Adam Savage: the art of completing humongous projects

While boarding an aeroplane, is it true that the slowest method is boarding it back to front? That’s a hypothesis that Adam Savage and his co-hosts had to test for their show Mythbusters. 

But there was a problem. No one was willing to lend them a large commercial airplane for a day so that they could test the hypothesis. So Adam Savage plans the unusual. He decides to rent 173 airplane seats and overhead bins – and build a dummy 747 airplane himself. And he had to do it all in 2 days to meet the show’s deadline.

Each Mythbuster show busts or confirms 2 or 3 such hypothesis. And Adam Savage who was a designer turned special effects expert was 1 of 2 main hosts of the show who made sure insane elaborate experiments were done on time and under budget.

But how did he do that?

Adam Savage and the power of checklists

Savage used checklists. When young Adam Savage joined Industrial Light and Magic company, he learned the power of checklists from his boss there. 

  1. He would jot down everything he could think of that needs to be done for a task. 
  2. He would then categorize them in chunks. 
  3. And he would then flesh out each category with the smallest of tasks.

But he would not start the project with the first task on the list.

Nope. The first task he would tackle was always the one that seemed the most difficult. Why? Because:

  • He didn’t want to be surprised towards the end of the project with something unexpected that would take way longer than expected, or worse was undoable.
  • But more importantly, Savage didn’t want anything that curbed his momentum. Once the toughest task was done, the easier tasks would seem even more easier in comparison. And he would be able to be done with them even faster!

Momentum is the key

Momentum begets momentum. Because positive momentum uplifts your mood. And good mood helps you with motivation. Which further boosts your work output and aids in increasing momentum. 

Momentum helps your brain feel rewarded and so, the momentum-to-motivation setup creates a cycle of productivity that keeps on improving. A snowball becomes an avalanche. 

But is it true that tackling the hardest task is the best way to increase momentum?

Actually that hypothesis is busted by Savage. Here is how he hacked his checklists to aid kickstart his momentum:

“Momentum isn’t just physical, though. It’s mental, and for me it’s also emotional. I gain so much energy from staring at a bunch of colored-in checkboxes on the left side of a list, that I’ve been known to add things I’ve already done to a list, just to have more checkboxes that are dark than are empty.”

Yep, fake adding already done tasks is the key to getting started with a rush. 

Illusory goal progress = kickstarting momentum

Ran Kivetz from the University of Columbia conducted an experiment. Half the customers at a coffee shop were given a “Buy 10 get 1 free” loyalty card. But the other half were given a “Buy 12 get 1 free” loyalty card – but with 2 stamps already filled in.

Both groups of people needed to buy an additional 10 cups of coffee to get their free one. But the folks with a “Buy 12” card filled up their cards a lot more quickly!

Same set of tasks, but one gets done earlier. But it’s ok if you don’t want to manipulate your momentum. What you can do is add the most simplest of tasks on your checklist and begin with that. It could be as simple as: “Open the laptop” or “Wear my shoes.”

And no dear reader, you won’t be kept in surprise. Adam Savage did indeed confirm the myth that the slowest method to board an airplane is from back to front. What beats it by almost 10 minutes? Boarding all the window seats first, the middle seats next, and the aisles last.

Action Summary:

  • Starting with a brain dead easy task consciously will help you get started. And a quick start will help you build momentum.
  • After a dead easy task, tackle the most difficult task next when your energy is highest. Because after that, the easier tasks will feel even more easier.