Practical Ways to Burn the Ships

Burn the Ships

You may be familiar with the story of Hernán Cortés and his arrival in Veracruz. In order to prevent his crew from turning back from battle out of fear, he ordered them to burn their ships. That way, there was no return—the only way out was through. No going back!

There are a least a couple of problems with the story:

1. Cortés was a colonial conquerer on his way to… conquer. He was an imperialist, much like Columbus in the Americas, the British in India, or the Belgians in the Congo.

2. The ships weren’t actually burned, they were scuttled—in other words, sunk.

Nevertheless! It’s a good story and I like the analogy of “no turning back.”

I’m often reminded of this story when I’m struggling to finish something. In the days before Frequent Flyer Miles allowed us to travel at will, deliberately sinking your only form of transport back to Europe was hardcore… but it definitely got the job done.

Lately I’ve been dealing with a lot of things happening at once. I’ve got a book to write, a few thousand awesome people coming to town in 11 days, and a complete revamp of my whole business to plan. Yet at the moment at least, everything is on track.

Black Magic

If you struggle with procrastination, find a way to burn (or scuttle) the ships! Here are a few ways you can do it.

Blog post. When I’m having a hard time completing a blog post, I simply adjust the publication settings from “Draft” to “Schedule.” I usually give myself 20 minutes or so to keep working on it, and I don’t allow myself to change the publishing time. One way or another, the post has to be ready to go!

Register for a race. If you need help running or completing any other form of exercise, sign up for a future race. Put the date in your calendar and tell everyone you know that you’re going to do it. No backing out!

Non-refundable purchases. I knew someone who purchased a First Class, non-refundable ticket to Japan before a big product launch. He knew he’d have to launch the product in time, or pay a big penalty.

Eliminate distractions. Elon Musk said recently, “We spend too much time on small ideas.” I’ve been thinking of that while trying to work on the bigger projects. When I can give myself several hours a day on the big goals, I make much more progress than when I find myself preoccupied with small ideas.


Anything with a fixed deadline is good. Carrots are good, but so are sticks. When the only way out is through, don’t give yourself a way out. Full speed ahead!

Have you ever used this strategy to get things done? What happened?

Comments here.


Image: Boston Public Library

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    • George Gurdjieff says:

      What’s interesting about the Cortés story is that he put himself in exactly the same conditions as his men. He scuttled the ship which left everyone – including Cortés himself – with no way but forward.

      For myself, just as you have Chris, I’ve employed the carrot/stick method and variations thereof a few times. What also works for me is knowing that there will be at least two intervals in my commitment. Usually, closer to the beginning of a project, where other projects seem to become more important and I wander away from my aim. And again towards the end of a project where conditions are seemingly impossible for me to complete. The second interval is more intense than the first and needs more effort – usually an effort related to attitude – to bridge. Seems that this is where the saying ‘He snatched defeat from the jaws of victory’ might have originated.

    • Kevin says:

      Yeah, I’ve done that.

      When I released my second book a couple years ago, I announced to my “tribe” that it would be available for purchase on July XX, 2011. The public commitment forced me to make it happen, otherwise I’d lose face and compromise my reputation.

      I like the first class non-refundable ticket idea, too. Smart way to outfox yourself.

      Thanks for the inspiration, Chris.

    • Jim Gray says:

      I shut off things best late at night or the early morning hours. I’m also a phenomenal last-minute-wonder. So, I learned to give myself 24 extra hours of time. I’ve learned to get the Keynote slides all built early and then workout the details of the talk as they come to me in the days before.

    • Ruth Carter says:

      Anything that involves spending money is usually my “no turning back” moment whether it’s a race registration, a plane ticket, or joining an organization. For SXSW last year, submitting my application to speak was that moment. I knew once I submitted that I was going no matter what if I was selected (which I was!).

    • Tomer says:

      I’ve found that following your inspiration is better option for me. When I follow my inspiration I do my best work, end up in the right place and run into great ideas.

