Dreading a Task? 5 Tips for Getting Yourself To Tackle It.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for getting yourself to do something you don’t want to do.

How many times each day do you try to work yourself up to tackle some undesirable task? If you’re like me–several.

For example, right now I’m trying to figure out how to put podcasts on my site again. I did it for a long time, but after my blog re-design, my system stopped working. I have to figure out what the problem is. Here are some strategies that I’m planning to use:

1. Put myself in jail. If you’re working on something that’s going to take a long time, and you have the urge to try to rush, or to feel impatient, pretend you’re in jail. If you’re in jail, you have all the time in the world. You have no reason to hurry, no reason to cut corners or to try to do too many things at once. You can slow down, concentrate.

2. Ask for help. This is one of my most useful Secrets of Adulthood. Why is this so hard? I have no idea. But whenever I ask for help, I’m amazed at how much it…helps.

3. Remember: most decisions don’t require extensive research. This is another important Secret of Adulthood. I often get paralyzed by my inability to make a decision, but by reminding myself that often, one choice just isn’t that much different from another choice, I can move on.

4. Take a baby step. If you feel yourself dismayed at the prospect of the chain of awful tasks that you have to accomplish, just take one step today. Tomorrow, take the next step. The forward motion is encouraging, and before long, you’ll probably find yourself speeding toward completion. I was overwhelmed by the project of putting my digital photos into albums, so I “suffered for fifteen minutes,” day after day, until I was finished.

5. Do it first thing in the morning. The night before, vow to yourself to do the dreaded task. And the next day, at the first possible moment–as soon as you walk into work, or when the office opens, or whenever–just do it. Don’t allow yourself to reflect or procrastinate. (This works particularly well for exercise and phone calls.)  I work from 6:00-7:00 a.m. every day, and because this is the time when I have the most concentration, I often keep an assignment to undertake during that hour.

HOWEVER: Pay attention to the amount of time you spend working on tasks you dislike! No one enjoys preparing tax returns, but if you feel like your life consists of nothing but going from one dreaded chore to the next, take note. Maybe you need to think about switching jobs, or delegating a particular chore, or paying someone to do a task that’s making you miserable.

I’m very good at making myself do things I don’t want to do, and while this is an enormous help in many situations, it has also allowed me to go down some dead ends in my career. The fact is, you’re unlikely to be happy or successful when every aspect of your life or job feels like a big drag.

Don’t accuse yourself of being lazy or being a procrastinator, and ask: Why is this so difficult? The fact that you’re finding it hard to make yourself do something is a sign that maybe you should be doing something else.

On the other hand, novelty and challenge, as uncomfortable as they can be, do bring happiness. The chore that feels onerous today may give you a huge boost of satisfaction tomorrow, when it’s behind you.

A major happiness challenge is knowing the difference between an intimidating goal that’s right for you, and an intimidating goal that’s not suited to your nature. W.  H. Auden wrote: “Between the ages of 20 and 40 we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

What are some other strategies that you’ve found useful in trying to get yourself to jump some hurdle?

  • Deb

    And what does Auden say we should do AFTER 40?  🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      My question too! I guess by then we’re supposed to have figured it out. Not necessarily!

  • Great post, some useful ideas and valid points, thank you.

    I have 2 further tips:

    1) Get Nike on yo’ ass (i.e. Just Do It!). Thought is often the enemy of action.
    2) Ask yourself, “What if it was easy?” – this NLP pre-supposition can often surprisingly moved mental roadblocks out the way very quickly.

  • Jennie

    I tell myself to do my “tomorrow self” a favor and just get it done…just a different way of saying “don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today,” but somehow imagining myself tomorrow, happy that the task is behind me, helps! 

  • The perfect post for me today, as I am procrastinating packing for a long road trip. Not anymore! I’m off to pack!

  • I found one trick that was huge for getting me to stop procrastinating. I separate “planning” from “doing.” If I’m dreading doing a task, then writing out a list or instructions for HOW to do it or just setting up the materials feels like I’m getting away with something because I don’t actually have to DO the thing I’m avoiding. But then later I come back to it and it’s a piece of cake because everyone’s set up and ready for me. It works wonders.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is such a good way to think about it.

  • Anne

    If it’s a one-time task, I tell myself I’ll just get started, with mental permission to quit when I get tired of it. At least half the time, I finish in one go.

    If it’s a repeat task, I try to make it easier. For example, I’m leasing a house at present that doesn’t have an ordinary bathtub. It has a huge jacuzzi. I don’t like jacuzzis, but I prefer bathing to showering, so I use it for a tub. What I really don’t like is cleaning the durn thing, and the housekeeper doesn’t like doing it either. You have to climb into it to clean it–feels really weird.

