How I Get Myself to Do What I Don't Want to Do (But Need to)

 Photo by Jenny Hill

Photo by Jenny Hill

How I Get Myself to Do What I Don't Want to Do (But Need to)

You’ve been there…

You have something on your todo list that almost has rust on it because it’s been there for so long. Maybe it’s exercising or finishing an online class that you started.

There are always things that I need to do but don’t want to. The question is how can I fake myself out and do it anyway?

It’s not that I don’t want the end result; I procrastinate on a given task because I’ve built up the complexity—completing it has turned into a mammoth undertaking with too much work required to get it done. Plus, it doesn't sound very fun.

Study online course material? I’d rather watch a movie and have a shot of whiskey.

These situations happen a lot, at least for me. Why do I always seem to be at a crossroads with what I want to do and what I need to do? It’s one decision against the next; pressured to do things that are good but are unappealing in the moment.

I have a conclusion. Let’s dig a little deeper on what is happening…

Why do we feel pressure in the first place, especially if it’s something that you decide that you wanted to do? Maybe at the beginning of the year you wanted to (and committed in your mind) to get in shape.

Now, months later, you're faced with a bunch of boring choices that could get you closer to your goal, but is just too dull to get you motivated.

What was the original motivation? The image of the end result of your new physique.

Here’s what I’ve learned about tackling things that I don't want to do and doing them anyway; we only care about the immediate gain, not the end result.

We don’t like to wait. Instant gratification is built into our lives (more so in America). Getting what we want right now has become a staple of our culture. Everything is on demand. When we want something, we want it NOW.

Why should we have to wait? That’s what are mind is saying in the background. We aren't used to waiting for anything anymore. We are motivated on what we can get immediately.

If you accept that this is how our modern brain thinks, you can use this to your advantage. All you have to do is find a way to motivate yourself that is unrelated to the result of the task that you need to do.

First, motivation deflates over time if we don’t get an immediate gain—we see no instant benefit so there’s nothing to get excited about.

This is why, when you’re faced with a task that you know would be good for you to do (which is your logical brain talking), you avoid it. Exerting the mental activity to think about can cause a lot of stress, hence adding complexity to the task.

More time + more difficulty != FUN

Here’s my solution:

You have to find a way to reward yourself if you complete the task. It needs to be immediate, tangible, and something desirable like going to a movie, a massage, or buying something nice.  

Make a deal with yourself and have consequences on both sides of that deal; if you do the task or if you don’t. You need a reason to complete the task. The long-term goal of getting fit or learning a new skill is too far out of reach. There’s nothing to get pumped about right now.

When you place a reward in front of your task, it will act as a distraction from the fact that what you need to do probably is not so fun or rewarding at the moment.  

This is simple but it does work. The only reason why I’m writing this is to share this silly technique that I’ve been using on myself and I’ve seen results.

Here’s what I did:

I haven’t exercised for a few weeks. I’ve been dreading it and making excuses why I haven’t, but deep down I knew I was bored with the idea of working out.  

So I made a deal with myself—if I go out for a run, then I can buy an expensive drink at Starbucks. It’s not a huge reward but I usually buy regular coffee so it was something outside the norm and an immediate gain.

When I was on the run, all I could think about was how refreshing that drink was going to taste when I was done. I didn’t care that I was “getting in shape” or being “healthy.” No one really cares about that stuff because it’s boring to think about, unless you're a fitness coach or a health freak.

What was going through my mind was the immediate reward that I was going to gain when I was done. It was small, but it motivated me. You can scale your reward in proportion to the difficulty of the task.

Big task = Big reward

I also did this for an online class I was taking. I wanted to upgrade my skills and become a Scrum master. I started studying for the PSMI exam and realized that it was going to be more difficult than I thought.

What did I do? I made a deal—if I studied and passed the exam, I would buy a new video game (I know this is kinda childish, but hey!) The point here is to take your thought process away from the task by using rewards.

It works because I put in the effort and got my Scrum Master I Certification. The whole time, all I was thinking about was how much fun and relaxation I was going to have when I finished my task. That was the source of my motivation, not passing the exam!

Here’s the practical way that I motivate myself to take action:

  1. Make a deal with a desirable reward

  2. Set consequences

  3. Win or Lost

Making a deal substitutes what you need to do (which most likely involves a long-term benefit) and turns it into an immediate gain. So next time you're faced with something that doesn't get you pumped, find a way to reward yourself to do it.

I guarantee that when you’re doing the task, you won't be thinking of the end result. You’ll think of that movie or vacation that you set as your reward.

Try this out on all levels of tasks and let me know how it goes for you!