Starting on the First Pull

How starting feels sometimes.

Ever started a rickety lawnmower (or chainsaw, or boat)?

You pull the starter cord, nothing happens. You pull a couple more times, it sputters, then finally lawnmower go brrr.

Probably something with the pump, filter, or spark plugs? I don't even have a lawnmower (or chainsaw, or boat), but it sounds frustrating.

And it's exactly how I feel trying to start doing something. Sometimes.

Like starting a metaphorical lawnmower.


Take writing. I know I can do it, writing isn't that hard. I also know I will have to do it eventually because it's important to me.

So do I always sit down and start writing?

Nope. Sometimes I start by thinking, procrastinating, and not doing anything else about it. I pull the cord, nothing.

Later, I might sit down, do some quick research, possibly write a few sentences, but that's it. I pull the cord, sputter.

Finally, I'll make another attempt, start writing, and take off. State of flow, here I go. I pull the cord, lawnmower go brrr.

The number of attempts depends on how tired I am, how focused or distracted my mind feels, how daunting the project, how close the deadline. Sometimes, a single try is enough. Other times, I'll have to force myself to keep trying.

This isn't just about writing, of course. Take any large enough project: studying for finals, creating a killer presentation, recording and editing a video, whatever.

The pattern goes like this:

  1. Cord pull, nothing. Think, don't do. You know it needs to be done, but you're not doing it.
  2. Cord pull, sputter. Start, but stop shortly after. At least you've done something. Repeat until you're ready for #3.
  3. Cord pull, brrr. Start and keep going. You're now at a point where you can jump right into it next time.

If the project requires more work, getting to #3 today will make it easier to start right at #3 tomorrow. The pump's good, the filters clean, the plugs shiny. Whatever makes your lawnmower start on the first pull, I'm not a lawnmower expert.

Got distracted? Start right back at #1. This is where routines help. A few days without my routines can wreck my focus and productivity big time, and I have to work extra hard to get back on track afterward.

A few tips I rely on to start things faster and be more excited about them:

  • Starting simple. "Build my new website" sounds intimidating, but "Create a checklist for building my website" is easy to do in one sitting.
  • Starting sloppy. "Write my next essay" may feel daunting, but "Start with a quick brain dump" is relatively effortless.
  • Knowing the next step, the more concrete the better. "Continue my programming course" makes me yawn, "Finish Section 4 of my programming course" makes me excited about doing it.
  • Seeing the end goal. "Finish editing my notes on Atomic Habits today" sounds uninspiring until I see "Publish the summary of Atomic Habits on my website" as the top goal this week.
  • Defining a time period or slot. "Two workouts per week" will go nowhere, in contrast to "Two hour-long Arnie workouts, Wednesday and Sunday, one hour after breakfast or before dinner".
  • Not thinking, just doing. If I start something I'm dreading quickly enough, I may find myself enjoying it before long.

And sometimes none of this helps. Cord pull, nothing.

When nothing helps, switching to a different task works best for me. As long as I'm mindful about it and not beating myself up, I'll usually get my focus back shortly after.


P.S. Did you know these things are called recoil starters? I do now.