is it’s calendaring everything that you need to do in your calendar, and that gives you clarity on, “This is everything I need to do in my calendar spread out over time. I’ve built in flex time so I have some confidence that I can absorb the day-to-day challenges that are thrown at me. I can see that it’s a realistic amount of work, I can see how it all comes together, and for the most part, I understand what I’m supposed to be doing, generally, in each part of the day.

When you’ve done all of that, you have a lot of clarity over how all this stuff is gonna get done and what you should be doing in kind of each step of your day. When you have that clarity, to me in my experience and experiences I’ve seen with clients, it’s a lot less about discipline and more about just seeing as a more neutral perspective how it all comes together.

I, myself, am motivated by facts and data, so if I can see this is how this task is going to happen, “If I do it at this time, then I get to do this other thing but hopefully it’s just a fun thing or some rest or whatever it might be,” that helps me motivate because I’m like, “This is the data. I see that I’m gonna do it now. I have the clarity that everything else can get done later. I don’t feel pulled in a thousand directions. If I can just bang this out, then I’m done, and I can move onto the next thing.”

That’s motivating to me. I don’t know particularly why, but the clarity around how I’m supposed to use my time and the peace of mind that gives me is motivating. So it’s less about white-knuckled disciplining and forcing myself to do it and more about just an understanding.

I am not saying this is for everyone. I know that people struggle with this beyond that, but I wanted to throw it out there for some people is if you don’t have clarity on how you’re gonna get everything done and how you’re supposed to spend the hours of your day (and by supposed to I mean that you designed it out), then that might be a reason why you struggle with motivation. Because I get that. When I still have pockets of time where I get overwhelmed and I’m like, “What am I even supposed to be doing,” and things like that, I don’t feel motivated. I feel kind of frozen or like it’s just too much and I feel that heavy feeling, where if I work through the process of The Bright Method and get that clarity, it’s far more energizing for me. So I’m not saying it solves it for everyone, but if you can relate to that kind of feeling of overwhelm, of, “How am I gonna get all this done? I don’t even know what to do. I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.” By getting clarity, I feel like that brings with it motivation, inherently.

I’ve had other clients make comments like, “I’m finding it more easy to jump out of bed in the morning because I know what I’m supposed to do,” where before, when it felt very daunting and almost like that looming unknown, the uncertainty feeling of, “What am I supposed to even be doing today? Can I get it all done?” that feeling, it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning. And to me, that represents whether you have motivation and energy in those moments or not in a very understandable way. If I didn’t know what today would look like, staying in bed sounds pretty good. When I have the clarity, it’s a lot easier to get out of bed and be excited for the day, and I’ve had clients reiterate that.

Now, I also want to throw out there that that’s not everyone. Some clients love owning their slower morning wakeups and all that kind of stuff, and that’s awesome too. But I also think they can enjoy it more because they’ve owned it, because they have clarity about the rest of their plan. So this is not a piece of advice to jump out of bed and get going right way. It’s just to own it in whatever it looks like for you, having clarity around your schedule allows you to be more motivated. So that’s point one, to me, is why I believe that The Bright Method is less about discipline and more about clarity and that motivation follows clarity. It’s just easier to feel excited when you know what you’re supposed to be doing.

Bite-Sized Steps – 5:56

Okay, point two is unrelated, well kind of related: bite-sized steps. I truly believe that it is easier to motivate to do something when that something is something small and attainable and, again, small enough that you have clarity over what is the thing. This is something that I think of if people have tried time blocking before or even on their to-do lists they write something just like, “Today, I’m gonna work on project A,” that’s hard to motivate for because project A is likely something really big, something that you know is not gonna get done today, something that you know is gonna take months and months and months. There’s a lot of uncertainty around it, and that’s hard to motivate to start doing.

