Motivating yourself to do difficult work you really don't want to do
November 22, 2017 6:19 PM   Subscribe

I have a set of tasks I absolutely need to do that are very challenging, will take a lot of time, and that I dislike working on a whole hell of a lot. (Think something along the lines of writing a thesis on a subject you dislike intensely.) I'm really struggling with finding the motivation to even get started, and time is running out. How can I force myself to grind my way through it?

Some additional context: I have depression + anxiety (am currently on Lexapro, seeing a counselor), and as a result I've had issues with motivation in pretty much all areas of my life.

But in most cases, getting started is the hard part. Once I start the task, I actually enjoy it or at least don't hate it, and I feel a lot better once I complete it. The only case where I've found this isn't true is in the case of these tasks, where I pretty much hate every second I work on them, and whatever motivation I come up with is quickly depleted.

I can't just mentally check out like I usually do with work I hate because they're tasks that demand 100% of my brainpower. I know I'll feel good once I complete the tasks, but even if I start work on them immediately and spend all the time possible on it the finish line is so far out ahead of me that it's tough to hold on to.

Please assume there is absolutely no way I can get out of doing these tasks. (I've already spent literal years looking for alternatives.)

One thing I have thought of is possibly using small rewards to motivate myself, but I'm not sure what kind of rewards.

What are some methods you've used to do things you've just really, really, really not wanted to do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (21 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
If you have time, check out The Willpower Instinct. The author, Kelly McGonigal, is legit.
posted by delight at 6:38 PM on November 22, 2017

"Study halls" using the Pomodoro Method with a supportive friend (who was also working on hated tasks), followed by dinner. We would work separately for the length of the pomodoro, then bitch and goof off during the 5-minute breaks. Got us through physics, anatomy and physiology, tax returns, graduate school applications and I'm sure some other things that were so hateful I've blocked them out.

Peer pressure: it's not just for drugs!
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:39 PM on November 22, 2017 [38 favorites]

Do you have to do them in order? What helps me is to do the thing I least want to do first. Then the other tasks are relatively easy. To get started on the first thing, I break it down to very simple steps. I set a timer for 30 minutes and start working. You can do anything for 30 minutes, no matter how unpleasant. Then go do something you like doing for 15 minutes. On and off like that until it's done. Your time segments may need to be adjusted depending on the task.

The sooner you accept that you will never ever just spontaneously feel like doing the task, the sooner you will stop waiting around for that feeling and just grit your teeth and get to it.
posted by AFABulous at 6:43 PM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

What I do is work in the same room as someone else and literally have them watch me.

(May or may not work for you, depending on the nature of the task and how long it takes.) For example, when I know my partner and I are going to be in the same room for a couple hours, I'll literally sit him down, say, "I have to do x now. I am going to do x at the table [for one hour] while you work on your own thing. Do not let me get up and go do something else!"

It's not pleasant, and it's not sustainable long-term, for obvious reasons—but it gets the job done for one-time tasks. I have depression and anxiety, too, and I tend to just give up and do something else after five minutes, but being physically monitored keeps me on track.
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 6:43 PM on November 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Pomodoros or "just do as much as you can in [5, 10, $smalishnumber] minutes" have been very helpful.

Also, breaking down tasks into teeny tiny pieces. I love the feeling of checking something off a list, just a personal thing. So, for a task like "get bodywork done on my car" , I might have a set of tasks like: *look up the general amount this costs, *see if Yelp has anything, *do a month of Angie's List if I need better recs, *pick the top 5 in my area (ratings, hours etc), *drive around and get quotes, *get bodywork done at the one I pick. Seriously. All those stupid little steps. I'm forgetful and distractable and easily overwhelmed, so it's a system that works for me. Sometimes I work from a dial to-do list that I might put only one of those component tasks on, and keep the full running to-do list for that specific task separately, so it doesn't seem like So Much every day to look at.

But, tbh, as someone else with a depression diagnosis who is also on an antidepressant, I have to say that what's helped the most has been Ritalin. It just knocks down that barrier to getting started on stuff I hate, like somehow it's just no big deal. Pharma magic. I don't know what your feelings are about more meds, or if stimulants play well with Lexapro (I'm on a different antidepressant)-YMMV, certainly. But after dragging myself through method after approach after catchily-named-trick, for a year - this is the thing that's truly, consistently worked for me.
posted by shortskirtlongjacket at 7:02 PM on November 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Changing your venue may be helpful-- for me there's sometimes an element of 'and I am stuck in this boring room with these boring/terrible tasks while everyone else in the world is out doing something interesting and/or fun'. If the task requires a laptop, you can work in a coffeeshop or a library-- somewhere you don't normally go. (It should be somewhere you don't go a lot so you don't start associating a place you love with the horrible task.)

