Why I Never Run Out of Toothpaste (but Should)

It’s not intentional. That’s part of the problem.

I have half a dozen tubes of toothpaste in my shaving kit. It’s not because I’m some sort of toothpaste connoisseur. The problem developed gradually.

I use the shaving kit when traveling. I don’t want to have a full-size tube in there; that would be too big. Instead, I use the little trial size tubes the dentist hands out on every visit. They’re small. Sometimes, when I’m checking the kit before a trip, they hide. So I throw another one in. Or I figure I’ve got to be getting close to finishing up the one that’s in there, so I throw another one in. Or I don’t like the specific variety that’s in there, but my wife does, so I leave that one for her to use and I add one for me that isn’t so ghastly.

As small as they are, they seem to never run out. They’re in their own separate pocket, and when I need toothpaste, I grab one. It’s a different one each time. A little here, a little there. I know I’m using toothpaste, but it seems like I never manage to actually finish one up before another one gets added.

If we aren’t careful, we can do the same thing with tasks, projects, and goals. If we work a little here and a little there, we’re never going to make the meaningful progress necessary to finish something before we need, have, or want to take on more.

Photo courtesy of © Adobe Stock / Konstantin Kulikov

The best way to pay off debt is the Debt Snowball method. List all your debts and select the first one you’re going to pay off. Make minimum payments on the others and throw everything you can at the one. Once it’s paid off, throw everything you can at the second. As debts get paid off, you have more and more income each month that you can put towards paying off the next one. You start building momentum, like a snowball getting bigger as it rolls downhill.

Under the older Debt Stacking method, you pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first. This minimizes the amount of interest you pay, getting you out of debt (slightly) sooner. The Debt Snowball makes a subtle but very important change: pay off the debt with the smallest balance first. You’ll pay a little more interest, but you start seeing debts get paid off sooner. That’s exciting! You can see yourself making progress. You can feel the momentum building. The sooner you can start seeing results, the more likely you are to stick with a plan.

You can use the same mental hack to clear out your backlog of things to do (productivity debt).

  • Start with the small rocks to build up some momentum before taking on the big rocks for the day. (Note this is not starting with gravel—gravel is unimportant and you shouldn’t even worry about it).
  • Identify next actions inside your comfort zone. Goals take you outside your comfort zone, but you need to start where you are. Start with small, simple things you can do that are solidly inside your comfort zone. Build up some momentum and confidence before you step outside your comfort zone and start working on the stretching parts of the goal.
  • Work on your goals from smallest to largest. With debts, it’s easy to put them in order. Goals are more tricky because you need to assess how much work will be involved and how long it will take. You can work through your goals for the year just like you work through a debt snowball. Start small, build momentum, and start achieving. Build momentum. See success. Get excited. You’re unstoppable!

Because I grab a random tube of toothpaste each time, it seems like they never run out. They’re inexhaustible, so it doesn’t matter which one I grab—it’s not going to make a difference. I had six tubes at the start of this trip; I’ll have seven when I finish because I swear these things are multiplying on their own now.

If I would just grab the same tube and use it until it’s gone, I’d see progress. I’d see the tube getting smaller and harder to squeeze. I’d actually get to throw one out now and then!

A funny thing happens when you keep working at a goal: you achieve it. It takes time and persistence. You’ll get confused or lazy or bored and grab the wrong tube. No big deal. So you made a little unexpected progress on another goal. It’s still progress! Regroup and refocus! Your obstacles are not inexhaustible. You can do this. Just pick the one thing you’re going to concentrate your efforts on and keep squeezing until it’s done.

Question: What are you going to focus on today? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

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