How to Love the Tasks You Hate: My Guide to Conquering Avoidance and Apathy
Avoidance Can Affect Any of Us
The fun thing about avoidance behaviour is that it's a very inclusive problem! Everyone can join in—it's not limited to the mentally ill. Hurrah for equal opportunities!
But on a serious note, it's not a healthy behaviour to develop, and the more you engage in the behaviour, the more ingrained it becomes. That cycle needs to be broken. If you find yourself stuck in this avoidance cycle, and things aren't feeling quite "right" in your life, it might be a good idea to seek advice from a health care professional.
If you already have a diagnosis, and know that this is one of your symptoms, then hopefully you will have been referred for therapy, perhaps CBT. In my case, I needed some very specific therapy for OCD (I'll talk more about this below). Whether you have a diagnosed condition, or you're a lifelong procrastinator, there are self-help resources available to move you from postponing to producing, and they can work alongside your everyday life and coping techniques.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway is one of the best books available in this category. It offers explanations on why you avoid the things that you do, and provides techniques to overcome the fears and do what you need to. At the heart of it all is the idea that the fears need to be faced head-on. Part of the avoidance is avoiding thinking about what you're avoiding (whoa, just about keeping track of that train of thought).
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway
While the central concept of the book is very simple, it is written in a way that makes this theme applicable to many different fears, worries and situations. I've found it a very useful text to return to when I've struggled with my own avoidances. The biggest lesson I've learnt is that no matter how much I avoid something, it will still be there, and unless I confront it, I have no control over it. Most important of all, it helps you in the run-up to the first hurdle: that of actually wanting to do something about your avoidance problem. It's not a meaningless "just do it"; it prepares you to take that step, and keep on moving.
Why Is Avoidance Such an Attractive Option?
The people at the Social Anxiety Institute have written a great piece on avoidance called, "Avoidance: our worst enemy." It is composed from a social anxiety perspective, but the situation it describes is common to all types of avoidance behaviour; it is in itself a coping strategy. If we avoid the things we fear, we feel safe and we are doing what feels right to protect ourselves. The trouble is, we end up missing out on a lot of what life has to offer. We also never get anything done. To stop avoiding the things we don't want to do, but have to, we need to go against our instinct. In order to do this safely and effectively, we need to do it in the correct way.
Too Much, Too Soon
Let's imagine there is a task that scares the living crap out of you. Maybe you're scared to drive somewhere, or to open your mail, or to look at your finances. These are all things that it is normal to do every day, but also things that it is common to be afraid of, and to avoid. Now let's think about another common phobia, spiders (sorry arachnophobes—it's about to get MUCH worse—look away now!). You really don't want to find a big, hairy house spider when you're doing the dusting, but imagine how you'd feel if someone tipped a big bucket of spiders on your head! You'd probably need to, ahem, take a bathroom visit. So there's a right way and a wrong way to conquer our fears. If you're flooded with all the terrible and overwhelming things all at once, you'll just retreat even further. You need to take it a bit at a time. Each move does need to be challenging (if you only do the easy bits, you won't actually face the fear), but it needs to be manageable, too. You need to devise strategies for approaching your fears in a staged way, perhaps by writing down what those fears are, and then creating a list for each fear, with scenarios ranging from least fearful right up to most. Then set aside a time to tackle the items on the list, going from the least bad, up to the worst. Don't move on to the next item on the list until you have removed all the anxiety from the previous one, so that you can do it without hesitation or worry (a little bit of worry is natural, you won't ever become an emotionless robot). This is a similar technique to one that I learnt in therapy:
ERP for OCD
What the hell is that supposed to mean? Well, it stands for "Exposure & Response Prevention for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder." When a person has OCD, they have a thought that becomes an obsession, an enduring mental wound that is aching to be picked at. And that scratching around the edges comes in the form of a compulsion, which provides temporary relief when it is performed. But because it is temporary, the obsession can come back and require more and more compulsive behaviours to mitigate for it. If you service the compulsions without addressing the obsession, the problem gets worse and it can end up taking over your life. So the fear is faced by being repeatedly exposed to whatever is driving the obsession, with the aim of reducing and eventually vanquishing any mental response to the fearful thing. This was such a useful and structured way of defeating my brain's incorrect way of thinking, that while I'm not completely cured, the method serves me well and I'm definitely on the road to recovery. It's incredible how effective this form of CBT was, and I think it was helped by the continuous reinforcement provided by my therapist, therapy group, and course guidebook (see below). We used a similar method to the list of fears from least bad to worst that I described above. Fight one battle at a time, and get that fighting technique ingrained into your mind!
The "Overcoming . . . " Series of Books
This is the book that was used alongside my therapy for OCD. While it is useful on its own for understanding the condition and establishing a means of attacking it, it was incredibly effective to be used in a therapy setting, as the group practice reinforced the lessons and techniques that the text had given us. There are around 20 titles in the "Overcoming..." series, covering topics ranging from depression to eating disorders. They are all written by qualified professionals, and provide a rigorous analysis of each condition, with information that helps the reader to help themselves.