This can be especially helpful combined with having a friend for accountability, or with a reward system: "After I finish this part, I'm going to get a scone/look at the new arrivals section/walk up and down peoplewatching for ten minutes while my friend watches my stuff, and then for the break after this I'll play on my phone and watch their stuff while they get a scone." Planning out the next few small rewards and when, precisely, you intend to take breaks is a good idea, too.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 7:35 PM on November 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

Have you ever talked with your counselors about taking something like Adderall? (I don't know if it's a possibility for you, but I think it's worth exploring).
posted by dilaudid at 7:45 PM on November 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

As a procrastinator and avoider, a doer of things at the last minute and misser of deadlines, I empathize with you all too well on this. But drugs like Adderall will not solve this problem; they may improve the experience of actually doing the thing, but will not make starting the thing any more appealing beforehand.

When I have a future task I haven't started to feel pressure from, I often try to start a "scratch draft" of it early, before it's looming like an intimidating black cloud over my psyche, and make small additions and edits as often as I think to, so that I have something meaty to work with by the time the deadline's started to make me anxious. I've found that any low-stakes, back-of-the-envelope prep work I do towards tasks like this (say, for ten minutes at a cafe while waiting to meet a friend, or in another chill situation where I have unallocated time) really helps ease the pressure because instead of starting from scratch I can just copy the sentences and bullet points I already have written, as a way of focusing on the task.

I'm currently procrastinating about a performance self-assessment I'm overdue to hand in (oh the irony), and though I'm dreading starting it (and, this week, feel incapable of doing just about any work at all), one thing that lessens the agony is that have a page of notes already written out in my notebook from last week, so I'm not starting from scratch. Sure, I have to convince myself to start copying that page of notes out, but on weeks like this when I'm foggyheaded and not especially sharp-minded (something Adderall is said to help with, but does only minimally, fwiw) it can help kick my mind back into gear ever so slightly.
posted by tapir-whorf at 9:14 PM on November 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Do the thing you hate the most first, then the other things (or a chocolate bar) are your reward for getting it done. I used to be a huge procrastinator and the only way I got past it was by doing this.
posted by Jubey at 9:42 PM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

Not a healthy option to use all the time, but I open up the files I need and sit down at my desk with a bag of snack food. Lots of immediate positive reinforcement for chipping away at whatever it is (writing a shitty first draft, breaking it down into ever-smaller chunks until it seems manageable, writing an outline, etc.)

And focus on the good things that will happen from doing the task, not on unpleasant things that will happen if you don't. Picture sending off the completed work and being proud of yourself.
posted by momus_window at 10:23 PM on November 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

I find the pomodoro method very helpful. And honestly, if I have a task and I find myself resisting getting started, I try to jump straight in with both feet before I can think of a reason to put it off. Sooner started, sooner finished. If I have several tasks to do, I do the shittiest one first so that I get it over with, then the rest of the list is comparatively easy.
posted by Autumnheart at 11:13 PM on November 22, 2017

Others have offered you carrot-y, motivating tips, so I offer the stick: the spectre of having to cram on these tasks at the last minute!

I actually JUST went through this process the past week. A difficult, very tedious long-term Project. I knew it wouldn't be fun. You know what's even less fun than the assignment? Doing the assignment when given a looming, seemingly impossible deadline, and revving your poor sleep-deprived brain and computer-fried eyes on full blast. You betcha I spent some of the minutes wishing I'd done EVEN A LITTLE more of it earlier. Given the haste and depleted energy levels, I worry that the work product wasn't something I'd be proud to have attached to my name.

Plus, if you're prone to anxiety like us, any time you "save" by not working on the project is actually marred by the dread of the Project.

You already know how good it feels to finish. Many tasks end up being "That was easy--why didn't I do it sooner?" Visualize how you'd feel at the end and just carry on.

