Last Friday, our kids went on a field trip to a local farm. One of the activities they could do involved using small hand pumps to push water (and some rubber duckies) down a narrow trough. When we got to them, a couple of the pumps were not in use. Going up to one of them, I tried pumping it but no water came out. The same thing happened with the one next to it. “I don’t think those pumps work that well,” said a nearby parent.

As we started to move on, I saw a nearby sign with information about the pumps. It noted that sometimes the pumps lose their “prime.” The sign also provided instructions for how to “prime the pump.” After following the instructions on the sign, we found out that was indeed the problem. After the pumps were primed, they began to work as expected.

Although I was familiar with the phrase “prime the pump,” I didn’t really understand what it entailed for those kinds of pumps. It turns out that, since the hand pump works by using suction to pull the water up from below, if it dries out it loses the seal needed to generate that suction. The solution was to manually pour water through it. This “priming” of the pump helped it create the seal and suction necessary to pull the water up and out of the pump. And then, once it got going, the constant flow of water coming out would keep it from drying out and losing the seal.

Getting Started

In pulling water through a hand pump, the key is to get the flow started. Because once it gets started, it’s much easier to keep it going. Similarly, when thinking about all the things you need to do, many times the most important thing is just getting started. Once you get started, it’s usually much easier to keep at it. And afterward you may even wonder why you procrastinated for so long.

For whatever reason, sometimes it’s just difficult to get started. Which is why figuring out ways to “prime the pump” – so you actually get started – can be quite useful. One simple way of doing this is to commit yourself to a ridiculously small first step – something you couldn’t not do.

For instance, take that report you need to write that you keep putting off. How about committing to work on it today for two minutes? Just two minutes. And if after two minutes you want to stop, you can. Or think about the desk that needs to be organized or the garage that needs to be cleaned out. How about committing to taking two minutes to put at least one thing in its proper place? And then, once you’ve done that, you can stop whenever.

This may not seem like much. But often, once you get started, it’s not nearly as hard to keep going. And even though you commit to only doing something small, you’ll often find yourself doing way more.

Thinking about an entire project and all the things you need to do can be overwhelming. And so you may wind up not doing anything. But by coming up with an eminently doable first step, you make it easier to get started. You’re priming the pump. And then, once you get started, inertia often takes over from there.