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Force Yourself, Yes, Force Yourself to Do That Task

A superficial yet effective, baby-step approach to reducing procrastination.

NeedPix, Public Domain
Source: NeedPix, Public Domain

Conventional wisdom is that forcing yourself to do a task that you're procrastinating on doing isn't an enduring solution. It’s argued that forcing yourself ignores the underlying fear of failure, which needs to be addressed if procrastination is to be enduringly reduced.

Fellow Psychology Today blogger and procrastination expert Tim Pychyl argues that procrastinators’ desire to feel good now too often trumps the long-term benefit of doing the task. Procrastinators usually choose one marshmallow now rather than two later. So Pychyl feels that key is to build procrastinators' frustration tolerance.

Earlier in my career, I tried to help my clients reduce their procrastination using those two approaches: Addressing the fear of failure and increasing frustration tolerance. But in recent years, I’ve found greater success by inviting my clients to force themselves, yes force themselves, to get started on tasks they know they should do but procrastinate. I ask them to take a true baby step.

I'll say something like, "Force yourself, yes force yourself, to do the first few-second part of the task, then the next few-second part. Often, after just a few of those, you’ve gotten yourself going." Client after client has told me that the hardest part is getting started. Well, the few-second-part tactic often gets them started.

For example, I wasn’t in the mood to write this article. So I procrastinated for a few hours, doing less difficult, often pleasant tasks. I was finally able to get myself started by asking myself, “What’s my first few-second part?” It was to name the Word file. I named it “forceyourself.doc.” The next few-second task was to think of a title, then the first sentence. At that point, I was hooked and kept writing.

The other point at which people tend to procrastinate is when reaching a hard part. What’s helped most is the one-minute struggle tactic. Generally, unless you’ve made progress in a minute, you’re unlikely to. You’re more likely to sit and struggle for quite a while, which makes you more likely to not only give up on that task but creates such an unpleasant memory of doing such tasks that it increases the tendency to procrastinate in the future. So, after just one-minute of struggling unsuccessfully with that hard part, I suggest that my clients ask themselves, "Should I struggle some more, ask for help, come back to it later with fresh eyes, or see if I can continue the task without solving that hard part?”

In writing this article, the hardest part was to distill Pychyl’s position into just a couple of sentences. I broke that sub-task into few-second tasks. First, I used my computer’s search function to find my email exchange with him. I read it That took a minute and it wasn’t hard. Next, I reread his short Psychology Today post that he said summarized his position. Then I had to struggle: How could I fairly summarize his core position in just a couple of sentences—the length that, in the context of this post, would be appropriate. So I forced myself, yes forced myself to keep struggling with that. At the one-minute mark, I had made some progress but hadn’t solved it. I decided that a bit of additional struggle could result in success, so I kept thinking and trying out wordings, and two minutes later, I felt I had done it. The one-minute struggle or a variant was crucial to my getting it done.

Ultimately, procrastination is most likely to be cured by a foundational factor: a deep sense of responsibility, of consistently being willing to be uncomfortable for the larger long-term benefit, to routinely forgo one marshmallow now for two later.

But I’ve found it difficult to engender such a foundational change in most of my procrastination-prone clients. More helpful, ironically, has been the more superficial approach I’ve described here: Force yourself, yes, force yourself to do that first and perhaps second and third few-second part, and, when reaching a roadblock, use the one-minute struggle. Or as the Nike ad said, "Just do it!"

I read this aloud on YouTube.

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