Spring Cleaning, Quick Wins, and Making Space for Meaningful Work

As I read two very different articles this morning, an academic research article from the Harvard Business Review and a newsletter reflection from motivational speaker and author, Pat Katz, I was reminded of the “ticky contests” that we’ve used within the Life Strategies team to get unstuck. Ticky contests are simple – members of the team each keep a post-it note on their desk and, for a specific period of time (usually a week or so), tally their completed tasks. Each completed task, no matter how small, gets a ticky mark. Everyone gets a prize (typically a gift card); the biggest prizes go to the folks with the most tickies.

The catalyst for a ticky contest is a permeating feeling within the team of being overwhelmed with too much to do. A ticky contest, operating on similar principles to feng shui, clears the clutter, restores energy, and creates a functional space within which to work.

How does a ticky contest achieve these lofty goals? It’s quite simple. Each completed task earns one ticky. Yes – each task. I hire only clever people that can do the Math – they quickly calculate that they will get more tickies by focussing on the items on their to-do lists that will take the least time (i.e., the “quick wins”). Within hours, a significant number of tickies is recorded across the whole team. People start with the tasks that will only take a few seconds (looking up a phone number, addressing a letter, scanning a document, returning books to the book shelf). They systematically progress to tasks that may take a few minutes. Next, they work on tasks that might take half an hour – or they break a larger task into manageable chunks (a large task only gets one ticky, but if it is broken into several distinct smaller tasks, more tickies can be earned).

This may seem counter-intuitive. In the short term, Jar of Rocksit removes attention and focus from the “big rocks” to the distracting little pebbles, so this clearly is not a sustainable long term strategy. I’m personally a big fan of the Covey principle of putting the “big rocks” in first; however, sometimes the backlog of pebbles and gravel can sap our energy to the point that we lose the energy and focus to manage our big rocks effectively.

There’s a common thread weaving through the Harvard Business Review article on “the power of small wins,” Pat’s newsletter on “clearing the decks and lightening the load,” the feng shui principle of decluttering, and our ticky contest. Sometimes we just need to create space – mental and physical – and celebrate small accomplishments. The resulting energy can carry us through the bigger tasks ahead. “Busy work” is not intrinsically motivating; however, we all need space and energy to focus on meaningful work. That’s why pausing at times to “clear the decks,” as Pat’s newsletter described, and celebrate the accomplishment of a clean desk, cut lawn, or empty e-mail inbox, can serve as a re-set button, filling us with energy and motivation to complete the bigger, more meaningful tasks on our lists.


“For the progress principle to operate, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it.” (Amabile & Kramerfrom, 2011)*

* source: https://hbr.org/2011/05/the-power-of-small-wins



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