It's never easy to do something you don't want to. Think about it – is there a task you're postponing right now? Something you need to get done, but the very thought of it makes your mind cringe, and turn quickly to a distraction – YouTube, texting your friend, or getting a snack – to make yourself feel better?
Often, the only way to tackle these dreaded, stressful tasks is to create some kind of push – from outside or within – that forces you to muster up the courage to just get it done.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical (since I'm successfully procrastinating on any number of things right now) I'd say you should learn how to do something you don't want to do!
How to Get an Unpleasant Task Done – 20 Actionable Strategies That Work
1. Make sure the goal is formulated well
Sometimes, we can't find the motivation to begin a goal because it is formulated vaguely. "Work on my report" does not inspire action. But "Finish my report and submit it by 4pm" does! Make sure your goal follows the precepts of the SMART framework. We have a handy SMART Goal Generator for you to try!
2. Find your why
Think of the big picture, and dig deeper to find the reason you need to do the task. Very often, that's motivation enough.
For example, maybe just thinking of your task as "completing my paper" is uninspiring, but when you remember that it's a requisite for you to get your degree, that provides you the push you need to get started.
3. Think about who it impacts
Our tasks seldom exist in an isolated bubble. Chances are, what you're doing affects someone else – and your procrastination affects someone else too! If you're struggling to get a report done, think of how it will impact your coworkers. Are they waiting for you to get it done? How might it impact your clients? How might a failure to deliver impact your family? Framing the goal in this way and thinking of the consequences can propel you into action.
4. Hype yourself up with motivational self-talk and success visualization
Yes, this works! Before getting started, tell yourself that you can do it. Think of all the times you have done hard things, and succeeded. If you can do those difficult things, this little report will be a breeze for you! Tell yourself that you've got this, fist bump yourself, and get to work. This is a way to increase expectancy, which plays a large role in increasing motivation.
5. Reframe the task to create a mindset shift
Sometimes, in the rush of life, we forget that a lot of things we complain about are things we should be grateful for.
Are you postponing cleaning your house or doing your laundry? Think about the fact that you're fortunate to be in a position where you have these things -- things that would be luxuries for many others in the world.
Are you dreading getting started on a report for work? Reframe that thought and change your mindset -- your job allows you not just a way to pay your bills, but perhaps a playground for you to learn and hone your skills. What can you learn by working on this report?
Embrace these moments as chances to contribute positively, to learn and grow, to become an expert in your field.
6. Create the right mood to get work done
This is one of those little things you'd think don't matter much, but the investment of a few minutes in setting up the right ambiance to get work done goes a long way. Take a few minutes before you get to work to get rid of distractions. Keep your phone away, turn off notifications, and maybe make yourself a coffee. This little ritual also signals to your mind that you're preparing to get some serious work done.
7. Use If - Then Planning to remove willpower from the picture
You shouldn't rely on willpower! It might fail you, especially when you're already struggling with motivation. Instead, 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)!
8. Hold yourself to the act of doing it, not how well you do it (Action over Outcome!)
Sometimes, perfectionism might be holding us back. You're not sure if you can do a good job, so you don't start at all.
But really, what is perfection? You might have a perfect ceramic pot in your mind, but almost in every case, finished trumps perfect.
Let go of your ideals and embrace reality: so what if you don't do a wonderful job, the point is you did it!
And remember: you can always edit, iterate, improve. Even if you put out a less-than-perfect version, you'll have a chance to better it later. On the other hand, if you let perfectionism completely paralyze you to the point where you can't start, well, you have nothing to show for it at the end.
9. Get someone to hold you accountable
Accountability is a potent tool. (Yes, we're biased!) Commit to someone that you'll get it done, and you drastically increase your chances of actually following through. Read about what being held accountable means.
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 or a fitness accountability partner and make sure you follow through on your fitness goals. Or, to hit your financial goals, you might want to find an accountability partner specifically for the goal of saving money.
Want to try social accountability? Here's how to find an accountability partner!
10. 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!
11. 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?
12. 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, and makes it less likely that you'll abandon it half-way through.
13. Gamify it by adding contraints
Add some interest to this boring task by making it a game. One of the best ways to do this is to challenge yourself by adding constraints.
Can you finish it in an hour without a break in between? Set that timer and go! Can you write for 10 minutes without getting distracted? Can you beat your previous high score?
14. Step Away to Reset
Every so often, you do need a break! When you're working on your dreaded, unpleasant task, reward yourself by taking a mental break. You can use this time to do a quick workout, some light stretching, or take a quick walk around the block. But make sure you're mentally disengaging with the task!
Bonus: the fact that you've planned breaks in between your sprints also makes it easy to start, since you know you won't be trapped in unpleasant-task-land for too long.
Having trouble getting started? Here’s how to jump in
If you're having trouble with task initiation, try our ADHD task initiation tool! Made for anybody who's having trouble with big tasks – the tool breaks down the big task into small steps, and coaches you through them!
Sometimes it’s just that simple. Count it down aloud, and when you say Start, don't think – just start!
16. 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.
17. Permit yourself to stop after 10 minutes
Can't bring yourself to just sit up and begin? Try the 10 minute rule. 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!
18. 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!
19. 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. Work with intention and don't quit till the last item is crossed off the todo list!
20. Pair it with something fun
Hey, it's already a difficult task. Why make it even more unpleasant?
Try creating a fun atmosphere. Play your favorite music, and stay comfortable. Maybe you can take the work to your favorite cafe, and get it done while sipping a latte. Whatever it takes to make it easier for you.
Types of things you don't want to do, and why
Now that we have these actionable strategies in our arsenal, it would be helpful to understand why we struggle with doing things we don't want to do.
Fear, anxiety, and resistance can grip you in any situation, big or small. Some situations that can 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!)
For example, 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:
- It's scary: The impending poking and prodding of instruments is terrifying.
- It's tedious: I have to find a good dentist, book an appointment, and dig out my old records.
- It's not urgent/imperative: What's going to happen if I don't do it this week, and do it next week instead?
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.
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?
Creating forcing functions to get it done is hugely helpful in the moment, but taking the time to understand your patterns pays off in the long run!
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!
- We wrote a post about our favorite books about procrastination!
- And here's our post on ADHD and procrastination!
- Why can't I finish anything, you ask? Here's why.
- 25 ADHD Apps to Help You Focus, Get Organized, and Thrive
- How to Find the Motivation to Get Out of Bed