Six Tips for Forcing Yourself to Tackle a Dreaded Task.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for forcing yourself to tackle a dreaded task.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. Often, I know I’d be happier if I do something I really don’t feel like doing. Making that phone call. Dealing with tech support. Writing that email. Going to the gym.

Those dreaded tasks hang over my head, though; they make me feel drained and uneasy. I’ve learned that I’m much happier, in the long run, if I try to tackle them as soon as possible, rather than allowing myself to push them off.

Here are some strategies I use:

1. Do it first thing in the morning. If you’re dreading doing something, you’re going to be able to think of more creative excuses as the day goes along. One of my Twelve Commandments is “Do it now.” No delay is the best way.

2. If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, do it EVERY day. When I was planning my blog, I envisioned posting two or three times a week. Then a blogging friend convinced me that no, I should post every day. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’ve found that it’s easier to do it every day (well, except Sundays) than fewer times each week. There’s no dithering, there’s no juggling. I know I have to post, so I do. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

3. Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people. Having a friend along can be a distraction, a source of reassurance, or just moral support.

4. Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. Clean off your desk, get the phone number, find the file. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared. There’s a wonderful term that chefs use: mis-en-place, French for “everything in its place.” It describes the preparation done before starting to cook: gathering ingredients and implements, chopping, measuring, etc. Mis-en-place is preparation, but it’s also a state of mind; mis-en-place means you have everything at the ready, with no need to run out to the store or begin a frantic search for a sifter. You’re truly ready to begin to work.

5. Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. This really works, so force yourself to do it. Usually this advice relates to long-term goals, but it works with short-term goals, too. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By the end of today, April 7, I will have _____.” This also gives you the thrill of crossing a task off your list. (See below.)

6. Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

True confession: even as I’m writing this post, at this very minute, I’m putting off two dreaded tasks! I will write no more until I do them.


Okay, they’re done! It took a total of seven minutes, and I’d been procrastinating for days. Phew. I feel great.

How about you? Have you found any helpful techniques to get yourself to tackle a dreaded task?

* A thoughtful reader sent me a link to Oreana Winery’s Project Happiness wine. My sister got me a bottle of this wine last Christmas, and I’ve kept it, because I love the title and the bottle design, with its yellow smiley face, so much.

* It’s Word-of-Mouth Day, when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter (follow me @gretchenrubin)
— Sign up for my free monthly newsletter (about 41,000 people get it)
Buy the book
— Join the 2010 Happiness Challenge to make 2010 a happier year
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
— Watch the one-minute book video
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.

  • Debra

    Recently, I’ve been completing tasks that took less time to do than I spent avoiding them. After, oh, TWO WEEKS of not editing a paper that needed some work, making the required changes took about half an hour. And yes, I felt so much better afterward.

    • WinnieMom

      I use this approach all the time. If there is something I do not want to do, I estimate how long it will take to do and then just remind myself that if I do it now, it will be over in 10, 30, 60 minutes, whatever. Better than thinking about it for an endless period of time.

  • I think it goes both ways — just as the anticipation of an event can be more exciting than the event itself, so too can the dread of a task be worse than the execution. I love the every day task. I feel the same way about blogging. I do it every weekday, so I know there’s no option. People always ask “did someone tell you to do it every single day?” And the answer is no, no one told me, but its easier to know when to do it, and involves less dread, when it has the same “just a part of my day”ness as going to the office does.

  • My dreaded task, as ridiculous as this sounds, is the first outside run of the season.
    But …
    My 6 year old son just got a new bike and so on Monday I promised him in the morning that I would run and he could ride his bike. And there’s no backing out on that one.
    So, Monday night out we went. It was by far more fun than I have ever had on a run. Instead of worrying about pacing myself we were racing each other down the (quiet suburban) sidewalks, laughing and being silly.
    Added bonus, got over the first run hump.

  • Kathleen

    Thank you! After reading your first strategy, I stopped reading, and returned a phone call I’ve been procrastinating about. What a relief!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s funny — you forget how much BETTER you’ll feel once the task is
      finished. The dread is worse than the doing.

