A guide for doing things you'd rather not be doing

Andrew Badham 2019-01-18 15:53:54


Do you ever feel like going for a run? I don’t mean you felt guilty about that fourth doughnut and now you think a jog might absolve you. I mean you actually felt like running would be a fun idea. For the few people who have had that feeling, you will know two things about it: one, it’s quite rare; two it’s short-lived. Even if running seemed like a great idea when you started, and the first kilometre flew by in what felt like a celebration of athleticism, your feelings will change. At some point for every person no matter how fit they are, they will get tired and they will no longer feel like running. It’s the fundamental flaw in making any decision based purely on emotion. Emotions are volatile things; they change all the time, and with them change any decisions you’ve made. Whether it’s exercise, work, or a household chore, we only follow through on tasks when we’ve decided this is something we must do, not that we feel like doing it.

Of course, this means that we are often having to do things that we actively dislike. No matter how many times someone says “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” everyone knows that the most pleasurable jobs we could imagine are still peppered with tasks we’d rather not have to deal with. In other words, life will never be free of things we don’t want to but most definitely have to do – a concept with which I’m assuming you are already familiar.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t become better at dealing with these scenarios or even find strategies to overcome them. The first step is understanding motivation or what pushes us through discomfort. We usually talk about two types of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to things about the activity which are enjoyable. For example, people are motivated to eat ice-cream because ice-cream is intrinsically nice to eat. In other words, if no one has to pay you to do it, it’s probably intrinsically motivating. Extrinsic motivation is anything outside of the activity that makes it worthwhile. Work is the classic example of this; you don’t really want to go to the office, but the paycheck hopefully makes it worth the effort. Of course, money is by no means the only example of external reward. Doing the dishes for your spouse, helping out at a local charity, or picking up trash on the side of the road all receive social rewards.

Knowing the difference helps you to identify strategies to get through different scenarios. Some activities have parts that we enjoy even if the overall experience is so-so. Take washing the dishes for an example. Scrubbing the baked-on gunk off a roasting pan while your hands shrivel up from the harsh soapy water, is not a popular past time, but seeing the clean metal show through as you apply more elbow grease is oddly cathartic. Or back to running, maybe you hate your legs burning but the chance to get outdoors is something you look forward to. When it comes to tasks that have some intrinsic motivation, try to maximise it. Can you focus on the parts you enjoy? Can you change the environment? For example, if you have to have a difficult conversation with someone, could you do it in a nice coffee house? Can you change the activity itself? If it’s boring and monotonous, listen to a podcast while you work. If it’s strenuous, listen to music to boost your mood. If it’s focused, remove all the distractions that make it harder. Sometimes the idea alone that we can influence our scenario gives us a sense of power over it instantly making it less detestable.

Extrinsic motivators are little more obvious to employ but they’re not always as effective. Nevertheless, they certainly have their place in your motivation strategy. Thinking about how lean you’ll look while swopping your pie for a salad sounds silly, but it ties your current actions to a bigger goal. The trouble is that sometimes that goal can be far down the line and that doesn’t work well for motivation. So, we need to break up big goals into little goals. If you need to run for thirty minutes, congratulate yourself after ten. If you’re working on a lengthy report, focus on finishing it section by section. Lastly, extrinsic motivation can be avoiding negative consequences as well. If you have to confront your boss about a problem, think about how much worse it would be if it was left to fester.

If all of this feels a little overwhelming, don’t worry it does get easier. Discipline is something we learn, something we develop and grow. That doesn’t necessarily mean the tasks get easier, we just handle them better.


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