      If I’m not inspired to work, I don’t. When I’m not inspired to work, I’m inspired to do something else. And when I am inspired to work, it doesn’t feel like “work”.

      I believe that our inspiration is an internal guidance system. Follow it and you’re following your heart.

      Don’t allow fear to prevent your from being guided. Acknowledge the fear and act bravely.

      More challenging than it sounds.

    • Marcy Criner says:

      I use a plug-in called Freedom. It pretty much shuts down your internet for a set amount of time. Then I close the door and write for that amount of time. No distractions!

    • Dus Katrina says:

      I’m always amazed at how, even when it means massive sleep deprivation, I can plow through and turn in projects I’m really proud of for class while working full-time but it’s definitely just the stick of the deadline and grade. I should probably give myself deadlines and grades for my blog and shop and would finally get around to so many things I’ve wanted to do for both. So, thanks for the reminder!

    • ColdFrog says:

      I’ve most definitely done this, twice in the recent past. I had been dissatisfied with my life, and had been given an option to make a new life elsewhere. I had been in quite a rut of wanting to do something and then not following through, so I made a bunch of changes that forced me to make my move. I applied for (and got) a few jobs in the new, quit my old job, accepted an additional position as a member of a Renaissance Faire, and declared my intention not to renew my apartment lease. By the end of the four months, I had a new job, had indeed moved to the new location and am now, in many ways, in a better position. It was pretty terrifying because if it all went wrong, I would have likely had to live with my parents for… like, ever. But I knew what I needed to do. It was a pretty powerful incentive.

    • Wilfred Diedricks says:

      I use Cortés’ strategy often and it works on most occasions. I work much faster under pressure.

    • Matt Sullivan says:

      Great timing on the post. I actually used this strategy this morning. I was working on a blog post and kept getting distracted. I pulled the plug on my computer, opened up my journal and just started writing. It was amazing. Completed the post done in record time and it was much more enjoyable.

      Keep up the good work, my friend.

      God Bless,

      Matt Sullivan

    • Steve says:

      I did something like this once, a long time ago. In my early 20s, I decided I needed to get out of the rut I was in, so I arranged a transfer in my job, to another state, where I only knew 1 person, leaving behind my family and friends. It was the greatest decision of my life, and I have never looked back. (I still live in my adopted state of Colorado, 30 years later, and still love it.)

    • Kerry Dexter says:

      quite a timely article, as I’ve just today received word that the area where I’ve lived for some time is being bought by a new owner who intends to knock down all the existing residences to make way for a new apartment complex. so, many changes on the near horizon, brainstorming to create ways to make that unexpected deadline for change a good thing for my life and all I’m working on — and deal with the practical aspects of these changes too

    • Vicky White says:

      Another good strategy i’ve heard of is to sign an agreement with a friend stating that if you haven’t done x by a certain time/date, you’ll donate a meaningful amount of money to the political party you would least like to vote for!

      I haven’t tried this but just the thought of it can get me moving!

    • erik yuzwa says:

      “We spend too much time on small ideas.” – Great quote, IF YOU KNOW WHICH IS WHICH.

      I’m in a bit of a paralysis state, because I’m not sure if the idea that’s coalescing in my brain is a “small idea” or the piece I need to get to the Next Thing I’m supposed to be doing.

    • Jenn says:

      Yep, definitely have done this! I am leaving corporate after 7 years, with an as-yet-undefined business plan, but I KNOW I need to try working on my own and creating a new lifestyle and my own business. I just work best under pressure and also knew that I wasn’t able to truly give it my all while I was still working 50 hours a week for the man. So I QUIT! Scary, yes, but leaving my job is what will allow me the time and the pressure of no money coming in to monetize and get to profitability fast. (I definitely don’t recommend this to others, FTR, but it’s right for me.) Looking forward to seeing you at WDS!!

