The Perfect Two-Part Recipe for Getting Stuff Done

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Motivation doesn’t always come easy. In his new book, Smarter Faster Better author Charles Duhigg discusses the many behavioral factors that can affect our ability to get stuff done. Motivation, for example, is easy to cultivate once you know the psychology of how it works.

According to Duhigg, there are two factors that have a big impact on motivation: being in control and feeling a sense of purpose.


One trick parents often use to motivate children is to encourage them to make a choice. For example, the order “Clean your room and do your homework” becomes “Would you rather clean your room now, or do your homework now and clean it later?”

It’s not foolproof, but many parents will tell you it’s surprisingly effective—and there’s research to back that up. “Choices make us feel in control,” Duhigg tells mental_floss. “We know that from a neurological perspective, that generates motivation.”

In his book, Duhigg cites a study published in the journal Psychological Science in 2011. In the study, participants played a computer game that was designed to be boring (its outcome was predictable). On some turns, subjects were encouraged to freely choose between yellow and blue rectangles (keys) displayed on the screen in order to win either $0, $50, or $100 at the game's completion. But in some trials, they were forced to hit a pre-selected key. The researchers found that the participants were more eager to play the game when they were able to choose which key to click. The study concludes,

In summary, we observed behavioral evidence that choice is desirable, and furthermore, we found that anticipation of choice opportunity was associated with increased activity in a network of brain regions assumed to be involved in reward processing. Collectively, the findings suggest that simply having the opportunity to choose may be inherently valuable in some situations ... If individuals did not believe they could exercise control over their environments, there would be little motivation to thrive.

In other words, choice is crucial when it comes to motivation. It’s one thing to use choice to motivate others, but you can also use it to your own advantage. Look for a choice that makes you feel in control, Duhigg suggests, because that will “activate the parts of your brain where motivation resides.”

He puts this into practice when responding to emails, for example, by answering each question asked of him with a concrete suggestion. “I'll go through each [email that needs a reply] and I'll write half a sentence where I'm asserting some type of control. I'm making a choice," he says. If an email asks if he can meet for lunch, Duhigg says he'll reply with, "Sure. We can meet on Thursday but I want to go eat Indian food." Or, if someone wants to meet at 2:00, he'll say, ""Yes, I can come at two but I'm going to need to leave by 2:15.'"

It essentially boils down to looking for opportunities to feel in control. "Basically, if I'm making a choice, if I'm finding decisions that I can make ... then it's much easier to go through all these emails,” Duhigg says. “That's a good short-term solution. But for things that are longer term or where it's not clear where the choice exists ... we need to link [the task] with our deepest aspirations.”


Duhigg's book tells the story of a researcher and professor who struggled to find the motivation to grade student papers. To remedy this, he linked the mundane task to a greater goal. Each paper he graded, the professor thought, was representative of tuition dollars received from students. Tuition dollars from students meant money to pay for research. Research meant doing work he loved, which involved saving people’s lives. So, basically, he could save lives by grading papers.

Duhigg admits—it sounds silly.

“This is ridiculous,” Duhigg said. “Also, this is a person who has a Ph.D. You wouldn't think that this is someone who needs to do a little mantra in order to get to work. That's the point. It's very easy to forget why we're doing things. It's easy to lose sight of how this thing that's right in front of us, [which] seems dull and like a chore ... connects to the thing that really matters to us.”

However, if we can remind ourselves of what’s truly important, it’s much easier to get motivated. It may seem odd to convince yourself, for example, that you can make your family happy by putting together a work presentation, but, just like the professor found, the presentation earns you a salary which helps you support your family. Ultimately, this goes to show, our values are what motivate us to keep going. If you can keep those values front-of-mind, it will put you in a better position to tap into your motivation.

“So, turn a chore into a choice and then ask yourself why," Duhigg summarizes his philosophy. "That's a pretty good recipe for generating the motivation to get that thing done.”