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19 Ways of Doing What We Hate Doing

Self-regulatory strategies in performing disagreeable tasks are examined.

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What do the following tasks have in common: doing taxes, grocery shopping, clearing the gutters, ironing, paying the bills, cleaning the toilet, washing dishes, going to the doctor/dentist, changing diapers, studying, exercising, calling tech support, doing the laundry, shaving, mowing the lawn, completing work assignments...? These are examples of tasks people may find boring, disagreeable, or difficult. What strategies do people use to motivate themselves to complete such unpleasant tasks? And are these motivational strategies effective?

In an article, published in the January/February 2019 issue of the European Journal of Personality, Hennecke and colleagues report the result of three pilot studies and a main investigation which examined the commonality of various self-regulatory strategies for completing disagreeable tasks. These studies also examined the effectiveness of these motivational strategies, what predicts their use, and the relation between these strategies and success in individuals high in self-control.

Strategies for managing difficult, unpleasant, or otherwise challenging tasks

A friend of mine who owns several dogs often complains that he hates picking up after them. This task, like the ones in the list above, may present an inner conflict. This conflict results from the individual not wanting to do something (pick up after his pets), while at the same time recognizing that the task needs to be done.

The same conflict exists when you need to wash the car, but would rather relax and watch TV, or when you have to unclog the sink, but would rather do . . . anything else! It is much easier to avoid the task and procrastinate than to self-motivate.

People utilize different tactics to help them persist with tasks they do not want to do. What tactics? Hennecke et al. asked this question of 329 participants in a pilot study (average age of 36 years; 44 percent female), who reported back nearly 2,000 motivational strategies—which the researchers divided into 19 categories. Below I have listed these 19 categories (along with my examples in parentheses):

1. Alterations to the activity itself (to vacuum . . . quickly)

2. Environment change (to work on a school project . . . in the park)

3. Elimination of distractions (to wear earplugs when completing a work project)

4. Social support (to study in a group)

5. Substance use (to have coffee before doing the taxes)

6. Task enhancement, meaning adding a positive stimulus (to listen to music while doing the laundry)

7. Process focus (to pay attention to how your body moves as you run)

8. Addition of distractions (to watch TV while running on the treadmill)

9. Self-reward (to have a favorite snack after cleaning the garage)

10. Negative consequences (the ill effects of not brushing your teeth)

11. Positive consequences (the benefits of exercise)

12. Goal-setting (to make a commitment to walking at least 10 minutes each day)

13. Progress monitoring (to check how much weight you’ve lost since you began dieting)

14. Planning (to plan to pay the bills right after lunch)

15. Reframing (“I am not just doing the dishes, I am showing my wife my appreciation.”)

16. Self-encouragement (“You are smart, you can do it!”)

17. Almost finished (“A few more minutes and mowing the lawn will be all done.”)

18. No quitting (to fight the impulse to quit till you have shoveled the driveway clear of snow)

19. Emotion-regulation (to try to have positive feelings as you begin eating healthier)

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The most common motivational strategies?

In the second pilot study, participants in two samples—Sample A (245 Canadians/Americans; 36 years of age on average; 42 percent female) and Sample B (220 Germans; 30 years old on average; 73 percent female)—were asked how often they had used these 19 types of motivational strategies in the past.

The most frequent strategies were: considering the positive consequences, setting goals and monitoring goal progress, “almost finished” thinking, and using task enhancement.

To obtain a more accurate picture of strategy use, the following (main) investigation was conducted: A sample of 264 participants (average age of 23 years; 85 percent female) were sent signals throughout the day for one week; they were asked to respond to each signal by filling out a survey about motivational strategies used in the past hour.

Results showed that task demand influenced strategy use. This means, for instance, people were more likely to add stimulation when mental effort required was low as opposed to high (e.g., listening to music when sweeping the floor, but not when learning a complex theory).

Data showed that when tasks required greater physical effort (e.g., exercising), participants were more likely to use task enhancement and focus on positive consequences. For emotionally demanding tasks (e.g., relationship issues), individuals were less likely to use task enhancement, goal setting and progress monitoring, positive consequences or “almost finished” strategies.

Of significance was that participants high in self-control regulated their persistence by frequently deploying the following three self-regulatory strategies:

  • Setting goals
  • Regulating their emotions
  • Focusing on positive consequences
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Concluding thoughts on how to do what we hate doing

The studies reviewed today showed that people try to modify a number of factors to motivate themselves to do an unpleasant but necessary task; these factors may be related to one’s situation (e.g., listening to music while doing their taxes), attention (e.g., focusing mindfully on the process of cooking), thinking (considering the positive consequences of eating healthy to lose weight), response (e.g., resisting the impulse to quit till finished reading the chapter), and emotion regulation (e.g., thinking positive thoughts while jogging).

Perhaps you, the reader, also use a variety of motivational approaches to urge yourself to persist in completing unpleasant, tedious, or difficult tasks. Maybe among these motivational strategies discussed today, you find a few that are new to you. These approaches might be useful (or at least worth a try) the next time you need to do something necessary that you dislike doing—be it to clean the cat’s litter box, rake the leaves, dust, or even exercise or do yoga.

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1. Hennecke, M., Czikmantori, T., & Brandstatter, V. (2019). Doing despite disliking: Self-regulatory strategies in everyday aversive activities. European Journal of Personality, 33(1),104-128.