Whereas, if instead, you had on your to-do list or in your calendar, “Outline XYZ issue for project A,” that feels more doable. That feels like, “Okay, I know what that looks like. I know when I’ll be done with that.” It’s just easier to motivate for because it’s not such a heavy lift. It doesn’t feel so daunting to look at that task because there’s more clarity around it, there’s more action around that you can take. You know what to do. You sit down and you know what to do versus, if it’s just project A, you’re like, “I don’t know. I don’t know what this is supposed to be. I don’t know how long I’m gonna work on this today. I don’t know what success will look like at the end of this, and so, I don’t even want to start.”

And so, that’s the difference here is really breaking things down into the bite-sized steps. Start your task with that action verb. You know, instead of, “Project A,” it’s “Outline XYZ issue,” “Draft XYZ issue,” “Email this person about that thing.” Using an action verb at the beginning will push you into breaking it down into those bite-sized steps that will help you gain clarity on what you’re doing during that time and help future you have more motivation to do it when the time comes because it’s a more doable thing.

Stay Flexible – 7:49

All right, point three is stay flexible with this. This is really important because I think that often when I talk about calendaring things and putting it all in there, people envision the structure, the rigidity of what a snapshot of my calendar looks like, and I just think that, this is a bit of a different issue, but people don’t like living that rigidly and can’t often. I mean, curveballs hit, personal and professional, and we can’t live that rigidly.

So I want to throw this out there just in general to know that The Bright Method is flexible. I really believe that if you don’t feel like doing something, find another home for it that works. Maybe bring something else up into that now-vacant spot, and just play out your new plan. It’s just a neutral change in the plan. You just play it out.

This is important in this conversation because, to me, we can be motivated to do certain types of work or certain things and not others. And so, if you roll up in your calendar on something and you’re like, “I don’t really feel like doing this,” and you have — just know I’m kind of jumping ahead, but you have the option to move it. Find a new time, as I said, move things around and then play out this new plan, that’s great.

On the alternative, you could view this as a discipline issue, like you should force yourself to do that thing because you calendared it, and if you don’t do it now, then that means you are bad, essentially, and you didn’t have enough discipline, which is a really bad feeling to have, and it’s likely taking you longer to do the thing than it would have at another time because you just don’t want to do it. You feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. It’s taking longer. You’re not in the flow.

And so, what I want you to hear is if you can find a new time for the task that works, it can still get done in time. Maybe you do something else that you do feel like doing during that now-vacated time. Do that. To me, there’s no win in white knuckling through something you didn’t feel like doing if you could have moved it. And so, I just want to throw out there and remind everybody to be flexible and follow your energy. As best you can, work with your energy and follow it instead of resisting it and just demanding that you discipline through something.

Okay, so far, we’ve talked about how clarity is motivating, breaking things down into bite-sized steps, and remembering to be flexible. If you can move things around (which I find most of the time you can), do it. There are times where you can’t, and you are gonna force yourself to do it. But to me, there is no badge of honor in forcing yourself to do things more often than necessary.

So, of course, there are times where we have to do it, and we’ll talk about that as we keep going, but just know that if you can move it, do it. I’m a big proponent of that. Work with your energy. Follow your energy. We do our best to plan assuming that we know kind of where our energy’s gonna be at given times, but sometimes we’re surprised. Sometimes you have a shift in what you’re interested in and try to follow it as best you can.

Honor Your Energy Levels – 10:45

Okay, the next step to me is your just general energy levels. To me, when I have energy, one of the most noticeable things to me is that I’m more motivated to do things, where when I’m tired, I am not motivated to do things. Even if I have this beautiful calendar, if my energy is not there, I’m not motivated. Just to kind of follow that point to its end, that is when I would move things around. If I can, I’m gonna move as much as I can into a different time and readjust my plans given my lack of energy.

But let’s also just talk about energy in general. I’ve talked about this a lot, so I’m not gonna go into it in a lot of detail. But to me, protecting our energy is really important. And so, sleep is obviously critical. It’s critical to motivation and energy, and so, I prioritize it and just not the number of hours of sleep but the quality of it.