Back to What We Were Talking About
One of the ways in which we sneakily trick ourselves into avoiding tasks is by distracting ourselves - and we might have taken a slight detour here... but back on topic! The above tangent was relevant, but we need to tailor it to the problem that we are trying to solve. Generally speaking, procrastination takes two forms:
- Putting off one task by just not doing anything;
- Putting off a task by finding lots of other tasks to do in the meantime.
Different types of procrastination require slightly different remedies, so let's look at some different techniques that tackle the problems in different ways.
A Quick Note on the Causes of Avoidance
Procrastination is not just due to fear, anxiety, or perfectionism. Sometimes depression is the determining factor. At your worst, everything seems pointless. You lack the motivation to do anything at all, let alone care about it. That's going to add an extra layer of recalcitrance that we need to strip away, but it's all part of the same process. You may need to take extra care of yourself, and be aware of your limitations. One thing that I struggle with in particular is that I have periods of seemingly boundless mental energy, where I feel that I can conquer the world, and I complete loads of work in a flurry of activity - but then I'm wiped out, and I can't even look at my notepad for 48 hours. I'm working on getting a balanced schedule, but I'm not there yet. I use the "little and often" technique that I describe below, to ensure that I'm doing a little bit, at least, on my worse days.
Problem No. 1: Putting Off the Inevitable
In this type of procrastination, you need a trigger to get you started on whatever it is that needs doing, and a supporting mechanism that reinforces and maintains your activity. The initial push can be particularly challenging, as there will be many complex factors that make up your avoidance. This article doesn't go into the psychology behind that, although there is some interesting research into the emotions and inner workings of the mind of the procrastinator (The real reasons you procrastinate—and how to stop). The first thing to bear in mind is that very often, tasks need attention when you're not in exactly the right mindset to do them. And... that's tough. Part of the avoidance problem is the avoidance of that uncomfortable feeling. It makes sense - none of us like to feel uncomfortable. But if you give in to avoidance at the slightest hint of discomfort, you've started a pattern of behaviour that keeps you trapped in a bubble - you feel safe and unthreatened, but your comfort zone becomes smaller and smaller until it suffocates you. If you've reached this point, it can be hard to make a start on any task until the fear of the consequences of failure are too great to ignore any more. But this means that you have put off a tiny bit of pain (if you had started the task days ago) in order for it to grow into something quite excruciating (by starting at the very last possible minute).
So what can you do? Well, you will need to take the first step, do just a little bit. Make that mark on the page, create that first brush stroke. But before you do that, you need to think ahead a little. I'm not suggesting that this is an opportunity to make elaborate plans that take hours to construct and add to the problem. Don't plan too rigidly, but make sure you have a strategy for keeping the momentum going. If you're going to take a small first step, think about how much you can reasonably complete in one go before you get bored, tired, or stressed out. Aim to take a small break to do something else. You could structure your working / break pattern to give yourself rewards when you have achieved something. At first, don't make it too specific, just work on something for as long as you can manage (say 20 - 30 minutes), and then do something that makes you happy for 15 minutes. That may seem like a large break-to-work ratio, but I'm guessing that even with excessive breaks like these you'll still get more out of your day (I know, I've been there!).
What if you try this, and it's just not working? Well, have you done something, literally anything? I'm talking as basic as just writing a single word. If you really can't face any more, take that break right now. But limit it to 15 minutes. The agitation you're feeling is your mind's response to that discomfort I mentioned above, and it's OK to feel overwhelmed. If you have serious problems with avoidance, you're going to have to work hard to overcome them. Take 15 minutes to relax, breathe, get a coffee or something. And then once the time is up, give it another shot. Don't put too much pressure on yourself, just do something. Even if you can only manage another one word, it's progress. You've doubled your output! Alright, that's something of a hollow platitude. But you're chipping away at the task. If you have to leave it and come back again and again, that's fine - as long as you do come back. Each return to the problem should be slightly less painful than the former, and even if it feels like you're doing nothing - that's not so. You are challenging yourself every time and you're making yourself aware of the avoidance patterns you've fallen into - which is a major stage in overcoming them. You will get there, even if it's via the long route.
Problem No. 2: Avoiding a Task by Substituting It With Others
This type of procrastination can be tackled in a few different ways. One of these will work better for you than others, and the way you use that method depends a lot on what you want to get out of your time, how much you can handle, and what just "feels right". Procrastination is a behaviour driven by the desire to feel good, so use that to your advantage if you can. Here's the first way of dealing with an easily-led procrastinating mind:
The Tough Option
This is the tough option because you're going to need to maximise your willpower to make it work (which probably isn't your strong suit if you're a seasoned procrastinator). You need to eliminate all distracting tasks, and only work on the one thing you have selected for the day. Proceed as per the steps for Problem No.1, and attack the one task you're avoiding bit by bit, doing what you can and taking regular breaks. The most important thing is to steer clear of all other tasks that you could prioritise over this one AND to actually do the task you've set yourself. No point in removing all distractions only for you to just put it off anyway. If you think you've got it in you to try this, then give it a go—but don't expect miracles. You'll probably have to build up to this in stages too; it requires a complete turnaround in mindset and discipline - which won't happen overnight. It might become more achievable if you were to follow this plan just for a morning and then relax/procrastinate to your heart's content for the rest of the day.