    • Sam says:

      Very timely post. I’ve been wanting to start working for myself and was just joking with my husband about getting a neck tattoo so no one will hire me. 🙂

    • Ingrid says:

      Over the past decade, I have started to train (running) numerous times, always ending up quitting before reaching my personal goal of running 5km. Because in fact, I really don’t like running.
      Last year May, I promised my 13 y.o. son I would participate in a competition (a city run, organized by the athletics club he’s a member of) and run the 7kms.
      The only thing that kept me going was the promise I made to my son – I was going to run and finish it in a decent time. I did. And the best reward was when my son said to me, with really big eyes: ‘mama, I’m so proud of you!’.
      That was last May, today, He’s volunteered to be my personal trainer, and we’re training for the 10 km. For next year’s edition 🙂

    • Evan Forester says:

      I’ve done this! I needed motivation to go running, so I signed up (and paid) for a half-marathon. I’m way too cheap to waste that kind of money ($60!) so I started training right away.

    • Caroline Frenette Master Intuitive Coach says:

      I was a champion at scheduling to do’s & must-get-done for specific days but then moving them further ahead in the week until they were bumped to the next week!

      Total madness.

      Now I respect my flow a lot more and guess what? What really ‘needs” to be done gets done easily and effortlessly.

    • Rebecca says:

      I have done that…giving myself carrots no matter how small for completing a paper in college or even just making it through finals week. The carrot usually involved alcohol but, hey I was young and in college.
      I still give myself small rewards especially if it has been a particularly hectic and trying week with my 4 year old daughter. It might be a coffee, a cheap book, or even a cheap ebook. Little to no cost but still that carrot that I need just as a small reward.

    • Scott Torrance says:

      Haha I love the idea of scheduling a blog post to encourage writing, I’ll be trying this one soon 🙂

    • Robin says:

      Chris, I am a big fan and I always enjoy reading your posts, but I think you left out the biggest ‘problem’ about the Cortes tale. Hernan Cortes was consumed by his goal of finding gold and would stop at nothing to fulfill his so-called destiny. Cortes went from Aztec town to Aztec town slaughtering civilians and soldiers alike, shattering an ancient civilization along the way. Mentioning that he was an imperialist doesn’t quite encompass the scope of cultural genocide.

      I get the analogy you are making but I think that as non-conformists, we should be looking at other narratives and creation stories for inspiration. I am currently living and working in Mexico and I think that people need to understand these stories from the eyes of the conquered not just the victors. That’s just my ‘two cents’!

      Thanks for being a voice for all of us non-conformists!

    • Sara says:

      I used this strategy to get my first screenplay finished. I committed to entering one of the major screenplay contests and told all my friends what I was doing. Every day I worked on my story like it was my job. It felt so good to submit a finished piece I was proud of to the competition. Even if I don’t win anything, I still feel like I won on an emotional level. Now, on to the next story!

    • Allison DeFord says:

      Thank you for this timely post! You’ve inspired me to set a deadline for my book that I keep saying will be finished by the end of the year. It’s true, when we set an intention and an actual date when it will be completed, we conquer!

      Scheduled blog posts definitely drive me to meet or exceed the deadline. At my studio, we’ve committed to “drop an F-Bomb” every Friday to highlight “Mind-blowing Customer Chemistry”. This is one way that we show thought leadership and connect with our audience. We’ve COMMITTED. It’s EXPECTED. We make it happen. It’s working. Mission accomplished!

      Here’s to burning the ship…or getting the neck tattoo (@sam). Full speed ahead!

    • a.q.s. says:

      interestingly, i know of the burning ships story from my father, but it was Tariq ibn Ziyad. 😀

      and i associate it not with getting tasks finished but making a decision and never looking back regardless if there are any better alternatives.

