The Three Uns

Having kids has changed me. In observing how they interact with the world, I see behaviors from them sometimes that I (for decades and decades) failed to see in myself, and therefore still struggle with today.

One of my kids has a difficult time getting started doing things. Does this sound familiar? They’re not unhelpful, they’re not lazy, but they just can’t seem to get going on something, either important or trivial. But once they get going they usually knock it out of the park.

Is it a question of motivation? Sometimes I’ve found that my kid knows they should be doing something, but there’s something else that’s preventing them from making progress. As I’ve thought about this, I’ve distilled the lesson down to 3 points, I hope it helps them and you (and me).

Please note: this will not be a deep dive into motivation and productivity. There will also be no “tips and tricks” disbursed. This is simply an examination of the forces that keep us from starting, moving, and completing things.

There are three reasons people don’t do things. The Three Uns:

Unaware, Unable, and Unwilling


If you’re Unaware of what you’re supposed to do, you’ll never do it, unless incidentally. This is like a ticketing system that piles up tasks for you but you never get any notifications. Or, you’re part of a team with shared responsibilities, but haven’t effectively delegated tasks, so there are things that everyone else is expecting you to take care of, but you’re oblivious. Unaware is usually a systematic problem that needs to be solved at a higher level or in a more holistic way.

You may be involved in the solution to Unaware but you’re not likely to be able to handle this on your own.


So okay, good, you’re aware of what’s being asked of you, but, you’re Unable to do it. This might be that you lack access to accounts or systems to complete a task, you are time-constrained and have higher priority work to finish, or maybe you’re being asked to do something that’s too far outside your ken.

Unable is something which may need to be solved by a combination of external and internal restructuring — you need fewer tasks, you need your management to weigh in on priorities, you need more training or to swap tasks with someone so that you’ve got work that you’re more familiar with.


The last of the three is different. This is the one I deal with the most when trying to help my kids (and frankly, probably myself) and that is Unwilling. You know what you’re being asked to do, you know how to do it and have access to all the resources that you need to be successful, you just can’t seem to (begin/complete) it.

Unwilling is far more difficult to deal with, and the causes and solutions are usually more personal. What I find most helpful is to have a literal discussion with myself: why have I not (started/finished) this thing? This inner dialogue will usually identify the source of the friction that is preventing progress.

So, how to get better?

Motivation would be another entire article (one that I’m currently writing!) but what I hoped to establish here is a pattern of thinking that you can use for yourself or those around you when you realize something isn’t done:

  • Are they/I Unaware of the task?
  • Are they/I Unable to complete the task due to some roadblock?
  • Are they/I just simply Unwilling to get going on it, due to whatever motivational challenges are present?

Applying this to unfinished (or unstarted) projects around you, in such stark terms, might help you to quantify the effort or resources left to complete something.

And a sneaky “turns out” moment: by performing this exercise to identify and eliminate these invisible barriers, you might find the motivation to help you push past Unwilling and make real progress!