So in terms of the numbers of hours of sleep, I do encourage clients to calendar sleep. I know that sounds weird. It’s not to, again, be super rigid. But it’s a very important part of our life, and you need to see if you’re protecting sufficient time, you need to think about when you want to start winding things down so that you get in bed for that period of time, all that kind of stuff. I also think it’s really important to see, if you have an early morning coming up or you have a late night, as you shift that block of sleep around, you see, “Oh, I’ve got to go to bed early the night before,” or “Oh, I’m gonna need to be able to sleep in the next morning,” and you can adjust in advance versus just not thinking that through and then getting way too little sleep.

In terms of the quality of sleep, I’ve shared about this before. I’ll link to a podcast episode on The Year of Ease, but I’ve cut out most of my drinking. I only drink probably once every three to four to five weeks. It just has a major impact on my energy, and I would say one of the biggest things I’ve noticed is my motivation. Even if I just have a glass of wine, my motivation the next day is shot. It’s not just motivation to be productive. It’s my general ability to be present and enjoy whatever I’m doing, whether that’s being productive or just enjoying my life even if I’m just sitting there by myself or being with my kids or things like that. It has a major impact on just my general experience and motivation and ability to be present and prickliness, I would say, is a big one.

And so, I just want to throw that out there that if you are someone who really struggled in the motivation department and your sleep is not where you want it, that is probably the first place I would start is less about time management from a calendar perspective and more on a how do we improve the quality of your sleep and just help you get more energy generally.

That will be game changing for you if you can get your sleep under control and where you want it. That will have major ripple effects on your motivation more than anything else that I talk about. So just wanted to throw that out there. Again, I’ll link to that Year of Ease podcast episode in the show notes so that if you want to check that out, you can!

High-Energy Windows – 13:47

Speaking of energy, the next point is high-energy windows. So we were talking about energy generally. The high-energy windows are where I think about when is your energy best. I’ve talked about this before, but if you matchmake your energy (low-energy tasks to low-energy windows and high-energy tasks to high-energy windows), that’s a good rule of thumb to help you kind of stay in flow.

And so, that’s a good baseline just to throw that out there. But I also want to throw it out there that sometimes if you’ve been rolling over tasks again and again and again, it might be a low-energy task and you’ve been putting it in low-energy windows. But you keep getting to those tasks and you don’t want to do it, and because you’re in a low energy period of time, you’re like, “Meh,” and your motivation is low. It feels like a harder lift. You just don’t want to do it, so you keep rolling it over and over and over.

So what I want to just throw out there is that if that is you, particularly for a specific task or a certain type of task that keeps happening to you, shift it to a high-energy window. I know it’s hard to give high-energy window to low-energy task, and this is kind of assuming you have to do it. If you can eliminate it or delegate it out or outsource it, do that first. But if you have to do something and you keep rolling it over, just know that even though the task itself is maybe a low-energy task, motivating to do the task might require high energy, and so, put it in a high-energy window. That might really help with the motivation to do it.

That’s less of a general motivation strategy because you can’t put everything in a high-energy window. But if it’s that kind of thing that you’ve been rolling over, over, over, you can’t get rid of it. You have to do it. It’s starting to cause you a lot of dread because you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe I haven’t done this yet, but I don’t want to do it,” and you just keep rolling it over, that’s a nice way to give yourself the best chance of getting it done and just knock it out.

Change of Scenery – 15:38

Okay, a little one is a change of scene. If there is a particular type of task you avoid or you’re kind of hitting a wall, really just consider ways to make it special. Go to a nice coffee shop. Do it (maybe this is more contextual) before or after a workout or an outdoor walk. You just might have different motivations. I know that I can be like, “I don’t really want to respond to this email, but if I respond to it, then I can go do my outdoor walk and really enjoy it knowing it’s knocked out. That’s motivating for me. Similarly, if it’s a bigger task that I can’t just quickly knock out, if I workout or go on an outdoor walk, then when I come back, I’m typically fresher and have more energy and motivation.