    So I decided to put a “magic eraser” sponge handy at the edge, and go over it after I’ve had my bath. I’m already in the tub, so that angle isn’t a problem. And there’s no need for cleaner–any soap scum comes right off with the sponge. Making the task easier means it gets done, with a lot less angst.

  • I am reading this blog post to procrastinate. OOPS. 

  • Some really useful tips in both blog and comments – thanks. I use ‘pomodoros’ – 25 minute stints then 5 minute break to think how it is going, or to do something else and refresh….I get through a lot this way

  • I love the idea of putting yourself in jail!  This is what I do:  I’m aware of the resistance and force my self to do the task anyway.  From my experience, actually doing the task takes far less time than all the time I put into the resistance.  I remind myself of that one basic fact.

  • Peninith1

    Try thinking ‘Just Do It (now before it becomes an emergency).’ My 88 year old mom has been mulling over the idea of moving to one floor for months. Indeed, she already sort of had a plan in May, but it was still a ‘someday’ plan. Guess what, on the eve of her 88th b-day she fell in the basement, broke a rib, cracked her sternum badly, and is now well along the way to getting a new bathroom shower installed downstairs, has a daybed in the living room where she can sleep, and friends and neighbors mobilized to move furniture and install a window A/C unit to make her one-floor living comfortable. Meals on wheels and a home helper are scheduled to start arriving on July the 8th. When it became an emergency, all the help she had been offered over and over again suddenly became acceptable, but she has had to pay a pretty high price in pain, hospitalization and bruises!!!! I know this sort of thing throws up way bigger obstacles in the mind even than getting down to your taxes, but gollee–we have moved mountains in the past 10 days . . . because we regarded it all as something that must be done now. It has been hard work, but oh so easy to do because we believed it MUST be done.

  • Erica_JS

    you feel like your life consists of nothing but going from one dreaded chore to
    the next, take note.”  This is the great
    paradox for me.  I am highly
    underemployed and frustrated with my dead-end “survival job,” so I am trying to
    change things by getting a better job. 
    However, there is literally nothing I loathe and fear more than putting
    together job applications.  So my life largely
    consists of 1) job I resent; 2) job applications I hate.   Sure, I
    make time for hobbies and socializing, etc., but there isn’t time to make those
    a significant part of my life IF I want to ever escape the dead end and obtain the much
    longed for job in my field! 

    The only way
    to put an end to #1 dreaded chore is doing more of #2 dreaded chore, which has
    no guarantee of ever paying off.  Catch-22.

    • ElaineS

      Hi Erica_JS, Gretchen’s point no. 2 may be useful to you in your situation – “Ask for help”. I asked a friend of mine if she would mind me having a look at her resume and it was so awesome that I asked if I could model mine on her format which she agreed to.  She is even offering to have a look over mine when I’m done.

      It sounds like to me that some inspiration might help spur you along whether it’s an inspiring resume to emulate or an inspiring job to go for.  You deserve to work in a job that brings you at least some sort of contentment.

  • Sumdawson

    yeah, are you kidding me?  I was married to one and it was quite tedious and I felt he was always condescending.  Yes, I got divorced.  No fun.

  • Nancy

    I live by Rabbi Tarfon’s maxim:   “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to
    absolve yourself from it.”

  • I like the way you broke this down into easy parts. Great job.
    Sally Marks

  • Agendler

    Wow! I haven’t visited your blog in a while, and I just want to say I love your redesign! So much less cluttered. Great job!

  • Lisa

    One option: create a reward. ‘if I finish the report tomorrow, then I’ll get sushi for lunch”. Another option: involve someone else / become accountable to someone. “If I want to clean out my closet this weekend, call a charity now, to come and pick up my donations on Monday.”

    • gretchenrubin

      I really like the idea of creating a deadline by setting the pick-up time.

  • Spase

    I’ve realised that for me, many times, dread comes out of fear – fear of making a mistake, of being underprepared, of making a fool out of myself, etc. etc. So i try to pinpoint the exact fear. Often, simply putting it in words vastly reduces its dimensions and i realise that it’s really not that bad, and nothing that cannot be overcome! hope this helps 🙂

    • Kim

      I am exactly the same… most of my procrastination comes from fear. Thanks for the tip!

  • PeterEHall

    There’s a couple of tactics I use. One is tell someone else you’re going to do it – this creates some external accountability. The other is think how much better I will feel when the task has been done.

    I like Auden’s but about limitations. And in reply to what to do when you get passed 40. Be who you are – just a little more each day will do.

  • Peninith1

    And here is a related PIGEON OF DISCONTENT. What about those things that trip you so you fall flat on your face, and when they finally happen, you think “I KNEW I needed to pay attention to that” but up to the moment it caused a problem, all you had in your mind was a very faint nagging. In other words, I’d call the pigeon “Why can’t I pay attention to those little warning signals I ignore?”

