What is a healthy response to trying to do a thing that is hard?
July 7, 2015 9:12 AM   Subscribe

My response to trying to start a challenging task is to become cranky/grumpy/etc., and my partner's response is to avoid doing the task. What is a healthier approach?

This is a habit I'm trying to address. For example, there's a recurring errand on Sundays, and I've noticed that I can be kind of a jerk on Sunday mornings. Then I do the errand, have a great time, and I'm in a great mood again. Learning new skills can be another example of a challenging task.

Normally when I'm looking to improve a habit, I look to my partner, to see what their habits are. However, my partner's approach with challenging tasks is avoidance. So I'm turning to you.

What is a healthy alternative to being grumpy when facing new challenges? How do I jump into new/recurring challenges while skipping the grump?
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (21 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Both examples you list are avoidance techniques. If you get "grumpy" or irritable when having to do a task, you are enabling yourself to not do that task. E.g., "I'll do it later, I'm in a bad mood because of X." I have found that getting to the emotional root of why I am avoiding a task helps me to get it done. In my case, paying some medical bills, it was fear and not wanting to be reminded of Scary Things. When I started talking with friends more openly about that fear, it became less of a burden to deal with the practical matter of doing the chore.
posted by deathpanels at 9:29 AM on July 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

There are three parts to this problem as you describe it.

1. Feeling grumpy.
2. Acting like a jerk.
3. Procrastinating.

Here's what I suggest for each:

1. Accept that task-doing makes you feel grumpy. You can be aware of feeling grumpy while following the next two points of advice.
2. Don't act like a jerk. Keep your mouth shut and no flies will go into it. It may help to explain "I'm tempted to act crabby now, because I have a task to do and I hate that. I'm trying to train myself not to be a jerk about it."
3. Define the smallest piece of the task you have to do, set a timer for either 20 or 45 minutes depending, and do that piece of the task. Then take a 10 or 15 minute break, depending how long your interval was. Basically eat your elephant one bite at a time.
posted by tel3path at 9:29 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I try (sometimes successfully) to channel that grouchiness into excitement.

So, when thinking about this errand that puts you in a bad mood, try to focus on the fact that you're going to have a great time and there's no reason to feel grouchy now. (I'm not sure what your errand is, but there is an exercise class I take sometimes that is really, really hard. Sometimes when I wake up that morning I find myself dreading it a bit. But then I just remind myself that I will definitely survive the class (always have!), will secretly enjoy turning temporarily into a sweaty mess, and will feel totally awesome afterwards.)

Learning new skills should also feel exciting! You are about to master something new. It will be hard at first - learning new things almost always is - but think of how neat it will be once you've got this new skill down pat.

tl;dr - focus on the future ("I'm going to enjoy this and feel great after!" "I'm going to master a new skill now!") instead of the present ("I hate this errand; it makes me grumpy." "The challenge of learning a new skill and sucking at it at first stinks.").
posted by schroedingersgirl at 9:34 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

The healthy things that I aspire to do (but do not always succeed in doing) include:d
1) acknowledge that the task is difficult/unpleasant
2) remember the reason I am doing the task, and acknowledge that I made a choice to do the task (even if it was a choice between two shitty options, I got to decide which shitty option to go with)
3) imagine/remember how good I will feel when the task is done
4) get started!
posted by mskyle at 9:35 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was one of those people who learned things easily, so I never learned how to learn because my skill would take me quite far. When I was past the "easy" part of the learning curve, I would just give up. Then as an adult I would avoid starting stuff that I thought I would fail at. It wasn't terribly conscious, it's just what I did.

Anyways, I've noticed two things help: first, I notice how nervous I feel when approaching something truly new to me, and I just try to observe the nervousness and desire to avoid the task. I feel small and young and unsure of myself. That's kind of cool! That's exactly how "new" feels! That's how unknown feels. I say to myself: this is how it feels to do something really new. Unless I want to live a life that is increasingly "easy" and thus unchallenging, I need to keep facing this feeling. I also remind myself that learning something new is inherently uncomfortable, but new skills keep the brain young. Otherwise you really crustify into patterned thinking. I've met plenty of rigid calcified old people to deter me from submitting to the subtle concessions that lead to that rigidity.