I’ve also talked about this in a different context. I did an article on physical office kind of environment, which is on my blog now, where I crowdsourced tips from other people. And one of the things that I really like that I shared there is also change of scenery just even in your office space or in your home.

So when I was an attorney, I would do a lot of my work in my own office, but if I was editing a brief, I would print it out and go sit in an empty conference room. And it was fresh energy. It was a change of scene. I would maybe get a nice tea and go sit in there, and the change of scene gave me fresh eyes, and that’s kind of related to motivation. So, to me, that kind of helped me motivate and switch gears and see things with fresh eyes.

Similarly, now that I work from home, I have my office now, but I do sometimes — if I’m doing more creative work like writing Instagram posts or writing my email newsletter, I will take my laptop and go sit on a couch if the house is quiet and just be the change of scene. It’s a nice switch and gives a little bit of motivation and energy boost in the process. So just throwing that out there. A change of scene is a good one as well.

Internal Milestones and Accountability – 17:35

Some people I’ve worked with also mentioned for those bigger, more amorphous projects where you’re looking down like, “This is a two-year project,” and it’s hard to motivate to do it when you have so much time, one thing you can try to do is kind of set internal milestones and accountability. So you could have an accountability partner in it. Another thing that some people do is more like set up meetings once a month to give status updates, and that builds in that kind of accountability to the extent you need it to keep the ball moving forward where you know you have to go give someone a status update on where things are, so it motivates you to keep working through a project even though it’s like a long, amorphous type of thing.

I think we can all get that. I remember the switch to college, when you go to college, and you might have one exam. Where, when you come from high school, most high school classes you have multiple things that go into your grade, and in college it’s one final exam, often. I just think back — I mean, I’m happy that I learned this skill. I think it’s good to have this skill of we have to kind of manage yourself through that process. Same with law school. It’s the same. It all comes down to this one exam. But I could see maybe how different it would be if you had to have a monthly meeting with your professor about where you stood, the reading you’d done, getting that status update, it would keep you a little bit more on track, perhaps. So I can see the difference that that would make.

And so, if you are someone that understandably struggles with these long, amorphous projects and you just can’t get yourself motivated to do it, then having those internal milestones or promising something on a certain date can help give you that nudge to do it.

Procrastination – 19:13

Okay, two more things that I want to mention that are not more in my wheelhouse. One is procrastination, and while I think that a lot of what I do helps with procrastination by breaking things down, giving you the clarity, helping you see that, yeah, you might have a long runway for this deadline, but you have a lot of other things going on so you really do need to start it now and just kind of seeing in your calendar how all these projects interact in a real way, I think that The Bright Method helps a lot with procrastination.

But I do teach a system, and I don’t teach the mindset around it quite as much. I don’t consider myself a coach or anyone who helps with thought work, and if that is something that’s interesting to you (and even if it’s not, honestly I would recommend this episode to anyone) I’m going to link to an episode by Kara Lowentheil. It’s a really great listen on procrastination and how to kind of manage your mind around procrastination. So I will put that in the show notes. I really recommend listening to it. I think it’s an amazing, very thought-provoking podcast episode, and so, I encourage you to check it out.

Don’t Rule Out ADHD – 20:16

The last thing I want to say here is to really also not rule out ADHD. Again, I’m not saying that this is for everyone. As I said at the beginning of the episode, I’m throwing out random things, and I just want to throw it out there. I do feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t mention ADHD.

Many, many women I work with now have been recently diagnosed with ADHD, and there’s a whole body of work and explanation around this. In short, it’s that for women in our generation, when they were girls they were not disruptive. But there are types of ADHD and ways that ADHD presents that don’t cause disruption for other people but have real challenges for the people experiencing the ADHD. But because, as women, our ADHD was not inconvenient for others and not disrupting other people, it often went undiagnosed. And so, many women now at our age in our 30s and 40s and 50s are getting the support that they needed and that they need right now. That could be through just understanding that you have ADHD and learning strategies to manage it, to getting on medication. I’ve heard that there are even non-stimulant medications now if that’s something that’s interesting to you, and more.

