How to Start Doing a Thing When You Really, Really Don't Want To

Justin Pot
Justin Pot / March 19, 2019

I am so grateful that I get to write for a living. I also really, really, don't want to start writing right now.

That's more or less my constant mindset. When I manage to get started I get a lot done, but I rarely find myself in the mindset where I want to get started on something that I know will take a lot of time or effort. This leads to me falling back into the dopamine-rich environment called "internet," where algorithmically designed distractions devour time until it's 5 o'clock and oh well I'll seize the day tomorrow.

You've been there. We've all been there. There’s a "Thing" you should be doing but for some reason just can’t get started on. Maybe the Thing is setting up a website. Maybe the Thing is a coding project you’ve been putting off. Maybe the Thing is something small like a phone call you need to make. Whatever the Thing is, you just can’t get started.

I can relate. Which is why over time I've found ways to force the issue on myself. Here are a few tricks I and a few of my co-workers use to get started, even when we really, really don't want to do the Thing. In other words, how to motivate yourself to start a task when you don't feel motivated.

Schedule The Thing On Your Calendar, So You Actually Do It

I’m very good at feeling like I have plenty of time to get things done. When I feel this way I take it easy, only to wonder at the end of the day where all of my time went. That’s why I started planning things in advance. Every workday morning, after breakfast, I look at my to do list, my inbox, and my calendar. I then figure out how I'm going to use my unscheduled time in order to accomplish what needs accomplishing by putting each task on my calendar.

This does two things. First: it forces me to see my time as a resource I have to allocate. Second, adding things to my calendar means notifications on my phone and computer throughout the day, reminding me of the intention I set for myself. It's amazing how that reminder can keep me motivated.

The calendar helps you make the most of the time you have available each day. From author Marc Levy, If Only It Were True:

Imagine there is a bank account that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to used during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course? Each of us has such a bank, it's name is time. Every morning, it credits you 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off at a lost, whatever of this you failed to invest to a good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no over draft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day's deposits, the loss is yours. There is no drawing against "tomorrow". You must live in the present on today's deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and health. The clock is running. Make the most of today.

You don't have to implement this system exactly as I outlined above to benefit—this is just what works for me. The point is to think about how you're going to spend your time each morning and then follow through on it.

Tell Someone About The Thing So They’ll Keep You Accountable

I'm really good at lying to myself. I can convince myself that watching a YouTube video right now will help me get this article done because it will help me relax, which will make it easier for me to write. I can then convince myself that the next video will help me relax even more, and so on and so forth.

You know who doesn't fall for that? Literally anyone outside my own brain. Which is why telling someone else about the thing I need to do is a good idea. Find someone you trust to keep you accountable and tell them what you intend to do.

Zen, one of my co-workers here at Zapier, does exactly this.

Zen: honestly, i DM @erin and ask her to tell me to do the thing. she is very firm and then i do the thing.

Find someone you trust. Tell them to tell you to do the thing. Then do the thing.

Do Something Else…Something You Want To Do Even Less Than The Thing

Still can't make yourself do the thing? Find some chore you like even less than doing the thing, then do that instead for a while. You'll be itching to do the thing in no time.

Here's my Zapier co-worker Peter:

Peter: Start doing something that you feel like doing less than the other thing, cleaning, some unimportant errand, then use the other thing to procrastinate on the less enjoyable thing

The idea is that you'll hate doing whatever chore it is you're doing so much that you'll be excited to do the thing instead. Cleaning is a particularly good task for this because it's almost totally mindless, meaning your brain can wander a little while you're doing it. That scattered thinking is perfect for brainstorming, helping you think up ideas that will come in handy when you finally get back on task.

Don't open your browser when you're struggling to get started. Clean the bathroom instead.

Tell Yourself You'll Do The Thing For 5 Minutes

In your head the thing is a massive project that you will never, ever finish or will be painful to do, so you don't even want to get started. But can you handle working on it for five minutes?

Here's my Zapier co-worker Jason:

Jason: I know for people who are stuck getting into a writing habit, the advice is to set a timer for 5 minutes and just write with no distractions for 5 minutes, and at the end of that 5 minutes, you tend to get stuck in and go for longer

Next time you don't feel like doing a thing, simply set a timer for five minutes. Force yourself to work on the thing for those five minutes. Everyone can focus for five minutes, right? But the trick is that by the end of those five minutes it won't feel too bad to keep going.

Oh, and if you’ve got something on your list that will only take two minutes, just do it. Now. Make a habit of doing small tasks immediately and they will never clutter up your to do list, leaving you with more mental energy to tackle the big projects.

Break The Thing Into Smaller Things

It's easy to put off big projects and instead focus on smaller, more manageable tasks, which is why your kitchen looks so clean during tax season. But every overwhelming project consists of smaller, more manageable tasks.

If the thing you keep putting off is some large project, consider breaking it down. Outline all the small steps you need to do in order to complete the thing, then get started on one of those small steps. You can do this using a to do list application, a text document, or even a pen and paper. Just take the time to break the thing down into smaller things. You'll be surprised how much easier it is to get started on something small.

Bribe Yourself For Doing The Thing

Every dog owner (and parent) knows that bribery is a very effective way to reward good behavior. Use that on yourself. Promise yourself something, then only let yourself have that treat if you actually do the thing.

Here's Laurie, another of my co-workers here at Zapier:

Laurie: bribery. If you do X you can have Y. So, get a big bar of chocolate as temptation and don’t let yourself have it til you’re done.

Food works, sure, but so does the promise of time outside, a TV episode, or a phone conversation with a friend. Reward yourself for getting things done and you'll find getting started that much easier.

This same strategy is the thinking behind the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working for 25 minutes then taking a five-minute break. The five-minute break is a reward for getting through the 25-minute work session.

Ask Your Co-Workers For Help With The Thing

Are you still not doing the thing? Why not ask your co-workers to help you brainstorm about the thing. The ideas you generate could help you bring new energy into the task, which will make it more likely that you'll get started.

Peter: Source ideas from your coworkers in a Slack thread. Justin: that might be what i'm doing right now

Okay, Peter, you caught me. I couldn't motivate myself to get started writing an article about getting started at doing a thing (and the irony was not lost on me). I turned to my co-workers for help, asking for ideas. It worked.

People need each other. There's no shame in it. If you're stuck in your own head, unable to start doing the thing, ask the people around you for ideas. It will help.

Stop Reading This Blog Post and Go Do The Thing

I would love to keep you here all day. It’s my job to keep you reading the fine articles here at Zapier dot com slash blog, and maybe even convince you to set up a couple of Zaps. And you should do that! But not right now. Right now you should go do the Thing. So do it! Now! Then come back and let me know how it went.

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