Getting Underway

How do I get myself to do things?  I have a long-standing problem getting myself to do things that I think will be hard. Like writing up meeting notes, or doing my taxes, or making phone calls. Once I start doing these things, I find that they are not so hard. They may take some time, and I may need some more information, or to break them down into steps.

Then I feel bad about not doing these things, put them off even more, leave things until the last minute, feel rushed and not productive, although I sometimes do a good job at the last minute. Routine things that have to be done are fine, like feeding my cat, changing his water, and cleaning the litter box. I’ve never been able to train myself with rewards like food or games.

Any good suggestions? You are so good at this! Thank you.


It is a good thing that you asked us, rather than the human, because she is also not good at getting herself started. Actually, I think it’s true for humans in general. It’s like there’s a gate in front of the thing you need to do, and before you can do it you have to figure out how to open the gate.

How about she jumps over the gate? That would be more funner!

Yes, that’s another possibility, I suppose.  And I guess she could try to make the tasks more fun by putting on good music or doing things outside. But some stuff is just not fun, and it’s hard to get going.

Really? There’s stuff that’s not fun?

What about getting your nails trimmed?

Ick. Tickly on my toes. But it goes with lots of cookies, so I go along with it. Maybe Unmotivated isn’t eating enough cookies when she does her taxes?

Very possible. But Unmotivated says that training themselves with food has not worked well, so we might have to think outside the box.

OK. Outside of boxes is fine. Getting in a box can also be fun.

I don’t think the relation to boxes is really the point.

OK, so I have an idea.


So, back before we stayed home all the time, we used to go to competitions, and go in the ring where there were no cookies at all and do a whole bunch of stuff exactly right with no do-overs and just paying attention to the Human and not any of the other interesting sights or smells or dogs or people or anything. It’s fun, but it’s hard.

Yes. And….

So before we go in the ring, we have a ritual. The Human shows me where she is putting the cheese that we will have for a cheese party when we are done.

I do love a cheese party!

Who doesn’t? And then she has me bonk her hand with my nose, which is what we do at the start of every training session. It means “We are done running up the driveway and sniffing the grass and checking out the neighbor dogs. Now we will do things and have cookies instead.” I think. Anyway, we do the nose to hand bonk. And then I hop into position and stare and her and smile and she stares at me and smiles and then we go to the entrance to the ring and I sit and we look at each other and smile and then we go in to do the things.

Oh, I see what you’re saying. Unmotivated could create their own ritual to train their brain that doing these things means we are getting to work. Like maybe they could make a cup of coffee or tea, and choose the snack they will have when they are done. And then stretch. And then sit. And then take a deep breath, and let it out, and say “Here we go!” It would be like opening the gate to the job. Training their brain that these easy actions lead to the harder one.

Would that maybe make her not want to do the easy things ritual, because that would mean she had to do the hard things?

Well, it feels pretty darn good when you accomplish something hard. That might be enough reward. But also, Unmotivated doesn’t necessarily have to the whole hard thing at a time. Maybe they do the ritual, and then one phone call, not a whole list.

Then a snack?

Of course. But also, Unmotivated could try using the Premack Principle.

The Pre-Snack Principle?

Well, kind of, yes. It says that you can get behaviors that are less likely to happen—like taxes—by putting them before things that are more likely to happen—like eating lunch.

In my experience, lunch for dogs is not nearly as likely to happen as it should be.

True, but a separate problem. I’m just saying that every day Unmotivated could choose one thing that was going to get done before lunch, or before they went for a walk or before they looked at Facebook or whatever. It wouldn’t have to be the whole job. They could just pick a piece.

So they would choose a piece of the job that they could get done pre-snack. Pre-snack Principle. I get it!

Yep. Unmotivated could look at what they are doing instead of getting the jobs done, like maybe watching movies or talking to friends or making cookies, and slip the job—or some piece of the job—in first.

OK, that makes sense. But Wombat….


How do we get the cheese parties to happen when we are not going to competitions?

I’ll have to think about that one and get back to you.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Underway

  1. Tesla certainly knows how to get to the heart of things. Give his ears a scratch for me.

    Although this isn’t an advice column, I do have a simple trick that I use to get me to start and make progress on a project. I set a timer for some quantity of time that makes sense — for me, often it’s an hour. Then I start. When the timer goes off, I get to stop. If I’m not done, I’ll follow the same drill the next day to make more progress. Got through 40 years of photographs that way (one hour at a time). Starting on my father’s possessions next.

  2. Thank you, Hazel. That is also a helpful thing, and a way to decide on a smaller piece of the project. We hope you and Titania are well–we miss you and our other competition friends!

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