So that was the Tough Option. Now for something a lot more friendly-sounding:
This is much more manageable, because instead of requiring you to turn your entire personality on it's head, this method uses the traits you already have, and puts them to better use. Before, you were in the position where you had the time and inclination to do absolutely everything except the one task that was important and time-critical. This time, you're going to carry on doing your vacuuming / dog-walking / Netflix-watching, but you're going to do it in a controlled way! You need to set yourself a timetable - wait! It's not as formal and rigid as it sounds. Plan your day to be broken down into rough time slots, perhaps 30 minutes each, and alternate between actual work and "other" tasks. The only rule then is to stick to the plan. Don't get too engrossed in either the "real" work or the supplementary activities. You need to learn to pace yourself, and to be able to step away from something if you're becoming too involved with it. You'll mess up a few times, you'll spend 3 hours sorting your music library, or accidentally finish that essay in one go (we can only hope!). And you'll probably avoid doing anything at all at some point. But that's okay. It's a process, and you can't be perfect straight away. Well, you could, but if you were you wouldn't need this article in the first place.
I find that this method is the best one for me. My mind needs to be kept occupied, and I actually find that following my mind's desire for novelty prevents me from ruminating and getting stuck in a cycle of panic and avoidance. I don't allow myself the luxury of overthinking time until I've clocked off for the day. And then my brain can go wherever it chooses. Yes, it is hard to train yourself to reconstruct your day like this, but it is the path of least resistance. If you do it right (with practice), you'll fulfil your mind's flighty nature, you can attack a mammoth task piece by piece, and you won't get bored. And on top of that you'll actually get something done with your day!
When Things Don't Go as Planned
You need to be honest with yourself throughout this process. Procrastination is a house made of good intentions, constructed on a foundation of lies. It tells you that you'll finish it later, or you'll make a start on it tomorrow, or it'll only take 10 minutes. And you know that you're deluding yourself. But it feels good, doesn't it?
You will mess up. I've done it a thousand times. But we're dealing with an issue where a lack of self-discipline is at the heart of the problem. So it shouldn't come as a surprise. Aim for the best, but prepare for the worst. It's OK to fail sometimes; to err is human. But don't use it as an excuse to do nothing, or you're back at square one. You have to want this, you have to accept your faults, and you have to manage a little pain if you want any gain.
That Love-Hate Relationship
I began this article with a bold claim: that I could help you to love the tasks you hate. Wouldn't that be marvellous? I have a confession: following this advice will not give you herculean powers of appreciation for every tedious task that you need to get done. But you can love your life again - these techniques will take a lot of the dread and panic out of your day, and enable you to live a more productive and fulfilling existence. Keep that goal in sight - there are tough times ahead of you on the path to effectiveness, but it will be worth it to regain control of your life.
It's not enough to just say "it'll be worth it in the end, so sit it out through the crappy times" because that's not what the human mind responds well to. You will need to celebrate your victories along the way, and we all like a little celebration, don't we?
It's up to you how you manage this - you might want a continual stream of treats throughout the day to make you crave the next challenge and subsequent goodies, and I have to say I like this model very much! Many small rewards, spaced out over the day, fulfil one of the goals that I set out in the strategies above: to create a system that keeps you motivated once you've gotten past the initial fear.
Or, you may opt for a treat at the end of the day, or a complete blowout at the weekend. Given my numerous vices, I'm really not one to judge. Have fun!
Tim Urban: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator
- Anyone can procrastinate or avoid things, but sometimes it is a symptom of a mental health condition.
- We procrastinate because it feels good. It alleviates anxiety, it cheers us up, it convinces us that it will be fine if we put a task off for just a little longer.
- But procrastination is a liar. If we listen to it, the false sense of security it provides will hurt us in the long run.
- Procrastination can be overcome. It's difficult, and is a skill that takes time to develop. But if you invest in strategies that push back against it, you can win.
- You will slip up. Procrastination is sneaky, and will find anyway it can to distract you. But it doesn't matter; just acknowledge that one error, and revert to the strategy that you've learnt. Your inner procrastinator wants you to dwell on it, and believe that you should give up. Prove it wrong!
Don't Just Take My Word for It!
The advice I've given in this article is intended as a strategy for managing a general problem; that may, or may not, be a symptom of a diagnosed medical condition. If you have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, then you should always listen to your doctor's advice. Take any medication you've been prescribed, attend any therapy sessions that are available, and use any coping strategies like those given here as an accompaniment to any medical advice, not as a substitute. And, it's worth mentioning again; if you feel that your avoidance behaviour is adversely affecting your quality of life, and there's something not quite right with how you're feeling, you should see a doctor about it. You might have an undiagnosed condition, and it can't be treated unless your doctor knows about it.
Tell Me About Your Experience
Are you a procrastinator?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
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