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Field Notes

Field Notes #59: Get Over the “Cold Start” with Forcing Functions

Field Notes #059: get over the “cold start” with forcing functions

The “cold start” is usually used to refer to an attempt to start a vehicle’s engine when it’s cold. “Cold” doesn’t refer to the temperate, but to the fact that the car lacks oil and water in the system which makes it harder to start the engine.

It’s an apt analogy for starting a new habit or project or even something like planning a group dinner. There’s an activation energy required to get started and sometimes that barrier feels too high.

Going to the gym for the first time after not going for a year is going to feel difficult. 

Planning a dinner for 10 is going to seem like a big deal (especially if you lean more introverted like me).

Starting a new project feels daunting because of all the moving parts, meetings to schedule, and people to coordinate.

All of that perceived effort and e anticipated challenges come together to make the barrier to start seem unsurmountable.

And so we overanalyze. We procrastinate. We don’t start.

I’ll share how I think about these situations and how I get over the cold start. Hopefully, it helps you get started on whatever project or thing you’ve been meaning to start but haven’t been able to.

If you take one thing away from this newsletter, it should be this: create forcing functions.

A forcing function is a task, activity, or event that forces one to take action (and produce a result).

You can also think of “forcing functions” as tools for accountability. I prefer the idea of something forcing you to do a thing whereas accountability could be loose or strict. You can be held accountable and feel accountable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are systems in place to force you to do the thing.

Forcing functions can come in many forms:

  • Goals: Define what you want to achieve, the more specific the better. It’s okay to start small. The goal itself isn’t a strong forcing function, but it’s necessary to have something to focus on.
  • Deadlines: As we know with SMART goals, you need a timeline to achieve the goal, so when do you hope to achieve the goal? 
  • Daily reminders: The saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” so make sure your goal is always in sight. I have my business goal written on a whiteboard next to my desk. Others might write their goal on their bathroom mirror or leave post-it notes around the house.
  • Social pressure: Tell your friends what you want to achieve. Tell them how they can help you. Tell them the deadline you’ve set for yourself. The more people you tell, the more pressure there is to follow through. 
  • Presentations: I use “presentation” lightly, but it’s committing to something public where you wouldn’t want to look like a fool. For work this might mean committing to presenting on a project when you’re done with it. For fitness, it might mean signing up for a marathon and not wanting to be the slowest person. Think of something you can literally or metaphorically “sign up for” to demonstrate your progress.

Each of these can be layered to create stronger forcing functions.

Here are examples of forcing functions in increasing intensity:

  • Set a goal to get into running
  • Set a goal to go on a run by the end of the week
  • Set a goal to go on a run by the end of the week, and write it down
  • Set a goal to go on a run by the end of the week, write it down, and tell 3 people
  • Set a goal to go on a run by the end of the week, write it down, tell 3 people, and ask a friend to come with you
  • Set a goal to go on a run by the end of the week, write it down, tell 3 people, and ask a friend to come with you, and sign up for a marathon that’s in 3 months 

I’ll bet money that the person who layers the most forcing functions is most likely to go on a run 🙂 (fun fact: this is how I ran my first marathon).

The mechanisms and dynamics might be different, but we can do the same thing when it comes to work. I’ll format it differently to show one layer at a time:

  • Set a goal to generate more leads (usually already set by leadership)
  • Plan 3 projects you’ll do  
  • Tell your manager about the three projects you’ll do
  • Commit to completing these projects by the end of the quarter
  • Tell team members about the projects
  • Get other team members involved in the projects
  • Commit to presenting on the projects at the end of the quarter

This is oversimplified and skips the process of getting buy-in for projects and all that, but hopefully this paints the picture.

When you layer on all those forcing functions, what you end up creating is momentum. There’s internal and external momentum.

Internal momentum is more mental and psychological. You’ve talked about the idea and you’re excited. You’re eager to get started.

External momentum is the social pressure you’ve created for yourself because you’ve now told multiple people about the project and perhaps even gotten people involved, so now you’re taking their time and mindshare too.

All that momentum makes it significantly easier to not only get through the cold start, but continue the momentum to see the project to completion.

It’s a lot, and setting up the forcing functions themselves might take some effort. But once you do it a few times, you’ll find it easier to get started and you’ll know what forcing functions work best for you.

Then you’ll be unstoppable 🙂

Want more insights like this? Connect with me on LinkedIn.

  1. How to Do Great Work by Paul Graham – Worth a read. Full of great advice for those earlier in their careers and great reminders and points for reflection for folks who are more seasoned.
  2. Go for Singles and Doubles – Sometimes it’s easier to get started when you lower your barrier to start. Instead of going for home runs, go for the singles and doubles.
  3. Marketers Aren’t Storytellers, Hard Truths in SaaS, and SEO Signal vs Noise [Podcast] – We get really candid about the world of marketing and how to figure out what to pay attention to (hint: most things should be ignored).
David Khim

David is co-founder and CEO of Omniscient Digital. He previously served as head of growth at and Fishtown Analytics, and before that was growth product manager at HubSpot where he worked on new user acquisition initiatives to scale the product-led go-to-market.