Scientists Studied People Who Destroyed Tasks They Didn’t Want To Do: Here Are Their Secrets

Scientists Studied People Who Destroyed Tasks They Didn’t Want To Do: Here Are Their Secrets
Learn how the latest discoveries in psychology can motivate you through the toughest tasks: The ones you don't want to do.

We all have to do stuff that sucks.

We have to finally get around to washing those dishes we’ve let “soak” for the past three days.

We have to wrangle our expenses so we can do our taxes. We have to handle our annual smog check at that gas station that smells like iguana urine. We have to make the house cleaner than it’s ever been because your sister-in-law is coming. That’s how it is.

Doing things we dislike is part of life – some might even call it the very essence of adulthood.

Responsibility is the price we pay for independence. So, what do we do when our deadlines loom or those unavoidable obligations catch up with us? Procrastinate until last-minute panic sets in? Get in an argument with our significant other about why we haven’t responsibly taken care of something yet? Do we half-ass our efforts and lower our standards to match the results? Do we watch a video of Shia LaBeouf shrieking at us for an hour on repeat?

Or are we going to be smart about it?

Doing Despite Disliking

As much as we might be tempted to shrug and say “just do it,” willpower isn’t some switch in our heads. Mercilessly throwing ourselves at a project isn’t always enough to see us to the end. And fortunately for us, it doesn’t have to be that brutal.

What helps people persevere in the face of difficulty isn’t so much stubbornness as it is strategy, and in 2018, researchers at the University of Zurich conducted an in-depth study to discover exactly what ingenuities effective people employ. Their findings (“Doing Despite Disliking: Self-regulatory Strategies in Everyday Aversive Activities”) revealed a host of brilliant tactics for enduring the challenges and chores life throws at us.

science go to gym more

As tough as daily life can be, with the following techniques, we can be tougher. And it begins when we:

Break Things Down – Correctly

One of the most common reasons we procrastinate is because we have trouble wrapping our heads around the size of our projects. It’s one thing to clean the moldy vegetables out of the fridge – getting our places presentable for house guests can be another matter altogether (if you’re anything like me, anyway). Whether it’s a deep clean, a workout plan, or finally sitting down to write that novel, these long-term, time-consuming projects can make progress difficult to track. After hours of sweating and straining, we might look at how much we still have to go and lose heart. As much as that might seem like a deficiency of character and not motivation, the honest truth is that it’s not our fault. Not entirely, at least.

Visualize a purple octopus. Yeah, it’s an odd request, but go ahead and try. Pretty straightforward, right? Now visualize two purple octopuses (octopi?). Still pretty easy. Now visualize three, four, or even a dozen of ’em. All perfectly doable.

Now imagine two thousand.

Unless your brain is wired in a very specific way, chances are that you’re not imagining two thousand individual cephalopods. You’re imagining some vague, squirming mass out of Lovecraft’s worst nightmares. And that’s normal (as much as imagining an excess of fictional purple octopuses can be normal). At a certain point, our brains stop being able to form a coherent sense of scale and simply state, “Damn, that’s a crapton of calamari.”

The same problem applies to particularly lengthy or complex projects. When we look at the whole endeavor, even the most level-headed of us is going to have an emotional reaction. Even if we grit our teeth and charge in, after hours of sweating and straining, we might stand back and wonder if we’ve made any progress at all.

Here’s the good news.

While we might not be able to picture what it’s like to spend hundreds of hours writing and editing a manuscript, we can picture what it’s like to fill up a single page. We have context. We have something that falls within our cognitive limitations. Unsurprisingly, it’s this exact technique that our researchers found to be a major predictor of success: the ability to break challenging projects into clear, simple, achievable goals.

If you know you need to start contributing to some kind of retirement savings, that can feel completely overwhelming and get pushed and pushed and never get done.

Simple achievable goals might look like:

  • Ask Ryan, James, and Erin what type of account, service or professional they use
  • Research each, determine which is best for my situation
  • Research financial benchmark recommendations for how much to invest each month/year
  • Look at last 12 months of income and expenses and determine where those benchmarks line up
  • Create changes in spending if necessary
  • Speak to potential professional or customer service of service I’m considering
  • Sign up and make initial investment OR reconsider other professionals/services if feeling uncertain
  • Repeat last two steps until completed.

When broken down like this, you not only create a checklist of things to do to track progress, but it becomes clear each of these can be done on their own in a sitting, some requiring less than 15 minutes.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Keep An Eye on the Finish Line

Right alongside breaking tasks into manageable chunks, researchers found that “thinking about the near finish” was a highly popular strategy among their most effective participants. Simply put, it’s telling ourselves that we’re “almost there” – a reminder that can give us a last-second boost of energy. The benefit of breaking down our chores is that it gives us potentially dozens of finish lines to cross – a chance to reward ourselves more frequently. Hitting milestones in quick succession doesn’t just help us stay on course, but can actually motivate us to push on further – and there’s no better example of how this is done than in video games.

doing things we dislike

Think about the last time you went on a fetch-quest for some provincial jarl. Sure, recovering the blade of ten-thousand winters didn’t give you any real-life benefit, but you were so close to leveling up. You don’t play Civilization until three in the morning because you’re actually constructing an empire, but you are just three turns away from getting to the Industrial Age (you’ll save and quit after that – you swear).