Far be it from incorrigible procrastinator me to lecture you about this. Just think of me as a future version of yourself time-traveling to warn you of avoidable misery!
posted by Sockin'inthefreeworld at 11:30 PM on November 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

Honestly, what works for me is to take away all the *other* things I could be doing. Set aside a solid few hours, block all the interesting websites on the Internet, put my smartphone in a box on silent, and sit in a room that has nothing but me and my work. I will sometimes spend 10-30 minutes hating myself and feeling miserable, but eventually I’m fed up enough that I do it.
posted by fencerjimmy at 12:46 AM on November 23, 2017

Yes, use Self Control (free) or Freedom, or Focus (not free, but you can schedule in advance) to block all or parts of the internet.
posted by tapir-whorf at 1:09 AM on November 23, 2017

One of my last assignments in grad school found me with terrible writer’s block. I got anxious even looking at the computer. So my darling husband sat at the computer and I faced away from him and I dictated the answers to all my dippy little management case studies and GOT THEM DONE.

I am currently battling with Bipolar depression but I am also trying to write a book, which I struggle to begin working on but enjoy once I start. My process is to send whatever I have, be it a paragraph or a page, to my mom and she gives me props and then cheerleads me through the next part. Very helpful. I’m on chapter 2.

So take advantage of the people around you. They may have a way to help you that you haven’t thought of yet. Good luck.
posted by Biblio at 5:51 AM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you do have ADD/ADHD, something lik Adderall can be helpful. The first time I took Vyvanse - another med used for ADD - that shitty mean voice in my head shut up and it was so much easier to get started and keep going.

Having another person in the room to help / support is also really helpful to me for tasks I’m dreading. And the suggestion above to break things down into their smallest components is great.

Focus on doing enough and getting a first draft done. Once the first draft is done everything else falls into place IME.
posted by bunderful at 6:16 AM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I occasionally have some success with alternating between two things I don't want to do: do one until I can't stand it anymore, then do the other one until I can't stand it anymore. I mean, you still have to find the motivation to begin in the first place, but given enough switches back and forth, I find they both wind up feeling less terrible, both because progress is getting made and because framing them as a relief from the previous task trains me to like them more. YMMV a lot, obviously.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:29 AM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

I’m with Jubey on this - I call it “worst first” and approach everything this way.

When I’m having trouble consistently working on something or getting a specific chore started, I implement reward systems, usually related to stuff I’ve put on my Amazon wishlist (i.e: reorganize the pantry equals a cookbook).
posted by hilaryjade at 8:34 AM on November 23, 2017

I have looked everywhere for motivation. In my neglected sock drawer, as I procrastinate and fold my fucking socks, to self-help books and techniques and inspirational quotes. The truth is, I don't want to do these shitty things. And my therapist tells me that my stubborn inner child is going to stomp her feet and pout no matter what. I will never feel like doing the things I loathe.

I've had to reframe it. Stop looking for motivation, because it's like a unicorn. You won't find it.

This was a total game changer for me. I believe I've posted it here before, but in case it helps, I'll paste it here with minor formatting edits:

"If you want to get anything done, there are two basic ways to get yourself to do it.

The first, more popular and devastatingly wrong option is to try to motivate yourself. The second, somewhat unpopular and entirely correct choice is to cultivate discipline.

This is one of these situations where adopting a different perspective immediately results in superior outcomes. Few uses of the term "paradigm shift" are actually legitimate, but this one is. It’s a lightbulb moment.

What’s the difference?

Motivation, broadly speaking, operates on the erroneous assumption that a particular mental or emotional state is necessary to complete a task. That’s completely the wrong way around. Discipline, by contrast, separates outwards functioning from moods and feelings and thereby ironically circumvents the problem by consistently improving them. The implications are huge.

Successful completion of tasks brings about the inner states that chronic procrastinators think they need to initiate tasks in the first place. Put in simpler form, you don’t wait until you’re in Olympic form to start training. You train to get into Olympic form.

If action is conditional on feelings, waiting for the right mood becomes a particularly insidious form of procrastination. I know that too well, and wish somebody pointed it out for me twenty, fifteen or ten years ago before I learned the difference the hard way. If you wait until you feel like doing stuff, you’re fucked. That’s precisely how the dreaded procrastinatory loops come about.

At its core, chasing motivation is insistence on the infantile fantasy that we should only be doing things we feel like doing. The problem is then framed thus: "How do I get myself to feel like doing what I have rationally decided to do?" Bad.

The proper question is "How do I make my feelings inconsequential and do the things I consciously want to do without being a little bitch about it?"

