8 Ideas to Try When You Have to Do Something but You “Just Don’t Feel Like It Right Now”
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
One of the things I struggle with the most is aligning my emotions with the logical side of my brain. My inner world hardly ever agrees with the part of me that’s trying to keep me on track, help me achieve my goals, and find some success. Trying to start a new workout routine? Nah, I don’t feel like it right now, I’ll try after work instead. Oh, it’s after work, ready to go to the gym now? You know what, I’m feeling pretty beat and not in the mood to do this. Better luck tomorrow.
Except luck doesn’t have much to do with it — without forcing myself to push through the “I don’t feel like it” feelings, the same scenario is likely to play out tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein, Werner Erhard, and other authors unknown
If I let my mood fully control when I took action, any negative emotions would keep me avoiding risk, pain, and anticipated discomfort…forever. Of course, whenever I have managed to do the thing I’ve been putting off doing, the worst part is always taking the first step. The task itself is rarely as bad as the anticipation of said task. Which is a good thing to remember, although emotionally it is easy to forget.
So here are 8 ideas for us to try when we know we have to do something but in the moment, we really just don’t feel like doing it.
1. Get rid of the pressure, fear, or whatever negative emotion is driving you away from the task
Because the most difficult part is often just getting started, make it as easy as possible on yourself. Let’s use the gym example for a moment. If the emotion holding you back is fear, tell yourself that there is no standard you have to meet at the gym. It doesn’t matter what weight you lift, how fast you run, or how long you’re able to go for. There’s no judgment on this task.
Take away the pressure of having to do the task perfectly on your first try. And for bonus points, turn that negative emotion into curiosity. If you’re curious, everything is an adventure and there’s no right or wrong. The goal is simply to learn, to act, to be. It’s immensely freeing.
2. Change your environment
There are actually two ideas at play here. The first is the goal of shifting your energy by getting you somewhere new. For the gym example, this may be as simple as getting yourself to the gym. Or, if you’re really struggling to go, maybe you bring yourself into whatever open space you can find in your home and try to adjust your workout to fit there, with bodyweight or plyometric exercises. Or maybe you go to a park for a run instead of the treadmill at the gym. The point is, putting yourself into a different environment can change your energy and shift your mood.
Secondly, if it’s a longer-term project that you’re struggling to start or get through, or if you just commonly struggle with doing certain kinds of tasks when you don’t feel like it, you can try to condition yourself to want to do the task by associating it with a specific environment. The keys here are that the environment is specifically and solely associated with doing the task, and that when you get into the environment, you consistently do the task.
For example, let’s say the work you have to do is usually creative and can be done from anywhere as long as you have your laptop. You could try and find a coffee shop nearby, one that you don’t commonly go to, and make that you’re “working environment”. Every time you go to that coffee shop (especially at the beginning), bring your laptop and get to work. It might be difficult at the start, but over time, the goal is to help your brain recognize that being in this coffee shop means doing creative work. And eventually, you’ll condition yourself to expect and hopefully want to do work in that coffee shop. You’ll have conditioned yourself to get in the mood!
3. Create a signal
Another way you can condition yourself, without changing your whole environment, is to associate doing the task with doing a different task. For example, whenever I find myself overthinking and melting into a pool of overwhelm (quite frequently), I’ll stop everything and get myself a glass of water. I’ll find myself a quiet area and for the time that it takes me to finish that glass of water, that’s all I tell myself I have to do. Nothing else matters. This is also how I try to begin every day as well, so even when I do it in the middle of my day, it feels like I’ve hit a reset button. When I’ve finished my glass of water, it feels like I can start on a blank page again.
Your thing might not be a glass of water. Maybe it’s pouring yourself a coffee in your favourite mug. Or going for a 10 minute walk. Or making yourself a snack. For the best results, try to make the signal specifically and solely associated with doing the task and make sure you consistently do the task after you’ve signaled yourself.
4. Try the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 80s as a way of systematically breaking work into intervals. To use the technique, you decided on the task(s) that you want to accomplish. Writing it down can be immensely helpful here. Then, you set a timer for a set interval period (usually 25 minutes). Once the timer starts, work on the task, uninterrupted, for the full interval. When the timer goes off, stop working on the task and take a short break (usually 3–5 minutes). Then you begin again. If you’re going through several cycles of the Pomodoro Technique, it may be worthwhile to place a longer break in there. Otherwise, use this technique to help rid yourself of distractions, get into flow, and complete your task.
Whenever I’ve used this technique, what I’ll usually find is that I do get into flow pretty easily. And then the timer will go off but I won’t want to stop. Don’t stop if you’ve found yourself in flow and don’t want to — getting started is usually the toughest part!
5. Stop overthinking it
The anticipation of the task is usually much worse than the task itself. Sometimes, it can be as simple as stopping yourself from thinking about what you have to do, and letting yourself do what you have to do. Get out of your own way.
6. Alternatively, spend some time thinking about it a bit more!
Perhaps your issue isn’t overthinking the task — perhaps whenever the little voice tells you should do this thing, you immediately push it away and distract yourself by doing something else. If this sounds more like you, you may benefit from spending some time thinking about why you feel this way about the task.
Try to understand the emotions that come up when you think about it — what they are telling you, and why they are there. Is what they’re telling you true? If the emotion is “fear”, what specifically is it that you’re afraid of? If the emotion is “confusion”, how could you simplify things for yourself? What’s the worst case scenario that could arise by doing this task? What’s the best case?
By going deeper into the root of your emotions, you may be able to better understand and reassure yourself, and thereby shift yourself into a receptive mood for the task at hand.
7. Break down the task into smaller parts
The idea here is that we want to give ourselves small wins. Small wins are critical to achievement because they build self-efficacy — confidence in yourself that you can achieve your goal. Albert Bandura, the Stanford psychologist who developed the psychological theory of self-efficacy, calls these wins “mastery experiences”, and they’re critical to building our belief in ourselves and our abilities. They also serve as a potent source of motivational fuel. We are much more likely to want to keep going, or try again if we fail, when we have some success under our belt.
So break down that task into smaller parts, maybe even its smallest parts. Honestly, no part is too small when you’re trying to build your self-efficacy, and you’ll find that as you accomplish more and more, the size of the parts will naturally grow along with your belief in yourself.
8. Take advantage of the times you do feel like it
My last idea is perhaps the most important one, and also the one I’ve ironically struggled with the most. I’m a big believer in the fact that life isn’t meant to be difficult, and we should all make it a goal to make our lives as easy as possible for ourselves. So when you are “lucky” enough to feel that spark of motivation, try to follow it. Don’t question it, don’t talk yourself out of it, just let it inspire you to do the thing you need to do.
I hope at least one of those ideas work for you with some task in some specific context. I know that I’ve experimented with all of them to varying degrees of success, and that one idea is never fixed as the right idea for me. It completely depends on the task at hand, the headspace I’m in, and the material constraints of the time and place.
And if you have any other ideas for tackling this tricky problem, let us know in the comments!