These quickly-achievable milestones have been used in games from World of Warcraft to those godawful Farmville games. While those techniques can sometimes be a bit sleazy (even designed to be addictive), repurposed for our own benefit they can be a powerful tool for grinding away at a mountain of work (more on that in a minute). Simply put, the same quick completion that tempts us to do just one more level can help us trick ourselves into getting just one more step completed. And while we’re talking about gamification, it never hurts to…

Tie It In With Something Fun

At first glance, that might seem obvious. Don’t worry. This isn’t yet another cliché recommendation to listen to music while you wash the dishes. What we’re talking about here is something more sophisticated. We’re talking about “temptation bundling.”

At its core, temptation bundling is the art of weaving two activities together – one that we want to do and one that we need to do. This doesn’t mean merely rewarding ourselves for finishing something we don’t like, this means fundamentally altering the activity itself – turning it into something that seamlessly merges a boring-but-beneficial chore with something that offers immediate gratification.

Think of it this way:

Veg out in front of the TV for an hour, and chances are we’ll get up feeling bleary and guilty.

Force ourselves to start on our meal prep for the week, and we’ll likely be so bored of peeling garlic and stirring pasta that we’ll get unforgivably sloppy. Merge the two activities, however, and we create something new entirely.

Since I started temptation bundling (making prep time also my TV time), the dicing veggies went from a chore to one of the best parts of my week. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I’ll even find myself slowing down to extend the process (paying more attention and doing a better job in the process).

Here’s the catch.

For temptation bundling to work – for us to really trick ourselves into looking forward to these duties – we have to do the fun activity only when we’re doing the chore. I only watch TV when I’m doing my meal prep. We might only eat takeout from a favorite restaurant while hammering away at our month-end report. We might only sip a glass of our favorite wine while slogging through some particularly difficult reading.

The evidence speaks for itself.

In a study conducted in 2014, participants were given audiobooks only when working out at a gym. Sure, they could listen to their hearts’ content while they sweated on the treadmill, but the second they finished, those listening devices were locked away. The result? A 51% increase in repeated gym attendance – and this isn’t just for workouts. In more and more workplaces, it might mean turning a routine duty into a game. Suddenly, an afternoon of data entry turns into a cutthroat competition to see who can get the most work done the fastest. The duties remain the same, but tapping into our naturally competitive natures can pump a ton of energy into a project.

what is temptation bundling

Regulate Emotions

Mentality matters.

It matters when we’re slogging through the grind of our day jobs, it matters when we’re handling our weekly to-do lists, and it especially matters when we’re dealing with some tedious tribulation life unexpectedly hits us with. How we react to tough situations plays a massive role in how well we get through them, and of the some nineteen strategies the researchers looked at in their study, “emotional regulation” was by far and away one of the greatest predictors of success.

What exactly does that mean? In essence, it’s about maintaining a good mood as we chip away at whatever challenge we’re faced with. This isn’t to say we need to shut down our brains or act creepily cheerful, but we do need to keep an eye on our attitudes towards tasks we dislike. It’s all too easy to get sucked into a whirlpool of self-pity and resentment. “I don’t like data entry” can turn into “I hate data entry” which can turn into “Why am I wasting my existence doing mindless bullshit a particularly well-trained gerbil could do?”

In those moments of peak frustration, it’s important to recognize that our inconveniences aren’t always as apocalyptic as they might seem. That’s what emotional regulation is – recognizing and redirecting our emotions in a productive way. When the walls are closing in around us, let’s first take a deep breath. Let’s acknowledge that we’re feeling upset, and instead of wallowing in that emotion, let’s wade through it and ask what caused that reaction. Once we identify it, it’s easier to step outside our situation and look at things rationally. Our emotions are just emotions. They’re here now, they’ll be gone eventually, and we’ll still remain.

As much as this bullshit might suck – it is not the thing that takes up the majority of our time.

This is not our life, this is a small part of it – perhaps only forty-five minutes of it. While we should absolutely want our work to be engaging, challenging, and meaningful, it’s imperative to remember that we can get through this. Stoicism, optimism, and humor can work wonders for taking the bite out of even the worst situations (and a particularly fantastic technique comes from Primer’s own Jack Busch).

And let’s not forget to…

Change The Circumstances

Frequently, much of what makes a chore unpleasant isn’t the effort it takes to do it, it’s the circumstances in which it has to be done. Auditing a file might not be the most thrilling thing in the world, but’s perfectly doable. Or at least it is until our coworkers start debating where to get lunch from with all the volume control and courtesy of a troop of howler monkeys. The same goes for cooking dinner (after coming back from work drained and exhausted), or walking the dog (which might even be fun, if it wasn’t so bitterly cold).

