Thirty Seconds or Never: The Role of Impulse in Productivity


Once begun, half done.” – Ancient Chinese proverb.

Sometimes, it can be supremely hard to get up off your “buts” and get moving—as we’ve all discovered at some point in our careers. We all have our low points, where it’s hard to believe we can ever regain old ground, much less rise to new peaks of productivity. I’ve been there myself—yes even as an author and noted authority in the productivity space—I’ve had days when my energy and mood have been at such a low ebb that it was hard not to crawl back into bed at 10:00 a.m.

But my responsibilities drove me to get moving, and once I was moving, it was easy to keep going. Per the law of inertia, an object in motion tends to stay in motion—but you must invest a certain amount of energy to put it into motion in the first place.

One of the techniques that works for me when I’m in a state of inertia is to harness my impulses. When I think of something I should do, I can use that “impulse energy” to get started on a task immediately and use the resulting momentum to keep moving. If I don’t start doing something right away, even just opening a Word document or a tab online, I often lose the desire to do it. Conversely, sometimes when I get started, my energy picks up, and 5 minutes turns into 10 minutes, and all of a sudden, I’m working on a difficult project.

So reading a to-do list can be a sure cure for procrastination when you don’t have the energy to muster on something really difficult. Sure, there’s sometimes a little lag time involved; for example, it may take several seconds between reading something on my to-do list and clicking to open a Word document to start a new article. In my experience, you have 30 seconds or less to react to an impulse, or it goes away. If you fail to take advantage of it, your body and brain allocate the energy meant to activate the impulse to something else. Sometimes that’s a good thing; but more often it derails your productivity. If you use your impulse energy to get started within a few seconds, it’s easier to keep skating along on existing momentum and, therefore, maximize your productivity.

I’ve practiced a specific impulse rule for years: “If you think it, ink it.” I learned it from my father, who always carried a small notebook and pen in his shirt pocket. Whenever he had an interesting idea, he immediately wrote it down. Partly that was due to the slippery-fish nature of most ideas; if you don’t hook them right away, most will escape you utterly. Partly it was because if you keep reminding yourself about an idea constantly, just so you remember it, you distract yourself so much your productivity suffers. When I’m traveling and have my phone, I use the app “Touchdown for Mail” by Symantec (iPhone or Android) and Google voice to dictate a task right into the app, which syncs with my Outlook, so the idea will be on my Task list the next time I’m on my laptop.

When you look at a to-do list and have an impulse to work on a project you’ve been putting off, you’d better get moving before you talk yourself out of it. It’s always best to break down large products into smaller tasks. It starts you moving, encouraging you to build momentum toward other tasks. This breaks you out of the self-defeating practice cycle of procrastination. Chronic procrastinators tend to do less and suffer more than those of us who use our impulses to push us into action.

If you keep procrastinating with everything, then maybe you’ve been compiling your to-do lists all wrong. Writing down “Work on the new accounting program” isn’t as helpful as writing “Click on this link and …” I find it best to write the literal action that you’d take to get started: locate a file, do a search, send someone an email, etc. The simpler the leader task is on your to-do list, the less impulse energy will be required to get started. For example, if you’re dreading creating your next PowerPoint presentation and your energy is low, you might start by looking for images you can use, or set a goal of drafting one or two slides by opening a previous template and just doing a “save as.” It may be easy to keep moving once the ball is rolling; if you’re still stuck, hey, at least you’ve made progress.

Jump-Start Your Productivity

Acting on an impulse isn’t always be the best thing to do, because it’s not always the highest priority. But when your energy is flagging, and you just can’t seem to get any momentum, starting on something will more likely result in measurable productivity than not. And you can always choose your impulses—so the next time you finish something and you’re faced with a choice of working on a project or checking Facebook, always choose the one that produces the higher ROI for your time. Both paths take about the same amount of impulse energy.

© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.



  1. Barry Hall says:

    Hi Laura,
    many thanks as usual for a great post. May I wish you, the team and your family a Christmas and New Year that goes well beyond your expectations. – Barry.

  2. I needed this so much right now! I can think of any excuse not to move. I am a chronic procrastinator. (I saved an article on procrastination and still haven’t read it.) The impulse idea is a great one. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season!

  3. Last year I practiced the just get moving method and loved it. Instead of pondering what needs to be done next I would start with some easy tasks to warm me up and then I could jump into the nitty gritty of the list. Great post.

    • I like the sense of accomplishment I get when I knock some important-but-quick items off my list too! The momentum helps me get going on the “yucky” ones. 🙂 I’ve tried to make sure the “to-do” item starts with a specific action to help with this. Instead of “Send next product list to Nick,” I’ll write the task as, “Open xyz file and…” so that the to-do begins with the VERY FIRST click. It helps me get moving even faster!!