Coaxing Yourself to Do Unpleasant Things

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
July 26, 2023
Coaxing Yourself to Do Unpleasant Things

People have different strategies to get themselves to complete unpleasant tasks. It turns out some methods are better than others. Here's what you should know.

Do you know what you tend to do to push through an unpleasant task? Most people have pet strategies, although you may no longer think about yours.

Maybe they’re among a list of 19 strategies participants of one study use. If not, maybe some of them can help you.


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Let’s say you are a high school student with an assignment due. You might change how you do the activity, for example first making an outline by hand rather than typing it on a computer. Or you might do the bibliography first to get it out of the way.

You might seek a special environment, such as going to the library or a coffee shop. You might alter your existing environment, putting on music in the background or turning it off. You might 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.

Another group of strategies are about changing your mindset.

You might promise yourself a reward ― like binging a TV show once you finish your paper. You might also remind yourself that you usually are pleased when you’ve finished a paper and believe you 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, researchers asked volunteers to complete a quiz with questions about how self-controlled they were and 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 to tackle them, 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 participants to monitor progress toward their goals, an approach that is well-established in other research. Generally being able to keep their moods 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 tasks. He suggests writing a to-do list ranked by importance, then 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.


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July 26, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell RN