      For some creative writers, deadlines like writing a novel in one month in november works; for me, space and freedom to dip in and out of the source from where I create, works best. i think my writing, the craft of it, would suffer if i felt i had to post something, anything, in certain minutes. yet, sometimes, just doing that leads to the first draft. : )

    • Carla says:

      Great post! And what an excellent idea about scheduling blog posts (I admit I’m a little jealous at not coming up with that idea on my own…)

      Seems to be that many of us on here work best under pressure – glad to see I’m not alone! I also work under the ‘say yes and figure it out later’ approach. Keeps things much more exciting that way!

    • Laura says:

      I definitely do this a lot to motivate myself and to accomplish goals, big and small. I make a commitment to accomplish something specific, then I have to do the work to fulfill that commitment. It’s especially effective if I’ve communicated my commitment. Works like a charm. For me, it has to be reasonable, though can be a real stretch from where I’m at when I make the commitment to it. I’m big on keeping my commitments, so not meeting it isn’t an option–sort of sinking the ships psychologically.

    • SJ Scott says:

      Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!

      There is something that is liberating hearing about people who bet it all on winning and pulled through.

      But what about all the gambler who bet it all on black and lost. Custer who left himself with no option but to go forward against those injun’s. Amelia Earhart who was going to circumnavigate the globe no matter what.

      You get the point.

      When it comes to small things. Registering for the race. Buying that ticket or doing that blog post, the “do it or else” mentality is awesome. Pure carrot and stick.

      But for larger, “life” decisions, I think it is better to at least take the time and effort to have a backup or “plan B” and not just run full tilt after your desires without having thought things out and planned for contingencies.

    • Jason says:

      I went the “sign-up-for-a-race-with-no-training” route for a marathon. Now I use the same technique to achieve goals and overcome procrastination, in business and life.

    • Karl Staib says:

      I love the idea of Elon’s – focusing on bigger goals is going to be a theme for the 2nd half of 2013. Too often I get caught up in little details that don’t really matter and I drop the ball on the big stuff.

    • Paula says:

      Make it public!
      I used my newsletter to announce I would be sending out my “Summer Painting A Day” collection weekly to subscribers. Each Sunday, I would email 5 paintings done that week. At the end of my 50 days of summer, there were 50 paintings.
      A daily and weekly deadline made for great accountability.

    • MARY RIVES says:

      Loved these tips my friend just sent me when I told her I am under all these deadlines. I just finished a few of the bigger tasks and feel so relieved. My motivation? Having fun in the sun with friends dancing and swimming and then camping this weekend. I told myself I could not go out to play until I finished x, y, and z. Now all i have left to do is z and i am on a roll, so i best keep rolling!

    • Angela says:

      Saving public face is always a good motivator. No one likes to look like a failure in public. When I was planning on my last big project I told everyone and anyone who would listen about my plans. If I backed out I would look like someone who’s all talk and no action; I HAD to do it. Works every time!

      I like what you said about blog posts too. I’m in the middle of writing one right now and procrastinating by reading yours…..

    • Barun Mishra says:

      This reminded me of a crucial scene in the movie Gattacca where 2 men are having a competition where they swim out to the sea and the first person to turn back loses. They are brothers and have been doing it and its usually the elder one to turns back first. And yet in their final challenge when everything is at stake, he keeps swimming much to the other one’s wonder who keeps asking him how is he managing it and the winner’s reply is: “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”

    • Gladys says:

      I am quitting my job and moving in early September. I’ll support myself with my freelance business and spend plenty of time playing on the beach and sailing. The changes have been coming for several years; once I decided on the timing and knew it was right, I started telling people, including my boss. People in my current location know I am leaving; people in my future location know I am coming. By speaking my intention, I find that even when I am feeling a bit nervous, I know there is no turning back.

      My daily struggle is rememering to focus on the one thing I need to do next, and not worry about what I’ll need to do in 2 months…..

      Thanks for this post!!

    • Pamela says:

      Other than writing for outside sources, I’ve tried to avoid deadlines since college. But, I’m realizing just how important they are for me if I’m ever to actually complete anything. I have a bazillion works in progress, but if I don’t have a due date, they seldom progress all the way to the end point. I prefer self imposed ones to outside generated, but public declaration definitely helps get things launched.

