From the April 2000 issue of Startups

Some babies seem to come out of the womb with fire in their bellies while others are phlegmatic from the get-go. So if you're looking for ways to fire up, I suppose the best advice is, "Choose the right parents."

But what if you're not naturally driven? I reviewed my career-counseling notes on more than 1,400 clients to find the strategies that have worked best at lighting a fire under these procrastinating, unproductive small-business owners. There's no one size-fits-all cure. Looking back, it's clear that each procrastinator needs a personalized combination of one or more strategies. Here's a smorgasboard to choose from:

Find Your Passion
What's your hot button?

  • Seeing your numbers grow? I encouraged one retail store owner to chart his profits every day. That motivated him to make the extra efforts he knew he needed to make.
  • Picturing what your earnings could buy you-a house, a college education, a boat? I had a client put pictures of his dream house where he'd see them every day: on his cash register, on the refrigerator, on his Day-Timer.
  • Helping society? A massage therapist found more motivation to market herself by thinking of herself as a Mother Teresa, helping the ill, tired and stressed-out. I reminded her that her gifted hands might do more to save the world than the efforts of many higher-status professionals.
  • Adrenaline? Some people are motivated by it. I encourage them to play mental games with themselves to encourage an adrenaline rush. For example, I tell them to give themselves 30 minutes to do something that should take 40, and if they do it, then reward themselves. Sometimes the adrenaline rush is a reward in itself. I've even encouraged some adrenaline-junkie clients to take direct aim at an inferior competitor and try to do everything ethically possible to win over his customers and put him out of business.

Team Up

  • Find a partner. Some people who would otherwise goof off perform better when they know they're responsible to someone else. It's especially helpful if your partner has fire in his or her belly-that makes your torpor even more embarrassing.
  • Work in an office with others. Sometimes seeing others in action motivates you to follow suit. Don't know anyone who needs an officemate? Look up "Executive Suites" in your Yellow Pages, or check the Web site of the National Business Incubation Association.
  • Join or form a support group. Weight Watchers works, in part, because of the peer pressure that comes from the weekly weigh-ins. Similarly, some small-business owners gain fire in their bellies by joining a businessperson's support group. Check with your Chamber of Commerce, or start your own by placing an ad in a local business periodical. Or find a loving taskmaster-someone to yell at you daily, "Get off your lazy butt!" With some people, that actually works better than anything else.

Tweak Your Business
Buy a suit off-the-rack, and it will probably look just OK. But to really look terrific, you should get it tailored to fit you. Same with your business. Here are some examples:

  • Maximize the use of your best skills. David is a terrific Web site designer but a lousy salesperson. At my urging, he hired a salesperson so he could spend more time using his best skills. He ended up generating much more than the cost of the salesperson.
  • More often than you might think, you can integrate your hobby into your job. For example, a jewelry store owner's hobby is playing the violin. When he isn't waiting on a customer, he plays. Not only does that pass the time, it attracts customers. An interior decorator's hobby is photography. She decorates her office's walls with before-and-after pictures of her projects. My hobby is playing the piano. At the end of sessions, if appropriate, I offer to play the piano for my clients. They usually love it, and, ham that I am, so do I.

Get More Skilled
The more competent you feel, the better feedback you'll get, and in turn, the more you'll stoke those embers in your belly. Often smarter than a long back-to-school stint is to attend what I call You U: Find live and e-mentors, watch peers work, take short workshops, or read your professional association's publications and other practical articles.

Know How to Handle the Tough Moments
One of the fastest ways to extinguish fire in your belly is to hit a tough-to-solve problem. When you bump up against a hurdle, these strategies may help you leap it:

  • The one-second task. When faced with a task's enormity, it's tempting to procrastinate. Cure: Think of the next one-second task you need to do-open a book, pick up the phone, sort your faxes, whatever. Often, doing that one-second task is enough to distract you from procrastinating and get you rolling again.
  • The one-minute struggle. When you reach a tough problem, struggle for no more than one minute. Chances are you won't solve it. But after one minute, you can decide to get help, plan to come back to it later when you can view it with fresh eyes, or decide you can get the job done without solving that problem.

Make It Fun
Your attitude can make work more pleasurable. For example, every time you make a phone call, decide to make it enjoyable, even playful. That not only makes your work more fun, it makes you more effective. When I'm counseling a client, I make a point of occasionally interjecting a little silliness just for the heck of it. When I started to do this, I was afraid clients would view my dalliances as a waste of time and even as unprofessional, but I've found they really like them. Indeed, many clients use my first joke as their cue to play around a bit during sessions.

Get Tough
In the United States, we avoid calling people "lazy," at least to their faces. We can call them procrastinators or fearful, but "lazy" is seen as too much of a putdown. But the unvarnished truth is that some people are lazy. Some of my lazy clients have been helped by my "tough love" lecture:

People who always find excuses for not doing what they should are losers. Yes, losers. They fail at work and usually in their relationships. And you're well on the path toward becoming a permanent loser.

The good news is that there's still time to change--if you're willing to face the fact that right now you are a loser, and all the introspection, self-pity and therapy in the world won't take the place of just doing it. Work before play, no excuses, no working on peripheral, easier tasks when there are central ones waiting. Every time you reach the moment of truth-when you're deciding whether to work or goof off-you're taking a step toward being a winner or a loser. It's your call.



Dr. Marty Nemko hosts Work with Marty Nemko on a National Public Radio affiliate in San Francisco. His column appears on the front page of the employment section of the Sunday Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle. His latest book is Cool Careers for Dummies. He's an Oakland, California small business and career consultant and speaker. He can be reached at mnemko@well.com.