What do you dread at work? Maybe it's filling out expense reports. Making a cold call to a sales lead. Giving a long-delayed performance review to T.J. (aka "the Crier"). You dread it, you avoid it, you procrastinate. You check out Google News instead.
There's a way out of this cycle, and it comes from self-help books. (We read them so you don't have to.) Start by thinking about housecleaning, the most unpleasant part of our everyday existence, other than forwarded kitten emails. Here's a surefire way to fight chore inertia. It's called the 5-Minute Room Rescue, and it was proposed by the FlyLady, a "home executive" turned organization guru. You set a kitchen timer to five minutes. Then you rush to the dirtiest room in your house — the one you'd never let a guest see — and, as the timer ticks down, you start clearing a path. When the timer finally buzzes, you can stop with a clear conscience. Doesn't sound so bad, does it?
The trick, of course, is that the dread is always worse than the thing that's dreaded. So once you start cleaning house, you probably won't stop at five minutes, especially when you see progress. You'll get Big Mo on your side — or at least Big Mop — and an hour later, things will look great. By scaling down the goal — just five minutes! — you can overcome your own inertia.
In One Small Step Can Change Your Life, Dr. Robert Maurer of UCLA's School of Medicine writes about his patient Julie, a divorced mother of two, who was 30 pounds overweight, depressed, and fatigued. He knew that the solution to her problems was exercise. He also knew that talking about thrice-weekly aerobics was likely to get him slapped. So he gave her a challenge: "How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?"
That was the kick start she needed. One minute of low-intensity exercise did nothing to improve her health but everything to improve her attitude. When she came back for her next visit, she asked, "What else can I do with a minute a day?" Within a few months, as Dr. Maurer slowly stepped up Julie's challenges, her resistance to a serious exercise program disappeared.
We're all used to hearing about stretch goals, and when you feel empowered, stretch goals are useful ambition teasers. But when you feel overwhelmed, stretch goals are a recipe for paralysis. Michael Phelps needed a stretch goal. Julie needed a whisker goal, a target that was a hairsbreadth away from the status quo. We need these more modest steps because they help us get past the "startup costs" — the apprehension and fear — that deter us from doing the tasks we hate.
Ken Blanchard, author of the classic The One Minute Manager, knew that managers hated having to give feedback to employees. So he gave managers a whisker goal that he called "one-minute praisings." He pointed out that most managers put off giving feedback until something goes very wrong, and then they swoop in with criticism. He called it "seagull management": Managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, and then fly out. He challenged managers to give frequent, quickie assessments. Concentrate on catching your employees doing something right, he counseled, and then reinforce it with immediate, specific praise.
Whisker goals are particularly well suited to our current moment. Adversity taps our strength. When you've just laid off someone, it feels like too much to bear to offer constructive criticism to another employee. When you've given up your bonus and had your budget cut, it feels like too much to consider going back for that master's degree. In hard times, we retrench. We maintain. We certainly don't stretch.
But retrenchment is the wrong response to adversity. Adversity calls for change, and change doesn't arrive via a miracle: It arrives via a kick start. During World War II, the government needed to orchestrate a massive increase in industrial production at the exact same time as its most talented industrial minds were being called away to fight. Government officials trained new people to look for tiny steps forward, not big leaps. A training manual advised workers to "look for hundreds of small things you can improve. Don't try to plan a whole new department layout — or go after a big new installation of new equipment. There isn't time for these major items. Look for improvements on existing jobs with your present equipment."
Change can start with small measures, and it can be rewarded with small prizes. Maurer cites a Toyota employee-suggestion program. The carmaker receives 1.5 million employee suggestions every year, and it holds an annual awards ceremony to celebrate the single best idea. The lucky employee gets a fountain pen. (Lehman Brothers handed out million-dollar bonuses. How'd that work out?)
Dread and inertia are the enemy. But you have a powerful ally: the kitchen timer. Set it for five minutes and get to work clearing a path.
Read more Made to Stick columns
Dan Heath and Chip Heath have re-released their best-selling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, featuring new content such as how to make strategies stick and unsticking an idea.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.