Coaxing Yourself to Do Stuff

Some self-motivating strategies are better than others.

Posted Sep 06, 2019

When I was in college, writing made me anxious. I would start by hand, writing a paragraph or two, decide it was awful and tear up the paper. This would happen over and over. For hours? Maybe. So I adopted a rule: If I hadn't produced a written draft by a certain time, I had to type the first sentence and commit myself to that sentence and type the entire paper as I wrote it.

My first typed draft was the one I handed in. This was before computers came along, allowing us to revise endlessly. As you might imagine, teachers tended to tell me that my best ideas were in the last paragraph.

I went on to become a professional writer. I don't miss deadlines, ever. My story is proof that you can be anxious and "do it all wrong" and succeed. But.

The paper must somehow be written, however. 

I once knew a man, call him Tom, who wanted to "be a writer" so I arranged for us to have an assignment at an online publication on a topic of his choice. The idea was that he would write it and I would be more of an editor, if needed.

He was anxious—procrastinating in many areas of his life—and over months, he never wrote more than a paragraph. 

Are you a chronic procrastinator? According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, as many as 20 percent of people may be unable to buckle down.

Procrastination has consequences. If you continually put off paying taxes or going to the doctor, you can end up with penalties and unregulated diabetes. So why do people take these risks?

The problem isn't so much managing your time or making priorities; procrastinators haven't figured out how to manage the emotions that some tasks bring up. This was completely obvious with Tom, who knew it himself. 

The rest of us have found ways to get it done even if we do something crazy like hand in the first typed draft. A Swiss team came up with a list of 19 strategies, based on asking more than 700 study participants about their habits.  (For more about this study, see the post at the British Psychological Society Research Digest.)  

You might change how you go about the activity just as I did. 

Other students sought out a special environment—a library carrel. Some people only write in coffee shops, hunched over tiny tables with loud music in the background. This makes no sense to me, but it works for them. You might stay home but drink coffee or an energy drink. Or you might text a friend, “Have you done that psych paper yet? I’m just getting started.”

Those approaches all involve changing the task or the circumstances.

Other strategies are about changing your mindset.

You might promise yourself a reward like binging a TV show once you get it done. You might also remind yourself that you usually are pleased with yourself when you’ve finished a paper and could get a good grade. That’s emphasizing the positive. As you get through sections of the paper, you could note your progress.

Or you could take the opposite approach and scare yourself with the consequences of procrastination or failure.   

In a follow-up study, the team asked volunteers to complete a quiz with questions about how self-controlled they were and also how often they used any of the 19 strategies. Finally, over a week, 250 young German-speakers received prompts several times a time to log any unpleasant tasks they’d faced, their strategies, and if they succeeded.

The most popular strategy was also a good one: thinking about the positive consequences of getting to the end. The next most popular strategy was also effective: thinking that the end is near.

It helped to monitor your progress toward the goal, an approach that is well-established in other research. Generally being able to keep your mood good was valuable as well.

What didn’t work so well was any strategy that involved distraction. 

The researchers also looked to see whether people who seemed gritty and self-controlled favored the more successful strategies. They did, but the strategies alone weren’t the whole story. Other people whose quiz answers suggested less diligence used the same strategies and didn’t do as well. The authors suggested that self-control might involve habits we don’t notice: “It is possible that more automatic processes that individuals may not be able to explicitly report are better candidates for explaining individual differences in self-control,” the researchers said.

What if your problem isn’t getting to the end but getting started? In The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, the philosopher John Perry offers his tricks to approaching unpleasant task.

He suggests writing a to-do list ranked by importance, and tackling the items at the bottom first. That’s because you’re less anxious about them, and may find them easier to do. Once you’ve experienced a little success, you’ll take your momentum up the list. You might break a big project into sub-projects and rank those, then choose to do the less important or less scary ones first.

To avoid distractions, Perry includes “do-nots” as well as “to-dos” in his list. The “do-not” might be “Do not read social media until after lunch.” You can check that off after lunch and feel pleased with yourself.

A variation of this blog appears at Your Care Everywhere.