  • Going to take me hours to go through all your ‘tips for…’ is that putting off?

    • gretchenrubin

      Alas, I think it is!

  • I laughed as I read this. I went out to mow my knee high grass in my pajamas this morning! Yes, it was knee high because I kept putting it off. And yes, I was so happy and quite pleased with myself once it was done!

    • Tricia

      Too funny! I’ve done this before cause I hate mowing the grass too.

  • flossattrocbrocandrecup

    This is helpful (of course!) – thanks very much. I have been getting better at this anyway, but I need to keep up the good work, and your tips will help. I’ve been keeping a diary with space for ‘things to do this week’ as well as a daily space for things to get done, and I find that if I’ve transferred a task from last week into the new space I get a bit embarassed and force myself to get it done. Of course, it’s usually such an easy thing to do, once I start.

    Being on steriods for an illness helped too, sadly! I was buzzing with energy and just looking for things to do. I decided to take advantage of the energy surges and set up good systems that would stand me in good stead once I was back to normal – so far, soo good! I’ve got a weekly routine for housework which makes everything so easy and also satisfying. I would never have thought I’d have said that!

  • ana76d

    This is so so true that it seems ridiculous that we don’t follow it automatically! Everytime I finish something I’ve been putting off I realize how LESS terrible it was then I had anticipated, how little time it took, etc…
    Yet everyday something new comes up that ends up being cut & re-paste into tomorrow’s to-do list. I wonder how long it’ll take my attitude to change!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s a constant struggle!

  • Amanda the Lollygagger

    Thank you Gretchen! I have spent since Monday avoiding a work task. I am turning off the internet right now to do it!

  • Carla

    This is very timely for me. I was asked (ahem, told) to make an octopus costume for one of my grandsons. I don’t mind sewing, even octopus costumes, IF I know where I’m headed with something. But I couldn’t find an octopus pattern and am unhappy with what I have done so far. If there were not a deadline of next week I could let this simmer while my brain works it over but I don’t have that luxury right now. It purely has to be done right away. I feel very… stressed over the whole thing, since I am one of those persons who wants to get it right. I especially want my grandson to be happy with his costume. So, I’ve been procrastinating day after day. I must say it hasn’t helped things a bit. I guess I’m waiting for an ah ha moment when it all comes together in my head. And I don’t even normally LIKE to procrastinate. Oh well.

  • chessa hirsch

    I find that doing the tasks I dread first thing in the am it’s easier. I dread making phone calls and I don’t know why?!

  • I find it interesting that people refer to blogging as a dreaded task. Isn’t blogging supposed to be, for the most part, an enjoyable sharing of ideas and thoughts? Yes, for some people blogging pays a bill or two–but for most people, it doesn’t. I would much rather read someone’s blog who seems like they enjoy it–not because they need to cross it off their to-do list. I think when blogging becomes a chore…it’s a good time to take a break and come back to it when you miss it. If you have a choice in the matter, and you really don’t want to blog…don’t. Is it part of our human existence that things that start out enjoyable turn into chores? Wouldn’t it be cool if we could wake up saying, “I GET to go to work today!” or “I GET to go workout,” or “I GET to sit down and write something thought-provoking to share with strangers.” It seems like it’s all in how you look at it.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is very true. In many instances, it’s hard to make ourselves do things,
      even when we enjoy them! You love playing pickup basketball, yet it’s easier
      not to deal with it, and watch TV instead.

      I love blogging, but to do anything, every day, rain or shine, is tough. I
      also love going to the gym, but a lot of times I really have to force myself
      to go. Many endeavors are best undertaken with a willingness to stick with
      them, and not expect to enjoy it every minute. Many worthwhile,
      happiness-boosting activities aren’t enjoyable all the time. Sometimes, nto
      even most of the time!

      So I think it’s possible to “dread” even something that really does make you
      happy. One of the challenges of a happiness project is to figure out ways to
      do the things that in the long term, build happiness — even if in the short
      term, you’re groaning.

