Putting Off Some Horrible Task? Try These 7 Tips.

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 seven habit tips for forcing yourself to tackle a dreaded task:

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 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 October 31, 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.

7. Observe Power Hour.

I get enormous satisfaction from my new habit of Power Hour.  I came up with Power Hour because, as I was working on Better Than Before, my book about habit-formation, I wanted to create a habit of tackling dreaded tasks.  But how could I form a single habit to cover a bunch of non-recurring, highly diverse tasks? I hit on an idea. Once a week, for one hour, I steadily work on these chores. An hour doesn’t sound like much time, but it’s manageable, and it’s amazing how much I can get done.

In Better Than Before, I identify the “Essential “Seven,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall. Number 5 is “stop procrastinating, make consist progress.” Often, it’s dreaded tasks that block us. (If you want to know when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

How about you? What strategies do you use to help yourself tackle a dreaded task?

  • Penelope Schmitt

    USE A TIMER. I never tire of suggesting this trick. I set my timer for 30 minutes or an hour, and work on the dread task, whatever it is, without stopping. Then I get to have an equal amount of time for something I would prefer, and follow that by (if necessary) a return to the dread task. It limits the agony; it keeps you from clock watching; it gives you a reward in equal proportion to the time you spent. Really. It is an awesome and helpful method! Of course it does not always work for standing in line or out of the house dread tasks, but for anything to be done at home — bueno!

    • BJK

      I agree with the timer method. What it does for me is get me started. I tell myself I’m only gonna work on this dreaded task for 30 minutes and set the timer (I use the timer feature on either my ipad or iPhone ). It gets me started! I’m a big believer in the Law of Inertia. Once the timer goes off, I’m into my task, my mind is warmed up and working. I usually keep going and set the timer for another 30 minutes. Oftentimes, I finish the task in one sitting.

  • Randee Bulla

    When I have projects that aren’t fun – I don’t think about it, I just do it. I do not allow myself to think about how I might feel (in a negative way) going into the project or how how unenjoyable it might be. For example, I’m cleaning the garage on Friday. I know I’ll need to have some boxes ready to fill to Goodwill, have a box for our local shoe donation site, borrow a leaf blower to help get rid o’ all the dust, etc. I won’t dwell on the fact that I’ll be covered in sweat, dirt, and
    cat hair for hours. Or that I could be at the beach on my first day off
    in a while. Or that I could have slept in and had a leisurely breakfast. Instead, I’m focusing on the endpoint and how much more I will love gardening or exercising or even just walking through the cleaned up space. This also works well for me when I gear up for a hard workout or long run that pushes my current limits, or when I’m doing something difficult or complicated at work. I guess it’s one way I try not to get in my own way.

  • I love your power hour idea. When I have something that needs to get done and I can’t bring myself to do it, I just tell myself I only have to do it for 15 minutes, then I can stop. By the time the 15 minutes is over, I usually have the momentum to keep going. And if I don’t, I at least spent 15 minutes doing it which is better than no minutes at all.

  • Suzanne Brazil

    Much needed this late Wednesday night as I’ve been putting off my latest project. Will also share with my college son.

  • Richard Hutsko

    Awhile ago a friend of mine gave me this piece of advise:
    “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen the rest of the day”
    I’m not saying I eat amphibians but the principal is similar to your do it now admonishing. Putting of distasteful or tough tasks only makes them worse. Of course sometimes if you wait long enough the “task” handles itself…or the frog hops away!

  • Jeannie

    My father passed along a saying one of his teachers gave him in the 1940s: “Do the hard thing first.” It gets the dread over with (which is really the worst part anyway) and the task done.

  • Debbie H

    I enjoyed reading all of these ideas and I use many of them. But what how about when you’re trying to accomplish something and the completion of your project/assignment is dependent on others; i.e., dealing with customer service reps, etc. and no matter how hard you try you just can’t seem to get the problem resolved or else it takes numerous attempts before you’re successful. Now that’s frustrating . . . it’s out of your hands and you’re at the mercy of others to help you see the task to completion. Any thoughts on how to stay calm and keep things in perspective?

  • Lisa

    Since I am a fairly new follower, I had not yet heard about your Power Hour. I think it’s a fabulous idea! I’m certain it will be useful at home, but my first thought was about work. I have long struggled with the “tyranny of the urgent” where I never get to those projects that do not have deadlines. This might be the perfect way to make some progress — I’m looking forward to trying it.

  • Debbie Stier

    Ok, here’s the best horrible task trick I’ve ever discovered: Brainwave. It’s an app. I started at about 10 minutes a day….a week later I was doing it a few times a day, and now: I listen to the app … all day long.

    And I’m moving mountains. I’ve never been so focused in all my life.

  • john

    i read something about number of hours when you multiply it all out, I recently took on bookeeping for the company,, Yea right on top of everything ? So far behind, overwhelmed. But I realized that if i chose to work every morning from 7 to 9 7 days a week, Thats 700 hours a year or 17 40 hour work weeks,, all done 🙂 Also tracking with a stop watch too. Even my most productive days are really only an hour here and there. But i use it the other way around like a stop watch count up and see how long i am actually working on each project, Trust me your actual work time is very small.

  • sima

    I have an issue with tasks that are never, ever, ever ending. I never can get my house clean to where id like it, never can get the laundry completed. How to make a dent and feel accomplished? I.just never do it! I mean laundry is washed, but not folded or put away. Dread, dread, dread.

  • Marie Bel

    Hi Gretchen! I absolutely loved your book. Thank you for these tips. It’s “Mise en place” though 😉 Have a great day!!

  • Suze Xavier

    “Great post ,I agree with all the points you have made!
    Coz…i love waking up early, standing out in the balcony for a minute or two and breathing in the cold air and then slowly get to making the list.When i am done with that i am aware of the all things i gotta get it done that day then I think about how much i can get it done on my own, and i get started on those items..the rest i delegate it to my VA (Habiliss). Crossing out the items off the ‘to-do list’ gives me a kick and makes me feel good and that is what motivates me to sit down and make another list the next day.”