When faced with these hurdles, what do we do nine times out of ten? Silently suffer through it.

While this applies to everyone, guys in particular are at risk of buying into a “tough-it-out” mentality. As obviously wrong as it is, we tend to imagine that the secret to doing anything is just to clench our teeth and take it on the chin. While there absolutely is something to be said for good, old fashioned durability, the reality is that we far too often harm ourselves rather than help. We know we’re more likely to get our tasks done when we’re fed and rested, but how often do we bite the bullet and mercilessly whip ourselves on? How often do we hold ourselves up to some completely irrelevant standard? “Hey – Ernest Shackleton was marooned in Antarctica, and he led his whole crew to safety on a diet of penguin meat! What’s my excuse?”

strategies for doing work you don't want to do

That mentality neglects the fact that, given the opportunity, Shackleton and his men would’ve traded all that diarrhea-inducing penguin meat for a solid meal in a second. Let’s be clear – being motivated and being masochistic are not the same thing. If we actually care about getting our tasks done (and getting them done properly), then we need to take care of ourselves. That means being hydrated. That means being fed. That means being rested, warm, comfortable. It can mean giving yourself a boost (skip doing your taxes on amphetamines, but a cup of coffee can do wonders for your productivity). No, we can’t use self-care to procrastinate, but we do need to be at our best to give our best. It’s as simple as that.

Common wisdom might tell us that the best way to motivate ourselves is with the fear of failure. So much of our lives are based around horror stories of what will happen to us if we don’t study, if we don’t get good grades, if we don’t nail this interview. And while fears can spur us on momentarily, they ultimately don’t offer any lasting motivation. Beyond paralyzing us with anxiety and wrecking our self-esteem, the simple truth is that we already know what will happen if we don’t succeed – things will continue as they are. While the present state of things might not be pleasant, we’re aware – on some level – that it’s at least livable.

It’s no surprise that, of the nineteen strategies studied, focusing on the positive consequences was by far the most popular. In essence, we’re turning a mindless chore into an exchange. “I’m eating a tasteless salad” is depressing. “I’m eating a tasteless salad so that I can lose weight and look dashing” reframes that same activity in a way that gives it purpose. We don’t need to ask ourselves “What if we fail?” We need to ask ourselves, “What if we don’t?

“What will we get by accomplishing this task that we don’t have now? What will we get that we won’t achieve any other way?”

We’re not talking about rewarding ourselves with some junk food for a job well done. If the temptation is great enough (or if the work is hard enough) we’ll likely just break down and buy that burger anyway. And we’re not talking about creating a vision board and simply daydreaming about things we might enjoy. What we need to do here is zero in on the consequences, the things that will only come about by getting the task finished. It could be the chance to enjoy the rest of our week completely guilt-free – no need to taint our Netflix binge with the knowledge that we should be somewhere else.

For a more intense or long-term project (such as exercise), getting that ideal body means getting a self-esteem boost we wouldn’t find anywhere else, or being prepared for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure canoeing down the Amazon. Completing that additional coursework (even after you swore you were done with school) means getting that certification. Getting that certification means getting that job. Getting that job means buying our own place, or starting our families, or putting away for our futures.

Humans can do pretty much anything if there’s a half-decent reason for it. At the end of the day, when we’re tired, torn up, and ready to call it quits, it’s this tactic that can keep us driving on.

Fear fades. Desire doesn’t. What will you be fighting for?

So the next time you’re struggling to find motivation (whether you’re shoveling snow or scraping barnacles off the bottoms of clipper ships) try:

  • Breaking down the project into workable steps (you don’t need to pack the whole house today – just the living room)
  • Reminding yourself you’re almost done (just two more paragraphs to write, and you’re set!)
  • Transforming the task into something fun (the last weekend of the month is beer-and-bill-paying day)
  • Pumping yourself into a positive mood (you will feel better after humming Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping”)
  • Changing the circumstances you’re working in (you’ve never done anything you couldn’t do better with a full belly and a solid night of sleep)

What strategies and schemes have you found to be effective when doing the things you dislike? Share in the comments and keep the conversation going!

Gordon Brown is a former ex-pat recently moved back to the US from the Middle East. He spends his time working as a vocational counselor and downing more energy drinks than is healthy and/or sane. You can find more of his fevered scribblings and subversive, revolutionary tracts over at CultureWarReporters.com..

  • CryptoReporter

    Pretty good article. But long. Need to break this article down to finish it 🙂

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  • Nobody

    Thanks for the article, Gordon – I thought it was helpful. For smaller tasks, I try to stick to the rule of two minutes: If the task takes less than two minutes, just do it. It’s such a small amount of time (usually), that it’s easier to just do it now.

  • Robert Schreib

    Always take a Post-It note, before you go to bed, and write it all of the specific tasks you want to do tomorrow, and place it where you cannot avoid seeing it at the breakfast table. It actually makes a difference in your overall work or accomplishments, if you learn to itemize everything!