      Happiness doesn’t always make us feel happy. But you’re absolutely right, to
      re-frame, to see the positive, to feel fortunate and enthusiastic instead of
      whiny and procrastinating, is a much happier way to head into your day!

  • SusanEH

    A helpful strategy for not putting off giving someone bad news is to think of it as a gift to the other person. If I have to say that I can’t do something, for example, then the sooner I tell the person the sooner s/he can ask somebody else. I am helping them by acting quickly.

    I was given this tip by somebody who finds it easy to make those difficult calls and I have found it useful to think of it this way.

  • Sometimes, I avoid tasks that I think (or know) will take a long time. Sometimes I will avoid avoid a task because I’m worried that I don’t know how to complete it well. In these situations, I find that if I can get myself to start, and at least do part of the the task, it lowers the anxiety, and gets me closer to finishing. I’ll give myself a time limit. For example, I tell myself I only have to work on the task for 1 hour, and if it’s not complete by then, I can stop without guilt and finish later. Often, once I’m started, the task is easier than I anticipated, so I end up finishing in one sitting. Even if I don’t finish, and stop when my hour is up, my confidence, and knowledge of the task is increased, and the amount of work required to finish is reduced.

    Thanks for the great article! I’m off to tackle a task I’ve been putting off.

  • Jessica

    I set a timer, usually for about 20 minutes. When it goes off, I have the option of stopping without feeling guilty. Sometimes, just the nudge to get started is all I need.

  • Excellent suggestions. I plan to post them on my bulletin board.

  • For me, the most dreaded tasks are those that I feel like are never-ending in that I do them…and then it’s deja vu all over again when I’m doing them again. Paper clutter on the kitchen counter then goes to an inbox on the kitchen desk then goes to the upstairs office which then accumulates until I take a Saturday once every blue moon and go through and file it all (so I dread it because I know that the paper will just accumulate again and I’ll be doing it all over again). Or picking up the toys each day…deja vu. Or doing the dishes, deja vu. Or putting away the clean laundry…deja vu. It’s all such a bore. Ahhh, and then I remind myself that I’m a stay-at-home mom and these things seem to be heavier than they did when I was working. When I was working, I would just do those things without giving them much thought…now, those things ARE my work. Eeesh, I’m getting bored just reading my own words. I think I need to get back to playing hide-n-seek with the kids. THAT’s what I shouldn’t put off the most.

  • lynndarrowcarson

    It seems like I would not need someone to tell me “what should be common sense.” But these ideas are really great.

  • lynndarrowcarson

    I always thought I could figure all this out myself – after all “it’s just common sense.” But these ideas, like so many in your book, are really great and I will use them immediately. Thank you.

  • Diana

    For any brainless task I have to do I plug in my ipod and click on a book or a podcast. My husband calls it my powerpack. For thinking work I have to get out of the house early and go to my coffee shop, order a latte and “put myself in jail” (I love that phrase). I did it this morning until 1, wrote a big chunk of my new grant that I was putting off. It did help that I assembled & organized a binder of information and put together a folder of key articles. (and it helps that my coffee shop serves lunch.) I feel so much better now that I finally got started.

  • I like the idea of posting every day… it also saves you the mental energy of “should I do it now? What about tomorrow? Should I have done it yesterday?”

    Two more suggestions:

    1. Tell yourself that you only have to do 5 minutes of the task. That’s not so bad, right? This way, you trick yourself into starting the task, which is oftentimes the most difficult part.

    2. Put a good consequence on it. Like “if I don’t do X by Monday, I will give my friend Jenny $5.” And then tell Jenny :). I wrote a recent blog about this:

  • Great post Gretchen! I saw this headline in my RSS Reader and it stood out so I had to come and check it out. Very helpful.

    I’m like you, I find that I blog better in the morning. My creative juices are flowing better in the morning. By the time the evening comes, I’m operating off information overload and I’m hanging on by a thread… LOL.