Second, I really try to watch what the hell I am doing. That is, rather than just charge in and do it quickly and then get pissed off at the result, I do it step by step and pay attention to the physical act of what I'm doing (rather than the theoretical/intellectual analysis; or rather than getting caught up in the excitement of wanting to do it and then getting frustrated when my vision exceeds my capability for now). For example I'd never worked with yeast before and screwing up dough is something that makes me nervous. So when I decided to just give it the old college try, I followed the directions and just paid attention to what is happening. The recipe says it should be sticky by now, is it sticky? Don't get pissed off because it isn't sticky, or worried that you'll throw all the dough out. Just be scientific. Is it sticky? Does it need more water or flour? Ask myself, what am I doing and what result am I getting and if it's not what I want, why is it and what else could I do to get that result? Basically, slow down and f*ing think about what I'm doing :)

For the Sunday morning jerkiness, I would simply suggest reframing it. If it is an errand that helps your partner, then you can say "I am doing this task to ease my partner's life." Or think "although I feel grumpy, this feeling will subside" or "although I feel grumpy, this task is still here." If you can handle more mind over matter: "don't think, just do" or "sooner started, sooner done" and get it over with. Focusing on the thoughts "I hate this task / this task shouldn't be required every week" is like meditating on the misery and just builds hatred / resistance.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:36 AM on July 7, 2015 [17 favorites]

Give yourself a bribe or reward.
posted by BibiRose at 9:39 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't think either approach is really the ideal, but your partner's approach is going to end up with nothing getting done, so I guess yours is more useful.

I'm not sure either that describing either way as not "healthy" is particularly valid. Sometimes we have to do things which we do not particularly enjoy, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Life isn't always a bed of roses and there's nothing wrong with anyone for acknowledging that and not whistling while you work all the damn time.

That said, suggestions for making it more bearable? The best thing I find works for me is structure. Set yourself definite times: "I will get up at x time, have my breakfast, and then start doing thing x at 09:00 sharp, no excuses".

It can help as well to have a set plan for when you've completed the task as well, so that you feel like you're looking forward to something and to stop it turning into some big open ended procrastination session. Make firm plans to go out for a walk, or to the pub for lunch, or just to sit down and watch a film/catch up on a box set together at a definite hour when you've finished the task.
posted by Dext at 9:39 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is probably going to sound crotchety and dismissive, but I swear it has worked for me and I'm not just saying this to be a butthead: Stop worrying about your feelings. Stop trying to motivate yourself. People have to do dumb, boring, hard stuff, and you are a person. You don't have to feel happy or pleasant or motivated and fulfilled about everything you do. Those are limited purpose emotions.

Your reward for getting unpleasant things done is having those unpleasant things done. Yeah, that sometimes means you get to do other, more pleasant things afterward, but your primary reason for doing unpleasant things is because you have to.
posted by ernielundquist at 9:46 AM on July 7, 2015 [37 favorites]

Sounds like you're getting hung up on the barrier to entry.

David at Raptitude just posted a good essay about this:
We end up with needlessly difficult lives because we have trouble recognizing ease when it’s hidden behind difficulty. It’s hard to see, for example, in that difficult moment when you’re about to walk into a gym for the first time, that you are taking the path of greater ease: if you get yourself through that short, difficult experience, your life quickly begins to lose a lot of difficulty. Beyond the gate, your health situation is easier, dating is easier, clothes shopping is easier, and so is virtually any physically demanding task you can think of, possibly for the rest of your life.
Here, the "gate" seems to be your own sense of dread. Maybe focus on seeing that for what it is, an illusory barrier between you and feeling happy, being done, and relaxing for the rest of your day.
posted by BrashTech at 9:48 AM on July 7, 2015 [18 favorites]

If you don't have yucky stuff to do, the good stuff will never seem as good. Along with all the other good advice above, try framing the errand you dislike with its silver lining. When it's done, I'll feel GREAT. or This stupid errand sure makes naptime (or whatever) that much more delightful!
posted by janey47 at 9:49 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

First I'd check to make sure that your grumpiness isn't a reaction to your partner's do-nothing reaction I am assuming this is a task that is yours and not your partners not a task that you have to do because your partner just won't.

I have tasks I dislike. I have a few techniques

1. bribery - do the thing you don't like, get the other thing you do like. Or stack tasks so that a thing you like always comes after the thing you dislike (for me this is "Coffee after tooth brushing")

2. grumpiness into a joke - "Wow look at me acting like a five year old because I have to take the trash out WAAAH WAAH WAHHHHH, here is my hissyfit, so ridiculous" and then I get amused by it. Maybe still grumpy but at least it's clear that my reaction is ... silly.

3. ask myself "What are you really concerned about?" So like I don't like... for a dumb example, stumbling on thins because it freaks me out, I think I'm going to fall, break my ankle again, blablabla, I get nervous and adrenaline-y really fast. My mind is quick and ALL of this goes through my head before I snap at my partner for leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor. But really the shoes are small scale and my reaction is based on this fantasy disaster I have cooked up. So I try to work on approrpiate level responses

4. The big deal for me is the monk and the river and not letting bad stuff colonize my mind. I spend just as much time thinking about the thing and then try to aim for ZERO time thinking about disliking the thing or how I didn't like doing the thing. If you spend an hour thinking about how much you hate a five minute task, that is like spending 65 minutes on the task and not five.

