How to do things when you just don’t want to

How to do things when you just don’t want to

What is it for you – the big, daunting projects, or the boring, mundane tasks? Those are the two most common things that professionals I work with procrastinate on. Sometimes it’s because they can’t muster the motivation, other times, it’s because of the fear of failure, or an avoidance of the emotions the task will inspire. In this post, I’ll present some strategies to get going when you don’t feel motivated. To conquer the tasks we hate, the work that bores us, or the project that intimidates us, we must first conquer ourselves.

Man conquers the world by conquering himself.


First, consider what things in your day you struggle to find motivation to start?

Why do you think it is those specific things? Is it that you don’t see a purpose to them? Or are there other more pressing things you think you need to do? Is it because you know when you start working on them that you will feel boredom, frustration, insecurity, or other negative emotions?

Whatever the reason you have avoided a task, first you need to ask if it needs to be done at all. If it does, then ask if now is the right time to do it. Once you have decided now is the time to get it done, here are some practical ways to help you do it.

  1. Tie it into your big vision. Why is this task important to you? If it something mundane, like signing charts for physicians, can you tie it into your big vision or mission of helping patients or being a good doctor? If it is a necessary but annoying part of your job, can you tie it into your big goals of having a job and providing for your family? If it is a project at work that you aren’t excited about, can you tie it into your big goals of being promoted or of gaining more responsibility, autonomy, or trust at work.
    • Write down the things that are important to you, your big mission, values, or vision. Put them up somewhere visible. Some of mine are: To be a good doctor, to relieve suffering, to be a good mentor, to be someone people can count on, to work with creativity and autonomy.
    • With each task you find yourself avoiding, see how it could tie into one of the things on your list.
  2. Break it into laughably tiny steps. One of the most powerful ways to get over the activation barrier of starting something that you don’t feel motivated to do is to break it into minuscule steps, then find the motivation just for one small step. At each point, ask “what is the immediate next step.” Write them out. By breaking it down and only trying to do one small step at a time, you can often find the motivation you need, and then build up momentum so that before long, you’ve been working on it for an hour and accomplished a dozen tiny steps. The less I’m feeling motivated, the smaller I make the steps. If I make them laughably small, sometimes the humor stuns me out of my negative thought spiral: pull covers off face, turn off alarm, put one foot on the floor, etc. The simplicity and humorous smallness of the tasks makes them seem easier in the moment. For example, to work on a paper or report, the steps might be:
    • Turn on computer.
    • Open the relevant file.
    • Skim existing document.
    • Write one paragraph in the results section.
    • Open excel.
    • Find the data I need.
    • Create one graph.
    • Paste graph into report.
    • Etc…
  3. Leverage your identity. What features of your personality are most important to you? What characteristics do you want to work to create? Do you pride yourself on being, or do you want to become, a person who is dependable, conscientious, disciplined, productive? Leverage the strength of the identity you have or that you are creating to replace motivation. This can look like telling yourself: I don’t feel like doing this, but I’m going to do it because I’m a person of discipline. I’m a person who does what they say. I’m a reliable team member. I’m someone people can count on. I’m someone who follows through on their plans.
  4. Find joy. Often we try to motivate ourselves through fear, hatred, or guilt. We think if we hate our bodies enough, that we’ll be more motivated to eat healthfully. Instead, we end up in a shame cycle. When we feel badly about ourselves, instead of motivating us, it more often drives us to the very thing we’re trying to avoid: ice cream, junk food, and sedentariness. Then we feel worse and try to muster up more hatred for ourselves. Thus, the spiral continues. We do the same things with work sometimes. We try to make ourselves feel guilty so that we will do the work. Instead, when we feel bad, we then find ourselves mindlessly scrolling social media sites or retreating to easier, more immediate work, like emails. Observe your thoughts and see where you may be using negative feelings to try to motivate yourself. Instead, look for the positive things.
    • Write down the ways that you have used negative motivation and consider whether it has worked for you or what the outcome of those negative motivators has been.
    • Write down some small ways you can find joy either in the process of the task you need to do, in the feelings of accomplishment when you are done, or in becoming the person you want to be.

Where can you find joy in what you need to do? I may not love going to the gym, but I know I will be happy with myself afterward. I’ll feel proud of myself for following through with what I said I would do. Sometimes there’s even lots of joy to be found in the task. Learning anything is painful but also inherently joyful, whether it is a new program, a new Zumba routine, or a new excel function. Creating the new identity for ourselves as a person of discipline, reliability, and productivity can also be joyful. Conquering ourselves, as Zeno said, while certainly hard work and painful at times, can also be joyful.

5. Radically self-forgive when you mess up…. This one will come in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.”


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