How to Do Something You Don’t Want to Do

What to do when you really, really don't want to do something -- but you have to

This week I had my first appointment with the dentist in years. Clearly, this is a process I don't enjoy. Until now, I've been downplaying any dental issues I experience or trying simpler (and not always effective) home remedies – in short, I let my fear win. Why? I have a list of reasons:

  1. It's scary: The impending poking and prodding of instruments is terrifying.
  2. It's tedious: I have to find a good dentist, book an appointment, and dig out my old records.
  3. It's not urgent/imperative: I don't have any major dental problems (or so I convince myself).
“Because some tortures are physical and some are mental,

But one that is both is dental...

And this, O Fate, is I think the most vicious circle that thou ever sentest,

That Man has to go continually to the dentist to keep his teeth in good condition,

When the chief reason he wants his teeth in good condition

Is so that he won’t have to go to the dentist."

- Ogden Nash
DALL E knows the pain of going to the dentist

I realize my dentist appointment isn't really a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it's never easy to do something you really don't want to. Not unless there's some kind of push, from outside or within, that forces you to muster up the courage. In my case, there was a reality check – one of my wisdom teeth was emerging from the wrong angle, and I couldn't ignore the pain any longer. At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I'd say its best you learn well in advance how to do something you don't want to do!

Types of things you don't want to do, and why

Fear, anxiety, and resistance can grip you in any situation, big or small. Before getting to why this happens and how to overcome it, let's see what kinds of things have us paralyzed:

  • Situations that bring emotional discomfort: Have you ever had to call your friend with bad news? The guilt and dread of such difficult conversations alone can be overwhelming enough to want to run in the opposite direction. Being the source of disappointment is no picnic either. So telling your boss that you messed up is bound to be causing fear!
  • Situations that are "Low value": Marie Kondo has it right – some tasks don't spark joy. They're just too boring or unpleasant to do. A universal example – taxes! Who likes going through every single payslip and receipt for the year (and reliving those poor choices)? The book The Procrastination Equation calls these tasks "low value" – you're less motivated to do them, because they're not inherently enjoyable. (Want to learn more about this equation and how it determines your motivation? Take our quiz!)

Now you know what it is that you don't want to do, so find out why we're putting it off.

Take 5 minutes to sit down and think about it: what's putting the brakes? Boredom, fear, a compulsion to be perfect? Unwillingness to engage? Or is it physical - are you just tired?

"Do or do not – there is no try!" - Master Yoda said it first

How to get an Unpleasant Task Done

Find your why

Think of the big picture, and dig deeper to find the reason you need to do the task. If the situation impacts someone else, think about how a delay could affect them.

Use If - Then Planning to remove willpower from the picture

Plan in advance, in the format of “If it's 2pm on Thursday, then I'll make that call and say this.”

Setting an exact time and day leaves no room for putting it off. Take it a step further, and decide exactly what you're going to say/do, what can happen and how you will react. Basically, write the script, and act it out!

Pick a day and time and set a reminder on your phone. Give yourself more time than you'll need (admit it, you're going to stare at your phone for about 15 minutes before you press Call)!

Hold yourself to the act of doing it, not how well you do it

Do you fear failure? Or that you won't be able to do a perfectly fine job? But really, what is perfection? You might have a perfect ceramic pot in your mind, but in this case, remember that what’s important is just getting it done. Let go of your ideals and embrace reality: so what if you don't do a wonderful job, the point is you did it!

Get Accountability

Come to Boss as a Service – accountability is our speciality! We will not quit till the work’s done.

Want to put your money where your mouth is? Check out Beeminder!

Want to get accountability for something specific? There might be dedicated apps for just that. For example, find a workout accountability app and make sure you follow through on your fitness goals, or an accountability partner specifically for the goal of saving money.

Want to try social accountability? Here's how to find an accountability partner!

Promise yourself a reward after

Hey, you did the task! You deserve a treat for pushing yourself. Some might say the real reward is just getting it out of your hair and not having to think about it anymore, but a bonus reward never hurts! If you want to treat yourself to the book or dessert you’ve been eyeing for a while, you have our blessing!

Adopt Prevention Focus rather than Promotion Focus

“Promotion focus” refers to the mindset where you think about how doing great things will make you better off. For example, if you do a great presentation, you'll impress your boss and maybe get a bonus.

Prevention focus, on the other hand, is for loss aversion. A fear of losing what you have is, counter-intuitively, way more motivating than a desire to gain more. So think about what could happen if you don't complete your task. Would you lose what you already have – the trust of your boss, for example?

Embrace the suck

Hard things suck. But there's no way around that – so embrace it! Just telling yourself you know it's going to suck signals an intention to accomplish it anyway.

Gamify it

Add some interest to this boring task by making it a game. Can you finish it in an hour without rest? Set that timer and go! Can you write for 10 minutes without getting distracted? Can you beat your own previous score?

Having trouble getting started? Here’s how to jump in


Sometimes it’s just that simple. Count it down aloud, and when you say Start, don't think – just start!

Count down aloud - and get started!

Eat that Frog

At BaaS, we love eating Frogs. Aim to start work on the unpleasant goal as soon as you wake up in the morning. It’s like having to eat something small, green and slimy because it’s good for your health: just get it out of your way and go about the rest of your day.

Try the 10 minute rule

Can't bring yourself to just sit up and begin? Give yourself permission to stop after 10 minutes. This makes it easier and less intimidating to get started since you know you have “a way out.” But once your mind has started engaging with the task, most of the times, you'll find it's not as bad as your brain made it out to be – and you'll find it easier to go on!

Break it into the tiniest possible steps

Sometimes, you just don't have clarity on what exactly you need to do – making the whole task a scary, nebulous phantasm. What might help is breaking down the big task into the tiniest possible steps. It could go like this:

  • Go to my desk
  • Open my computer
  • Start up a Word document
  • Type the title of my report

Yes, these steps are deliberately tiny! Writing them may take a while and may even make you feel silly. But don't give up!

It's necessary to keep them small, so your brain thinks, “Hm, I can handle just this one task easily.” And once you accomplish that only one task, the next one doesn't feel that scary. With each step checked off, you gain more confidence and make quick progress!

Bundle them up!

Have a specific time slot, recurring each week, devoted to all these things you don't want to do. Through the week, just assign the "not now" tasks to Wednesday afternoon, for example.

Then on Wednesday, you dig in. Try creating a fun atmosphere. Play your favourite music, stay comfortable, work with intention and don't quit till the last item is crossed off the todo list!

Final thoughts

We all have those times when we don't feel like doing what we should – or don't feel like doing anything at all! The trick lies in re-framing the problem in our heads, and experimentation! Above all, don't let your hated task stew long enough unattended that it becomes an Ugh Field.

Want to dive deeper into procrastination? Here are some more articles for you!

Think this makes sense?

Add your email here and we'll send you similar articles when we manage to stop procrastinating and write them.