Grumping is indulgent at some level (obviously overlooking medical issues, etc). Get over yourself and do the thing.
posted by jessamyn at 9:52 AM on July 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

I try to do the hardest, most unpleasant, ickiest task first. Then everything else seems like cake.
And ditto: " Stop worrying about your feelings. Stop trying to motivate yourself"
You can hate running an errand and still do it anyway. And then you feel better when it's done.
My dad could fix anything with enough baling wire and cussing. The cussing helps.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:53 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've been working on telling myself variations on, "I don't have to want to do the thing, I just have to do the thing." It removes a layer of pressure I was putting on myself that I didn't realize I had been putting on myself.
posted by jaguar at 10:11 AM on July 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

I find sometimes that exaggerating the anger/grumpiness until it's just plain ridiculous helps to jolly me out of that kind of mood. "I HATE SHOPPING! IT'S LITERALLY THE WORST THING EVER AND I WANT TO STOMP ALL OTHER GROCERY SHOPPERS' BREAD UNTIL IT'S JUST SQUISHY BALLS OF WHEAT!!!" Something like that. Be grumpier than grumpy and make yourself laugh about it.
posted by xingcat at 10:13 AM on July 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

There's lots of good advice above about managing your feelings, so I won't re-hash it. But there are 2 effective strategies that our excessively can-do culture tends to overlook:

1) Don't do the task, or do less of it.

For some reason, I hate going to the store for household goods - toilet paper, soap, etc. So I buy in vary large quantities so I can go for a month or two without repeating the task. It turns out that going to the store doesn't really bother me, it's going every week that bothers me. Now I don't hate going to the store for household goods because I only have to do it every 4-8 weeks.

Similarly, I hate loading and unloading the dishwasher. So when I lived alone I hand-washed every dish. Who says that just because you have a dishwasher you have to use it? I'm much happier not dealing with the dishwasher. Now that I'm living with my SO who likes the dishwasher, I use it for communal things but I still have a few things that I wash by hand to cut down on the dishwasher stuff.

2) Make the task easier.

I used to hate mowing the lawn. But eventually I realized that I could get it down to a bearable task - under an hour - if I didn't run the edger every time. Now I mow weekly and edge monthly, and the mowing is much more pleasant because it's fast.

Honestly, we've all absorbed a huge amount of cultural programming about what we SHOULD do, and in many cases we're taught that we're lazy and worthless for avoiding a task. But so much of that is useless. There's no moral imperative to go to the store frequently. Society won't fall apart if I take my trash to the curb every other week instead of every week. So certainly learn to manage your emotions, but also consider that maybe the issue can be fixed by being easier on yourself. Literally do more things that make you happy and fewer things that make you unhappy. Maybe instead of a zen-like approach to not-fun tasks, you need to restructure those tasks so you're doing fewer of them.

"For example, there's a recurring errand on Sundays" - Do you really, really have to run that errand? Do you have to run it at that time/day? If so, then you need the advice above to help you fix your thoughts. But maybe you don't really need to and can accomplish the same goal in another way.

"Learning new skills can be another example of a challenging task." - I have realized that I only have so much productivity available in a day. If I have to do something new or challenging, then I don't do some other productive task and instead I focus on learning. That way I have the mental energy available to learn, and not doing the other thing is my reward. Some of the best advice I ever got was (paraphrased) "there are only so many hours in the day. It is impossible to make time. To do new things, you have to take time away from other things." On a related note, relaxation is important. If you want to be productive, you also have to relax. So if a new skill is taking time away from your relaxation, of course you hate learning it. Take time away from something not-relaxing instead and you'll be much more willing to learn the new skill."
posted by Tehhund at 10:16 AM on July 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

I both avoid and get cranky about things I perceive to be hard. I realized I was making my life more unpleasant by classifying tasks as hard and have been working on reframing "hard." Some questions I ask myself:

What does hard or difficult mean in this situation?

What is my actual goal and is there another way to accomplish it?

Which is harder, doing the task or the dealing with the consequences of not doing the task?
posted by Shanda at 10:17 AM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Depends on how hard, and how grumpy.

For things that are really hard and really important, one thing I occasionally say to myself is that emotions are a luxury I can't afford at the moment. (I said this a lot to myself when my child was an infant and I was Very Tired, or when he has a stomach bug that my slightly emetophobic self has to deal with, or that time my cat caught and killed a mouse for the first time right in the middle of prepping a large Thanksgiving dinner.) It's a variant of "stop worrying about your feelings" upthread, but a phrasing that's more useful for me.