    Not that blogging is a dreaded task for me, in fact I love it… if not I wouldn’t be doing it. But for those other dreaded task… sometimes we have to live by the Nike slogan… “Just Do It…” and do it now!!!

    Thanks for sharing such value!!


  • Angel

    I tell myself that by the time I am done complaining about it, I could have been done with it already. It seems to help.

    • gretchenrubin

      A great reminder.

  • sashathehappinessprojectlondon

    I totally agree with this! Get dull or painful tasks out the way early and you can enjoy the rest of your day….

    Thats why at the weekend I get up, wash up, put a wash on, generally annoy my boyfriend by being active, but then I get to sit down and relax with the paper and tea with no guilt at all…

    Sasha @ The Happiness Project London

  • Mornin Gretchen,
    Glad I visited today. The dreaded task is sitting on my desk to the right of me. It’s got “come hither” smile… rather than the “I’m going to make life rough for you today” look about it. It’s all about perspective. Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      Good luck plowing through it! you’ll be happier when it’s finished!

  • Michael Yanakiev

    Reading through your posts, and being aware of how you started I can clearly see that the system you are developing works. It takes a lot of guts
    to start making sense out of such a fuzzy concept as human happiness and grind it into a working system. Your approach is fascinating. I admit I have never seen something done so systemically and full of life that binds together. I am watching over and over the talks you give and what you promote only to discover that you seem to be always right. People may feel that everything is that simple, but I know that starting your project
    you developed a powerful theory that incorporates things that are really useful. Thanks.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thank you! I so appreciate those kind words. It’s great to hear that my work
      is helpful.

      • kmglenn

        Love the book and the Happiness Project concept, Gretchen. It also warms my heart that you have Nebraska roots! I’m a native Nebraskan living in Lincoln. I literally said aloud, ” Ah ha!” when I read the chapter where you mentioned your folks growing up in North Platte. No wonder you’re so normal, well-adjusted and smart! 🙂 Many thanks!

        • gretchenrubin

          Thanks so much! My parents both went to college at Univ. of NE at Lincoln so
          we love Lincoln. Cornhuskers!

  • Hello!

    I work at IM Magazine, an online Magazine that Spreads the Best Things in the World for a Better World. IM Magazine has a platform that gathers blogs that are in tune with the magazine’s spirit ( While surfing the internet I found your blog that I feel fits this spirit, so I invite you to sign in (here: in order to become part of our BLOG PLATFORM.

    Best wishes,
    Ana Mina
    IM Magazine

  • Allison

    I wish I had read this post earlier in the day yesterday. I need to complete my tax returns! But, I will take Wednesday’s advice for today, and try to get them done by tonight. 🙂

  • CynthiaJamesM

    In order sock away more dollars into nine-month emergency fund (that we had been putting off creating until the recession made us realize how important it is to have!), I’ve been cleaning our home every Saturday. Although I dread it, I try to make it fun by blasting my son’s stereo on a pop station (stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily listen to) and bop while I clean! The music energizes me and I even feel like I am getting a work-out at the same time (which makes me feel happy as does the clean house that I can enjoy for the rest of the weekend!).

  • I learned a while ago from Fly Lady that I could do anything for 15 minutes. This has made a huge difference for me. I just set my timer for 15 minutes and tackle what ever I’m dreading. It’s funny how it rarely takes 15 minutes to accomplish what I was avoiding.

  • Hank

    A dear wise man once told me, “just do it and quit dreading it”. Every time I get anxious about doing something I think of him and what he said. It works every time. Simple words. Great truth.

  • Loretta

    I hate burying my Bokashi bin. It has to be done every 3-4 weeks and I’ve had it sitting outside for a couple of months now. It only takes about 15 minutes to dig a hole, empty the scraps into it, and clean the bin, but it is messy and smelly. Every time I have to throw away food scraps into the normal bin I feel terribly guilty for contributing to the land fill, but obviously not guilty enough 🙂 My new resolution is to reward myself after emptying it. I’m going to allow myself to buy a book each time I do it. Let’s see if that is enough of an incentive!

