The Science of Influence

Moving yourself and others to action.

Influence Yourself With a "Why-Do" List

Getting those stubborn items off your to-do list.

It’s Wednesday evening after work and you have a ton of things on your To-Do list. 

  • Drop off your son at baseball practice
  • Pick up the cleaning
  • Get dinner
  • Make plans for friends visiting over the weekend
  • Go to the gym
  • Finish that overdue report for work
  • Oh,…and don’t forget to pick up your son!

 

The To-Do list has in many instances turned out to be a highly effective way of getting things done. However, we all have some to-do list items that we chronically fail to get around to despite all of the best intentions, such as the following:

  • Fix the towel rack in the half bath
  • Make an appointment for your annual physical
  • Play your guitar (which makes you think, “As if there’s time for fun!”)
  • Join a softball league

So why can’t we ever seem to get around to doing some of these things? 

Because we don’t have a system in place for keeping fresh in our minds our reasons why (i.e., our motivation) we want to do them.   

We know what we have to do, as well as, when and where we have to do it, but, for some reason, we don’t think about why we want to or need to do it. That’s probably because we are under the spell of the “have-to’s” and forget we always have a choice.

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Well, to remedy this situation, try the following…

Exercise: Create a “Why-Do” List

Step 1: Pick one thing from your current or a recent to-do list that you have not done, but that you would still like to do. For example, join a softball league.

Step 2: Stubbornly refuse to ask yourself age-old, rational, yet highly un-motivating, questions, such as “Why can’t I do this?” What gets in my way of doing this?” “Why aren’t I more motivated to do this?” The answers to these questions will only rehearse excuses, which lead to inaction and guilt.  That’s why we don’t get those stubborn to-do list items done – we ask ourselves the wrong questions. So, instead, let’s focus on 2 much more positive and motivating questions.

Step 3: Ask yourself two off-the-beaten path, yet highly motivating, questions that address why you want to do this to-do list item. Hence, the “Why-Do” list. This will get you to argue in favor of doing it. 

(TIP: Simply create a new column in your To-Do list with heading, “WHY?” and list the answers you come up with to the following two questions in that column next to the item you’ve had a hard time getting done.)

  • Why might I take the next step on joining a softball league? 
    • The “next step” could be, look into local softball leagues or call a league representative or get the application…whatever the next step is for you.
    • And, yes, you need to actually jot down some answers.
    • The reasons should be timely, compelling and personal.
    • If you can’t come up with anything, then ask yourself what would have to happen to be even a little ready.  Then, focus on why you might want to do that.
  • Why are these reasons important to me? (The key word being me)
    • The more times you ask yourself this question, the deeper and more personal the reasons get

As you will see, the answers help you rehearse the positive reasons for doing your stubborn to-do list item. Instead of telling yourself, as you might have before this exercise, that you have to join a softball league because a friend suggested it and because your doctor told you that you really need to exercise more, you may now end up with much more personal and motivating reasons, such as wanting to be more connected with your community, feeling a sense of belonging and pride that you are showing your children, by example, that it is good to make time for fun. 

These seemingly irrational questions are part of my very successful, scientifically-proven Instant Influence method (based, in part, on Motivational Interviewing), which has been shown to motivate people from the Emergency Room to the Board Room, from patients with addiction and mental illness in the South Bronx, NY to executives and employees of Fortune 100 companies who are resistant to organizational change, as well as, many other individuals from all walks of life. ,They may even work for you. 

Why might you give it a try?

Michael V. Pantalon, Ph.D. is an award-winning faculty member and psychologist at Yale School of Medicine.

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