I have no special training in ADHD, but I’ve just worked with enough women now to know that if you consistently struggle with following through on plans you’ve laid out or find even breaking things down into those bite-sized steps can be difficult, that is just something to keep in mind, and it’s worth getting checked out if that’s something that you suspect you might have. I just think it will help you maybe understand yourself a lot better and get support if you would like it.

I know clients who’ve learned about their ADHD has helped them understand that accountability groups and accountability partners are very useful for them and there are whole services that provide that. I think Caveday is one. They’re just these services that you can even log into a Zoom, see other people, and you turn your microphone off, camera on, and it’s accountability to keep doing the work that you planned on doing. There are just also a lot of podcasts out there that are really useful for people with ADHD that might give you strategies to just help you get where you want to go with a better understanding of who you are and how your brain works.

So, again, I don’t have a lot of personal experiences with those accountability-type things, but I’ve heard great success with other people who’ve used it, and I just cannot encourage people enough to, I think, the more we understand ourselves and can better work with our tendencies, the better and the happier we’ll be and the less judgment we’ll have on ourselves.

Recap – 23:00

Okay, so I’m gonna quickly run through the random things that I threw at you so you can think about what you might want to incorporate into your own life.

One is strive for clarity in how you’re gonna get everything done over time, how all your projects come together, what’s realistic, all that kind of stuff because having clarity around your time and to-dos is very motivating in and of itself.

To help you with that clarity is really embrace breaking things down into the bite-sized steps. Don’t just say, “Project A.” Use those action verbs and say something like, “Outline XYZ for project A,” to give you that clarity. It will feel like a much easier lift when you come up on that in your calendar, and that’s easier to motivate for.

Next is be flexible. Follow your energy. If you can, just work with your energy. Don’t white-knuckle through something that you don’t need to if you can move it around and find a better home for it. There are times that we have to push through and do things that we don’t want to do, but often we can kind of work with our energy and follow it and be flexible with things that we lay out in our calendar.

Next up is energy. Really protecting your energy, protecting your sleep, protecting the quality of your sleep. I’ll link to that episode on The Year of Ease to help with that.

Next up is high-energy windows. If you keep feeling unmotivated to do certain things, try putting them at a time where you have more energy, where you find it easier to work and be motivated because sometimes we need that even for the low-energy tasks that we dread. Next is a change of scene, really moving around to keep yourself fresh.

Next up is building in internal milestones, building in some accountability with having status updates along the way to help you keep going.

The final two points are procrastination (I’ll link to that episode by Kara Lowentheil) and not ruling out ADHD. If you think and suspect that you might have ADHD, it’s worth getting checked out.

All of these things together help us move towards easier motivation to do things, and all of these things together do not apply to every person, so pick one or two. Explore it. If they don’t work for you, maybe come back and try something else, but I hope that you’ve gained one or two nuggets that can help you motivate to do the things you calendar to do, or however you manage your time. But hopefully these help with your motivation so that you actually move the ball forward where you want to so you can enjoy rest and be more present with the people you love.

If The Bright Method, with its clarity and the bite-sized steps and the flexibility, sounds interesting to you and you haven’t checked it out yet, feel free to take my free five-day program. It will walk you through the basics of The Bright Method so you can see if it’s a good fit for you. I truly believe time management is incredibly personal. I don’t presume that The Bright Method is for everyone, but I want you to have a taste of it to see if it is right for you.

So you can go to www.kellynolan.com/refresh. You can also DM me on Instagram the word “refresh” and my robot assistant will send you the link, and I will also link it in the show notes. Most importantly, thank you for being here, and like the person who emailed about this episode, if you have anything you want me to cover, feel free to shoot me an email at ke***@ke********.com. Thank you for being here, and I’ll catch you in the next episode! 

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