  • Nice post and nice first tip! Doing it first thing is key for most tasks in my opinion. I always remember a story of a general who’d start his day by eating a frog. He did it because eating that frog would be the worst thing he’d do today meaning everything else in comparison will be easier. So doing it first, works. 🙂

  • mominterrupted

    I try to actively embrace this tip. So often I spend more time dreading a task than it would actually take to complete it!

  • pamwalter

    Great advice! I often spend more time dreading or avoiding a task than it actually takes me to do it!

  • Hi Gretchen,

    Tips on how to complete a dreadful task.

    Good topic.

    I agree, get a good start on the day, I rise at 5am every morning and have virtually finished all my major tasks by lunchtime leaving the afternoon free for other projects.

    My site has a daily update, so I HAVE to post every day.

    Be prepared for that difficult task, yes, but after 5/10 minutes just do it and I always envisage the desired result beforehand and TRY to act confidently as if this difficult task is just matter of fact for me and my company.

    Keeping a journal is vital, getting an expensive one helps and as you say crossing acheived goals off lists breeds a sense of acheivement.

    Hope the 2 dreaded tasks went well.


  • Gretchen, I’m really going to print this out and glue it on my screen – or beside it, maybe it is better!
    I’m soooo bad at tackling dreaded tasks…

    I tried to make a dreaded phone call first think in the morning, and even if I didn’t manage to reach the recipient, I felt like trying later and I finally talked with the person I was avoiding for days!

    Let’s go printing this really BIG!

  • As silly as this may sound to your logical mind, try EMBRACING pain. Internalize the statement that “pain is weakness leaving the body”. And you will look forward to things like workouts where you get to rid your body of its weaknesses. It has worked wonders for me.

  • Merry Sheils

    When I have a project to complete, I find the hardest step is to begin. Thus, I force myself to sit down at my computer, open a file and then name it. The very act of taking this tiny step makes it easier to go back to finish it, since I’ve already “begun”. Somehow, it is not so foreboding, once I have taken a tiny first step.

  • Ben Koshkin


    Ben Koshkin

  • You know, it’s truly amazing how much resistance we can build up to doing little things. For example, you wrote that your dreaded tasks took a total of 7 minutes. Yet, like you, I find that I put off doing ‘dreaded’ things as well. This is a great write to help me right that deficit! 🙂

  • anonymous

    I dread going through the same mundane, boring repetitive tasks that will be looming over me the rest of my life. It’s all one damn thing after another. Then, after all you goals are met and the struggling, you either get lucky and die quickly, or you get senile and live a miserable existence as your health deteriorates exponentially and you die – which we all will do regardless of what you have accomplished or what you put off.
    But hey, good luck on your pointless productivity.

    • Norma Eich

      It all seems like pointless activity, unless you have a higher purpose for living. Have you read The Purpose Filled Life by Rick Warren? There is a reason for all the things we do, but if you are not living for the purpose, you feel empty and directionless.

  • Nomnomnom

    One Tip for Forcing Yourself to Tackle a Dreaded Task.
    1) Adderall

  • maryjocampbell

    I love tips 1 & 2. I’m such a procrastinator, but know it feels exhilerating to complete that dreaded task. Including working out, which I think committing to it every day is a great idea! Thanks!

  • dahlia hanna

    i love this topic on dreaded task i am always procrastinating now i going to try and change that

  • Maria

    It’s reassuring to see how many people share this same issue.

  • Norma Eich

    I find that when I am procrastinating, it is because the dreaded task is bringing up unpleasant emotions inside. I must get my emotions under control before I can tackle the task effectively.

  • I find that setting a “time box” for a dreaded task also helps with overcoming it. When I tell myself that I will only spend 20 minutes or 2 hours and then be done with it (or at least done for now) it really helps.

    Also, giving myself a little reward like once I finish this I can go on a walk or eat lunch or answer an e-mail to a friend really helps.

