You need to fill out paperwork. You need to clean out the garage. You need to pay the bills. You need to start a really challenging project that you’ve been putting off for months. You need to do some other dreaded task that you really don’t want to do but must be done.
And yet, instead of tackling that task, you’re scrolling social media, looking at photos of strangers or people you didn’t like in high school. You’re watching cute videos of cats (or dogs). You’re texting memes back and forth to your friends.
It’s so bad that you’re actually cleaning the kitchen, or scrubbing the toilet, or washing the dishes.
Yes, it’s that bad.
It’s easy to put off tasks we don’t want to do. After all, it feels good. Literally. That is, “our brains deliver a dose of feel-good chemicals when we choose something fun over something we should be doing,” said Maura Nevel Thomas, a speaker, trainer, and author on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance. Which, of course, today is easier to do than ever before thanks to technology. After all, distractions are—again literally—at our fingertips. You can’t get any more convenient than that.
We also tend to procrastinate on big tasks that have vague action plans, Thomas said. “We keep putting them off, because we don’t know where or how to begin tackling them.”
But even though it’s tough to complete certain tasks, and it feels like the universe is conspiring against us, we can absolutely accomplish the most frustrating, boring, mundane, or daunting things.
The key is to begin. As such, below, you’ll find a list of tools and tricks to help you spark your start.
Avoid using vague verbs. “When we phrase tasks with ‘vague’ verbs, they sound too big and too difficult,” said Thomas, author of the forthcoming book Attention Management: Breaking the Time Management Myth for Unrivaled Productivity (September 2019). Which makes it all-too easy for us to push these tasks aside and pretend they don’t exist.
Thomas calls vague verbs “speed bumps,” and shared these examples: Instead of writing “organize the meeting,” write “email the staff about the meeting.” Instead of “create the budget,” write “enter receipts into spreadsheet.” Instead of “research competitors,” write “Google business coaches in Chicago.”
Set a timer for 7 minutes. Thomas suggested shutting out all distractions and giving the dreaded task your full focus for those 7 minutes. She noted that this trick takes advantage of an idea from physics called “activation energy”: “The idea is basically that once you’ve started, you’re more likely to keep going.”
And even if you don’t keep going, 7 minutes of concentrated work is still work, which means you’ll be much further along than before you started. And you just might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in that time.
Do it first thing in your day. “It sounds counterintuitive, but do the most annoying task first, the thing you’re seriously dreading,” said Julia Dellitt, author of the book Get Your Life Together(ish). Make it non-negotiable. This way there’s no time to waver. And you’ll feel amazing after it’s done, and can focus on enjoying the rest of your day.
Set strict deadlines. For Emily Price, author of Productivity Hacks, one of the toughest tasks to do is writing a longer feature story that doesn’t have a specific deadline. “I’m great at getting even the largest projects done before a deadline, but whenever there isn’t one I tend to go into procrastination mode,” she said.
Price suggested setting a deadline for tasks that don’t have one—and telling that deadline to a coworker, your boss, or someone else who can keep you accountable.
“Saying you’ll get a project done ‘this week’ might end up meaning you’re plugging away on it late Friday afternoon. Instead, tell your boss you’ll get it in on Thursday. That forces you to buckle down and actually get the work done.”
Use regular rewards. The key here is regular. “According to psychologist Alexander Rozental, promising yourself a big reward at the end of a project isn’t likely to motivate you if you’ve been procrastinating on getting started,” Thomas said.
However, rewarding yourself as you progress through a task or goal, or complete quick tasks is highly effective. For instance, you might take a 20-minute walk after writing the first draft of your article. You might eat at your favorite lunch spot after submitting a brief report. You might buy yourself a freshly baked bagel and cup of coffee after spending the morning paying the bills or filling out preschool paperwork.
Blast through a bunch of dreaded tasks. Make a list of all the irritating, excruciatingly boring things you need to do. “Then, divide the list of tasks into two categories—what will take a couple minutes, or what needs more time devoted to it,” Dellitt said. “From there, set a timer for 15 minutes and do as many of the smaller tasks as possible until the timer goes off.”
This helps Dellitt create some momentum, and it sparks an important realization: Many of the tasks looming on her to-do list (and lingering inside her mind) don’t actually take that long if she just concentrates on completing them.
Set an “implementation strategy.” According to Thomas, “When you set an implementation intention, you commit to engaging in your desired behavior whenever you receive a certain cue,” such as: “When my alarm clock goes off, I’ll do a quick guided meditation to start the day.”
This kind of tool is especially effective because it doesn’t require relying on willpower, “which may get depleted with every decision you make,” Thomas said.
Other examples are: “When I get to work at 9 a.m., I’ll spend 20 minutes Googling a research study for my article on depression.” “When I sit down on the bus tomorrow morning, on my way to work, I’ll call the doctor to make an appointment.”
Create weekly systems with small daily actions. “Instead of spending your entire day working on something from start to finish, find ways to break it up into smaller bites that you can handle scattered throughout your day or week,” Price said. For instance, when Price is working on a larger story, she transcribes an interview in the morning. Next she works on something else. Then in the afternoon she returns to the project, and focuses on the actual writing.
Price does something similar with cleaning. On Mondays, she cleans the bathroom. On Tuesdays, she cleans the kitchen. “It doesn’t really matter how things are divided, the key is breaking it up into small enough pieces that I’m able to actually accomplish what I set out to do,” she said.
If your dreaded tasks are ones that need to be regularly done, separate them into chunks, and create systems. Make doing them automatic and easy, and make your environment work for you, so you don’t even give yourself the chance to back out.
Find a way to make it fun—or less awful. Put on your favorite music. Work at your favorite café, library, or park. Ask a friend to join you. This can be a time for them to tackle their dreaded tasks, too. You can even make it into a weekly ritual, and go out for dinner after you’re both done.
Doing tasks we don’t want to do is hard. It’s especially hard when we have so many other things going on in our lives, and distractions are aplenty. It becomes all-too easy, and natural, and automatic to put those annoying or daunting tasks off. However, when we’re strategic about these types of tasks, we can actually complete them.
Plus, keep in mind that the longer we put a task off, the more intimidating and overwhelming it becomes. Because that’s what avoidance does: It creates and magnifies our anxiety. So remind yourself that this is just a task. Sure, it’s annoying. Sure, it’s boring. Sure, it feels really difficult. But maybe you’re also building it up in your mind. Maybe you’re also giving it too much power. Maybe it’s all bark, and no bite.
And remind yourself that you’ve handled lots of stuff tough before. Remind yourself that all you have to do is start. You’ve got this.