How to Do What You’re Avoiding

We all have at least one of them: tasks, projects, or goals we want to put off or just plain avoid. Usually they’re important: perhaps something immediately helpful to our career or personal development, or maybe a daunting challenge we very much wish we would accept. Sometimes, completing one of them would provide a long-term advantage in our work or our life.

To get started working on these items, it’s helpful to know why we’re practicing this avoidance. But even without knowing the reasons, there are specific techniques you can use to get past the urge to avoid them:

These techniques include the following:

Introduce Accountability

One of the most powerful ways you can kickstart your activity on a task, project, or goal you are currently avoiding is to introduce some level of accountability. You can do this by:

  • Prominently posting a sign or reminder you’ll encounter fairly often, as a way to re-light the fire under your intention to do this work, or
  • Telling several people of your intention to complete this item, or
  • Setting up an accountability partner who will want regular reports on the progress you are making.

Introducing accountability harnesses the power of your emotions – including embarrassment when you don’t make progress, and pride when you do – to magnify the current (and, by-definition, inadequate) level of motivation you already feel to do the work required.

Introduce a Deadline

This won’t work for everyone, but many people – including me – are strongly motivated by deadlines, and fairly lethargic without them. There are many things I’d like to do, and I generally don’t make progress on any of them unless I introduce a specific date or time by which I’d like to get it done.

Some tasks, projects, and goals – such as planning a wedding, setting up a baby’s room, making your car payment, or delivering a specific work project to your boss – come with built-in deadlines.

But when they don’t, it’s easy enough and very fruitful to establish your own.

Introduce Rewards

If you’re not already a deadline-driven person, you can increase the power of deadlines as well as ordinary intentions by adding a level of rewards.

In years past, I have paid myself points for putting in hours of concentrated work, and have then used those points to “buy” hours for activities I enjoyed. But you don’t have to get complicated. You can just informally treat yourself well every time you make some progress on what you’ve been avoiding.

The reverse also works: Instead of rewarding yourself for making progress or meeting a deadline on a task, project, or goal you’re studiously avoiding, you can “go negative” and introduce punishments. For example, you can vow to contribute money to a cause you viscerally hate if you don’t meet your deadline for work on the item.

Not surprisingly, it takes a certain amount of self-discipline to introduce and stick with any rewards and/or punishments system you’ve designed. (If you’re short on self-discipline, accountability can help.)

Small Bits

A third approach to starting work on a task, project, or goal you’ve been avoiding is to try lowering the threshold of motivation required. You can do this in a couple of different ways.

  • You can ask yourself to work on the item for only five minutes. That’s long enough to take a bite out of the overall amount of work, but short enough not to be onerous or overly demanding. The secret payoff here is when the five minutes are up, you just might want to continue working on the item a little longer.
  • You can chop the overall task, project, or goal into pieces of work you can do in a single sitting, then put them in a sensible sequence, and work on the first one of them in between your work on the items you’re not avoiding. The secret payoff in this approach is you get the satisfaction of completing each of these bite-size pieces, a feeling that may make you more willing when it’s time to start work on the next one.

While these various techniques can help you get started on tasks, projects, and goals you are avoiding, they are all fairly mechanical. There is, however, a more cerebral approach you can also employ, if you wish:

Consider Why

It’s generally beyond the scope of my advisories to inquire into the reasons you’re less productive and successful than you could be. But in this case, the reasons probably don’t link all the way to the bottom of your soul – so I don’t mind asking you to look for them.

Your reasons for avoiding particular tasks, projects, and goals may run the gamut from:

  • They involve work you don’t like to do,
  • They require you to deal with people you don’t enjoy,

all the way to

  • You’re not sure of the procedures, skills, and techniques they require,
  • They bring to mind some unpleasant or otherwise negative memory.

If you can unearth the reasons you’re avoiding a particular task, project, or goal, you can usually make changes to reshape or reframe the item to eliminate one or more of these deterrent reasons.

Using these and other techniques to get started on tasks, projects, and goals you’ve been avoiding is worthwhile because they offer simple, direct methods to eliminate obstacles and smooth your pathway toward increased productivity and higher levels of success in both your work and your life.

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