  • sophiemario

    You have motivated me.
    I have been procrastinating on
    booking hotel in Montreal (very important friends coming from Australia, relying on me getting this right)
    Getting an up to date passport.
    New outfit for graduation party
    Cleaning the house (guests coming)
    All three cars need to be inspected and registered, has not been done since 08, car driving to Montreal needs a/c fixed for trip.
    Arrange college financing for two college kids
    one at a time.
    Plant some plants before they get killed.
    Clean finished basement, before it gets flooded if it rains again.
    Tomorrow i’ll do the hotel, and one car, and find UK embassy in Boston all before 9am and then my endorphins will flow out full speed ahead so I can enjoy an evening meal out. I will conquer.

  • I agree with you about doing the worst first, but I do it in the context of a closed list.

    Whatever tasks I have on today came in yesterday. That’s the limit of my ‘closed’ list. Anything I get today gets shunted to tomorrow (and beyond if necessary) unless it’s genuinely urgent.

    Those dreaded tasks? I try to reduce the resistance I feel towards them by time boxing them.

    Today, for example I had my closed list of 18 tasks, four of which I classified as ‘hard’. Everything else was ‘easy’ or ‘bob’ (bit of both).

    I’ve found time boxing is a great way to get the ball rolling on hard projects or tasks, particularly if, as you suggest, you do it daily.

  • A monotonous routine can be a dreadful task. Yeah, you’re right everything is about Mind-Setting, it helps you to focus to finish a ‘mission’. Heavy as it could, but you need to achive the ultimate goal….. Nice read!

  • Good, simple advice!


    I’m two weeks away from graduation at the Art Institute of Dallas & have been having some serious cases of procrastination which is lethal for a senior in design school….THANK YOU FOR THIS PAGE & HOPE YOU HAVE A GREAT DAY!

  • m65

    Sometimes, I avoid tasks that I think (or know) will take a long time. Sometimes I will avoid avoid a task because I’m worried that I don’t know how to complete it well. In these situations, I find that if I can get myself to start, and at least do part of the the task, it lowers the anxiety, and gets me closer to finishing. I’ll give myself a time limit. For example, I tell myself I only have to work on the task for 1 hour, and if it’s not complete by then, I can stop without guilt and finish later. Often, once I’m started, the task is easier than I anticipated, so I end up finishing in one sitting. Even if I don’t finish, and stop when my hour is up, my confidence, and knowledge of the task is increased, and the amount of work required to finish is reduced.


  • JustStumbledIn

    Christopher, you sound like a real douchecanoe. Write a book, get a famous blog of your own and then maybe your opinion will mean something.

    Seriously – WTF is wrong with people like you? Your life sucks and you’re unhappy so you just have to bring down others too? People like you are why teenagers crack and go postal in high schools these days.

  • Yusuf_djuly

    Very uplifting

  • Anne

    Dear Gretchen,

    I am just discovering your blog as I am reading your book, The Happiness Project. I got a chuckle out of your comment above where you admitted that you had two dreaded tasks that you had to complete before you wrote more. Thank you for writing the book and keeping the blog. I like you a lot, and I am enjoying making connections with you through your writing.

  • Delia Springstubb

    Hot Stuff!

  • Oh She Glows

    This article is so great, thank you. I feel motivated to get things done. I am going to check out your book too. I have been meaning to buy it!

  • Jbarnic

    I really dreaded making a comment on this article . . . but alas . . . taking all the tips in mind . . . I now feel much better . . . thank you!

  • Cilla

    On my desk I have a picture of a waterfall and a beautiful rainbow hovering above the surface. I have added the caption: you can do it feeling good or feeling not so good. And ever since, everything I do I make an effort to do it feeling good, since it has to be done either way. I feel better because of it!

  • MaKenna Henry

    i dread going to band because we are doing a solo and ensemble and I dont want to because its hard and no one ants to do it with me. And when im passing off a hard song, im going to get embarrassed.