    • Julie Bernstein Engelmann says:

      I am an artist and I always schedule exhibits first and then paint like crazy to get ready for them.

    • Ray Reichert says:

      Absolutely! I think about this all the time at work – what are the ‘big rocks’ that need to get done, and I usually find that by identifying and taking on the big tasks, a lot of the smaller tasks get taken care of anyway! What I do when I need to ‘sink a ship’ and get something done, is I schedule a meeting with my business counterparts….that way I HAVE to produce something and get it done, other wise I show up unprepared…set the deadline and move ahead..the rest should take care of itself….

    • Heidi Reyes says:

      I have done this before. I usually tell my family or friends what I’m doing. It definitely gets me motivated to finish what I started!

    • Sheila says:

      Haha ! Non-refundable usually works for me. Yes, in the form of plane tickets or other purchases. E.g.
      1. I’ve put shoes on lay-by knowing I won’t get that deposit back if I don’t purchase them within the next three weeks (Ok, so it wasn’t a difficult commitment given that they were pretty shoes).
      2. I also signed up for a Groupon deal – 3 weeks at bootcamp to kick my own butt about my fitness. It was a bargain, but knowing that I paid a bit of money for it has committed me to at least one session. Lol!

      Unfortunately, I am a bit of a procrastinator and still sleep in on days off when really I should be doing something productive. Haven’t even addressed item 1 on my to do list today (and it’s 2:29pm) due to several distractions online. Lol!

      Always room for improvement in this area! Great analogy, Chris. (Though, having a boss like Cortes would be a nightmare!)

    • Aditya Thakur says:

      About a year ago I quit my sailing career to chase my dream of becoming a writer. Every now and then I get doubts and fears and start thinking about going back to sailing. I sometimes think that if I’d literally burn my marine engineer’s license, i’d have motivation to work harder. But then the practical voice of the society enters my head and says it will be really foolish to burn my license, even if i don’t ever go back to sailing. Then Steve Job’s voice says, “stay hungry, stay foolish”. I come close to making my mind about taking out my license and burning it. But then I give in.

      My ships are literally floating on anchor, waiting for me to come back. And I don’t know if I’ll ever find the courage to burn them. Or am I wrong to actually want to burn my license? Is there another way to burn the ships without being so unpractical?

    • Mariana says:

      Good advice! I needed some piece of advice on procrastination just right now. On the other hand I must say it is scary, mainly when things are not going the way you expected to. Let’s say that the indians look really angry right now and I would love to have my ships to go back to Spain! But that’s it, I guess I have no choice than conquering this new land…

    • the runner says:

      Awesome Post! I think “burning the ships” is one of the best tactics to accomplishing goals.
      I have done it many times with ultrarunning.
      Just sign on the line and start training to run the distance.
      So far it has always worked.

    • Danny K. says:

      In my personal experience, I’ve had 2 community-involved projects that I’ve set a deadline to, and told many people about it, but I couldn’t finish one, and the other is still lagging, and now I’m continuously embarrassed when someone mentions them.

      However it seems that when the project is related to a client, I procrastinate but on the final 2 days, I do work that is worth 2 weeks.

    • Akinsola says:

      I love this title and also able to finally learn this story as describer in think and grow rich, I hope am correct it is the same story described here ” story of Hernán Cortés and his arrival in Veracruz”.
      I have tried of the approach several times while trying to get things done myself.
      Thanks Chris

    • joanne says:

      What happened you ask?
      I developped a capacity to be with how things would go along the way, saying : this is what it looks like when it is working!

    • Connie Habash says:

      Finally found this in my backlog of emails – Chris, you’re awesome (again!). Great ideas to follow through on commitment. Thanks!

    • Kate Loving Shenk says:

      Yes just put my big plan on the calendar, invited my first guest who accepted my invitation, and now must figure out how to manage the technology!

      Won’t be booking a trip to Japan, though!!

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