The point is to cut the link between feelings and actions, and do it anyway. You get to feel good and buzzed and energetic and eager afterwards. Motivation has is the wrong way around. I am utterly 100% convinced that this faulty frame is the main driver of the "sitting about in underwear playing Xbox, and with yourself" epidemic currently sweeping developed countries.

There are psychological problems with relying on motivation as well.

Because real life in the real world occasionally requires people do things that nobody in their right mind can be massively enthusiastic about, “motivation” runs into the insurmountable obstacle of trying to elicit enthusiasm for things that objectively do not merit it. The only solution besides slackery, then, is to put people out of their right minds. That’s a horrible, and fortunately fallacious, dilemma.

Trying to drum up enthusiasm for fundamentally dull and soul crushing activities is literally a form of deliberate psychological self-harm, a voluntary insanity: "I AM SO PASSIONATE ABOUT THESE SPREADSHEETS, I CAN’T WAIT TO FILL OUT THE EQUATION FOR FUTURE VALUE OF ANNUITY, I LOVE MY JOB SOOO MUCH!"

I do not consider self-inflicted episodes of hypomania the optimal driver of human activity. A thymic compensation via depressive episodes is inevitable, since the human brain will not tolerate abuse indefinitely. There are stops and safety valves. There are hormonal hangovers. The worst thing that can happen is succeeding at the wrong thing – temporarily. A far superior scenario is retaining sanity, which unfortunately tends to be misinterpreted as moral failure: "I still don’t love my pointless paper-shuffling job, I must be doing something wrong." "I still prefer cake to broccoli and can’t lose weight, maybe I’m just weak." "I should buy another book about motivation." Bullshit. The critical error is even approaching those issues in terms of motivation or lack thereof. The answer is discipline, not motivation.

There is another, practical problem with motivation. It has a tiny shelf life, and needs constant refreshing. Motivation is like manually winding up a crank to deliver a burst of force. At best, it stores and converts energy to a particular purpose. There are situations where it is the correct attitude, one-offs where getting psyched and spring-loading a metric fuckton of mental energy upfront is the best course of action. Olympic races and prison breaks come to mind. But it is a horrible basis for regular day-to-day functioning, and anything like consistent long-term results.
By contrast, discipline is like an engine that, once kickstarted, actually supplies energy to the system.

Productivity has no requisite mental states. For consistent, long-term results, discipline trumps motivation, runs circles around it, bangs its mom and eats its lunch.

In summary, motivation is trying to feel like doing stuff. Discipline is doing it even if you don’t feel like it.

You get to feel good afterwards.

Discipline, in short, is a system, whereas motivation is analogous to goals. There is a symmetry. Discipline is more or less self-perpetuating and constant, whereas motivation is a bursty kind of thing.

How do you cultivate discipline? By building habits – starting as small as you can manage, even microscopic, and gathering momentum, reinvesting it in progressively bigger changes to your routine, and building a positive feedback loop.

Motivation is a counterproductive attitude to productivity. What counts is discipline.
posted by nathaole at 11:01 AM on November 23, 2017 [30 favorites]

I find it easier when I make a plan and demand that I stick with it. So in this kind of situation, I would write down every single discrete task that needs to be accomplished, time estimates for all of them, and then work backwards from "due date" to set a reasonable schedule for accomplishing them. This clearly specifies that certain things need to be done every day in order to keep from hitting a bad spot later on; reduces the amount of time you feel you HAVE to spend on it each day; reduces dithering in deciding what to do next because it's already planned out; and automatically rewards you if you hit a groove and crank out a week's worth of work in one day... because then you don't have to do anything else until the next week.

I do the Big Hated Task stuff first thing in the morning to get it out of the way, so then I can look forward to the rest of the day being awesome.
posted by metasarah at 6:20 PM on November 24, 2017

I am very impressed with what nathaole wrote above, and I feel like in some years I'd be able to take that advice. However this year? Not so much. I am really really low on motivation, and it's all about poor mental health. None of my usual tricks or (usually pretty good) discipline is working for me this year. I talked to my doctor a few weeks ago, and she started me on Deplin, which is high dose methylated folate for people who can't process folic acid. It's prescribed to help antidepressants be more effective. I haven't been on it very long, but I am just starting to feel like my mental health is looking up a bit, and that looks like motivation (for anything, really) is starting to feel doable again. Not quite yet, but I can see it on the horizon, maybe another week or two out. Maybe something to ask your doctor about?
posted by instamatic at 4:54 PM on November 25, 2017

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