  • Sometimes I spend more time and mental energy thinking I “should do” something than the task itself ends up taking to do! A great example is cleaning – I would look at the messy stove-top and think ‘I really ought to clean that’ and ended up doing this and being annoyed about the mess for longer than it actually took to clean it. 
    I found a great tip in Margaret Wehrenberg’s “The 10 Best-Ever Depression Management Techniques”: to time any task that I’m dreading. How long does it really take? Don’t want to take out the rubbish? How long does it really take? You could probably do it in an ad-break.
    Sometimes we blow the task so far out of proportion, thinking it takes so much longer than it really does, that we prevent ourselves from even starting it.

  • I like to plan to do something that is enjoyable to counter the negative feelings I have toward doing something I don’t want to do. Mostly it will follow or be integrated in the dreaded task, but sometimes I will reward my prior to the task. This only works if I am committed to the promises I make myself. For example, I have committed to working out in the pool every day, but after work I can’t just hop in the suit and get to it. I have to decompress, so I allow myself to sit out by with the pool with a beverage for about a half hour before I start preparing to work out. I have found that this works for me. But isn’t that the key, getting all the ideas you can, and finding out through trial, what really works for you.

    • gretchenrubin

      This is a very interesting observation…I wonder if it’s a “reward” or more like a “getting in the mood” for something. This seems like a really good strategy to me, to ease into things rather than try to hammer yourself into them.

      You’re so right, the key is – what works for YOU?

    • Lisa

      I agree! Sometimes, if I want to go for a run on the weekend, I just put my running clothes on when I get up. Even if I know I want to have coffee/breakfast first, maybe relax and read for a while, eventually I’ll go for a run, partly because I start to feel silly in my running gear, but maybe also because I’ve eased into it!

  • I try to start the day with a post it that has the three things that must get done that day in order of importance.  Ideally (but not always) I tackle the first before doing anything else, give myself a break and then on to the next.  On great days, all of them get done before lunch, but they usually get completed before the end of the day.  

    My other trick is to just commit to it every day.  When I planned to exercise 3 days a week, any given morning I could have convinced myself that it was a morning off.  Once I committed to exercising every day, I had to get up.  I took choice out of the matter.  It still might not happen every day, but it much more likely to be most days of the week.

    Come join me and other women who are teaming up to slim down at http://www.togetherwedare.com/

  • Great article. Lots of helpful tips and advice.

    “Thinking Matters”

  • Anne Stokes Hochberg

    I have found it helpful to set an “aim” at something I’ve been procrastinating about for a long time – like dealing with clutter. If it’s a very easy aim, I’m much more likely to do it and even go further, for example, aiming to spend 10 minutes a day 4 days out of a week addressing paper piles. Once I trick myself into beginning, it’s so easy to keep going.

    Making myself accountable to someone else also helps me keep going when the novelty of something like this wears off. Having a compelling or meaningful reason to do something or a realistic deadline can also help.

  • Pepedo

    I like to put an aspect that i enjoy into the dreaded task. For example, when I have a math problem set for school, I’ll use my favourite pencil and sit in my favourite corner in my house, or when I have to go for a run, I’ll play my favourite songs…cheers me up

  • Meg R.

    Hye Gretchen,
    I like this topic and have looked at some of the same things you describe, ie: are you doing too many things you don’t like and need to reorganize your work (retired).  One thing that makes me feel left out is that I live alone and have no one to deligate tasks to, it would be really great if someone can come up any ideas for this. 

    • Susan B

      For Meg R. who doesn’t have anyone to delegate tasks to. This helped me at an overwhelming time two years ago. I took one of those phone message books where the tear off part is a post-it. I wrote messages to different aspects of myself such as Ms. Fix-it, the accountant, the cleaning service, etc. I stuck the notes on the dining room mirror. During the next few weeks, I would choose a task and have great fun making a big pink check mark on the note when the task was done. Rather than throw the notes away, I piled them on top of each other for a visual sign of my accomplishments. Later, when I was less stuck, I threw the pile away.

  • SV

    Procrastination is one major pit stop that I used to fall into most of the times. The only ways I have handled it to take baby steps and some times doing it first thing in the morning.

    Good read. 

    cheers, SV

  • Like you, I LOVE the early a.m. when my mind is excited for the day. I also tell myself I will give myself a treat after 2-3 hours of doing a task. Garden here I come!

  • Wow, great thoughts and I love, love, love WH Auden’s words. I was just having a conversation about this difference between natural ability and things you should really work to overcome. This is a such a succinct summary. Thanks, Gretchen!

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  • James Taylor

    Thank you Gretchen, this spoke to me! I feel very encouraged by the Auden quote as I have become aware of going through something like that in my mid-30s.

    “learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”