For things that I'm just not enthusiastic about, like dusting the house or exercising or going to a dull conference, bribing myself, giving myself permission to hate it on the inside, and giving myself permission to be bad at it are all things that help. (Note that none of those give me permission to be rude to other people; but I don't have to enjoy being kind to them at all moments.) I have enough of a perfectionistic streak that I consciously choose to do things I am bad at to release all that procrastinatory fear of failure, and after a while it's taught me to feel kind of free with those activities, like "yay, I can turn the filter off and be terrible at this!" That's more of a long-term solution, but might be something to try.
posted by tchemgrrl at 11:37 AM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that you should limit work wherever possible--I, too, buy toilet paper in giant bales because the grocery store is a tedious and deeply offensive place. Limiting work is healthful and wise.

Eliminating work, on the other hand, is ruinous. This is because janey47 is right. No matter what, you must not ever try your partner's way. If there is no work, then there is no play. Or if everything is play, then play becomes work. Formerly fun things will drain dry of fun. They will become workavoidance tasks. Unearned sleep is not even properly sleep, it's just a cessation of pointless activity that is itself as pointless and as exhausting as the activity because while you're sleeping you're dreaming about all the undone work and all the pointless activity you did to avoid doing the work, all the terrible and exhausting "play." All night. All night and presently all day because if you don't force yourself to do necessary work, first your dreams and then your thoughts will spoil like the corned beef and cabbage and the spinach casserole that you were supposed to eat but didn't because instead you went out to eat, the corned beef and cabbage and spinach casserole that then presently you were supposed to clean out of the refrigerator but you didn't because it makes you grumpy to throw away food so you left it, the corned beef and cabbage and spinach casserole that have become monstrous and destroyed the plastic food containers in which they were carefully stored away back when they were good, before YOU got involved--the good kind of food containers, the kind with the latches and the removable gaskets in the bright, complementary colors: DESTROYED.

You will think about the work all day and night and not do it all day and night and the work will metastasize and become hideous and lethal. You will think about the work and its vileness growing ever viler. You will think of it all the while you're doing supposedly fun things. You will look back to the old days when you used to feel "grumpy" and compare that to what you feel now and you will feel something snap somewhere. Your brain? Your... what is it called? Your "soul?" Do you even have one anymore?

So anyhoo, to wrap up, when you see your partner avoiding work, whisper to yourself, "That way madness lies." Hope this helps! C U l8r, gotta go clean out the crisper! (Which is work-avoidance code for "I'm going to listen to Throwing Shade for three hours while playing freecell.") TTFN!
posted by Don Pepino at 1:00 PM on July 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

If the task is something like dropping off a kid at a violin lesson, add a treat or recognize a nice thing: I get to listen to that show on public radio, or listen to that podcast I like and saved for this occasion to make it less unpleasant. If the task is overwhelming, break it into smaller chunks. I have to mow the lawn. I will mow the back yard 1st, then I can have that doughnut. When you feel the grump set in, remind yourself that you always feel great afterwards. When you dread a task that you end up enjoying, examine it to see if there's some hidden anxiety, like being social, or whatever.

Once a task is completed, give yourself a victory lap: I have returned the books to the library! W00t! I am a damn fine-looking goddess! and if the task was particularly onerous, a reward This blue foil star on my calendar indicates heroism in the face of unpleasantness! w00t again!

I used to hate to take out the trash. I finally just got over it by recognizing that taking out the trash on Monday evening is an important task, doesn't take much actual effort, and takes literally 4 - 6 minutes, depending on how much recycling there is. 4 - 6 minutes is easy. You know who else times things to master procrastination? Rob at cockeyed.com

For your spouse's difficulty accomplishing household tasks, use the Shamu method.
posted by theora55 at 2:39 PM on July 7, 2015

I use the Mary Poppins method: In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! the job's a game. Don't get mad, get silly. Everything is easier when you're laughing.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 2:56 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

In order to prepare myself for something difficult, I engage in extra self-care activities, so that I'm happier and healthier, and therefore more capable of meeting challenges. For example, if I know that I have a long day ahead of me, I'll get to bed earlier the night before and eat a big nourishing breakfast in the morning. Stopping throughout the day to stretch my legs or close my eyes helps a lot. If I have a task that I'm not looking forward to, I'll take a nice long shower first, because that puts me in a good mood and makes the task seem not so bad. I'll often take a walk around the neighborhood before I tackle something intellectually challenging, because it clears my head and helps me focus. I'll often drink a lot of water while I'm doing difficult things, because it just makes me feel better.

What I'm most likely to do to prepare for a challenging task is eat a good, solid meal. Being well nourished makes life a lot easier, I think. Proper nutrition is important for maintaining good mental and physical health. When you're mentally and physically healthy, challenging tasks seem a lot less daunting.

Basically, I just do things that make me happy and healthy beforehand, and then difficult tasks become a quite a bit easier to handle.
posted by sam_harms at 5:03 PM on July 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

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