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The Psychology of Dreaded Tasks (dcgross.com)
318 points by danicgross 8 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 111 comments


1. Give yourself permission to just try, for a little while

2. use fear-setting for really tough moments

A technique that I've found helpful when dealing with anxious thoughts is I become mindful of the anxious feeling, realize what I'm feeling anxious about, and then give myself permission to just try, regardless of the outcome. I'll explicitly granting myself permission to "just try" and even throw in "just for a little while, see how things go". This at times has turned into a productive, multi-hour session.

Tim Ferriss talks about a technique use to confront fears, called "fear setting" [1]. Essentially, I put together a 3-column table and think through the worst that can possibly happen. It helps me think about risks and realize what I can handle. This helps to manage worry.

[1] https://tim.blog/2017/05/15/fear-setting/

I would add take care of some low-hanging fruit to your "just trying" item.

Get the menial, "paperwork tasks" out of the way before you to get to the hard, problem-solving stuff.

Also, know when to walk away and think about things away from sitting in front of a monitor and keyboard. Showers are great for thinking. I also like to swim laps to do hard work - thinking work.

I do some of my best work while walking my dog! :)

Gardening for me. These are good examples of one of the main benefits of working from home. At many workplaces you need to simply be present at your desk hammering away at the keyboard to signal productivity, but it's easier for remote workers to get up and do their coding while engaged in something like walking or working outside. It's amazing how clearly the solutions for programming problems can come in those scenarios.

I have a similar trick. When I need to write something (code, email, etc.) that I don't know how to start, I tell myself that right now I'm only writing a draft. It might turn out to be a final revision later, but right now it's just a draft. This reduces the stress and allows me to experiment. The problem is that it doesn't work for things that I can only do once, like talking to someone about a difficult topic.

Many people rehearse difficult conversations beforehand. Would that approach help?

I’d like to add onto this a bit. The point of rehearsing beforehand is not to come up with a speech to recite, but to give yourself a chance to edit your communications. Often, the brain’s first pass at articulating something is suboptimal, and it takes some critical analysis to refine that into something that fully communicates the desired signal with minimal noise.

The problem occurs with fear setting when you have naturally pessimistic of cynical tendencies, because then you're just contemplating the severity of various bad outcomes. It sounds completely bonkers like some sort of backwards trick, but I've found (lessons from anxiety medication) that you shouldn't even consider bad outcomes a possibility; if a bad outcome occurs, then you deal with it. However, contemplating what bad thing may happen so you can 'be prepared' is really just wasted effort and self imposed resistance. You need to adopt a mindset of 'dumb optimism'. Granted, the meds made that much easier for me, and life was great during those periods. being off them I see my old thought patterns returning, namely dwelling on imaginary 'bad' scenarios. Its counter intuitive, but it works.

I don't think it's counter-intuitive, but rather a simple trade-off. The benefit you get from closing off the majority of your anxiety is worth more than the slight amount of extra preparation you might get from considering certain outcomes. It's not too different from the calculus involved in deciding to quit social media, with the hit on mental health not being worth being in the loop 100% of the time.

Same here.

Another point is that many things are "anxious" because we are doing it for the first time. Like something you used to fear about few years ago, now turns out easy because you have done it tons of time.

Something we can do better is speed up this process intentionally, by deliberate practicing.

While fear-setting can help you get started on "anxious" tasks when you have to do, dedicate some time to exercise the same thing everyday will make "anxious" thing less anxious to you in the long run.

Ben Franklin method: https://medium.com/personal-growth/the-benjamin-franklin-met...

I read your link but couldn't find the 3-column table. Can you elaborate what you do with it?

Begin by thinking of a goal that is important to you but that you've kept yourself from attempting, and divide a piece of paper into three columns.

    In the first column, write down all of the things that could go wrong should your attempt fail. Think of the most terrible things possible.
    In the second column, determine ways that you can mitigate the possibility of each of those bad consequences from happening.
    In the third column, think of how you would recover from each of the scenarios you imagined and wrote in the first column.
source: http://www.businessinsider.com/tim-ferriss-on-exercise-to-ov...

This is amazing. Thank you!

The best way I found of actually getting through the dread tasks is to cheat. Ask for help from someone else (presumably they do not have the mental block).

1. Identify the dread tasks.

2. Ask someone who cares (about you) to help you.

3. Do them together, with the other person not letting you get distracted.

For big tasks asking other people to help you chunk them also helps. After that avoid thinking about whole thing and just look at the small chunks.

I've long said that I could probably pay someone to stand behind me with a whip, and make more than enough from the productivity improvement to cover their wage.

You mean a wife ?

Joking aside. A life partner, children, or an impending bankruptcy can all be constant, strong motivators.

I came to comment the same. I think there could be a business for "dread task buddy on demand".

On second thought this sounds like a life coach

Yeah but 'life coach' has negative connotations whereas dread task buddy sounds awesome. This is one reason pair programming is good at times.

Haha I built this, it's called Focusmate [1]. Having an accountability partner is one of the only things that can almost guaranteed get me moving.

[1] https://www.focusmate.com

It's true that it works. And the other person usually doesn't dread the task themselves because it's about helping someone do it.

In the "Learning How to Learn" course, that was mentioned in the MOOC-discussion a while back, they suggest tackling this by focusing on process over product and tying a reward to it:

"I'm just gonna sit here and do taxes for 25 minutes and then eat some chocolate" rather then "I'm going to finish my taxes".

The reasoning is that by removing the pressure of completing the whole task you can sometimes convince yourself to stop procrastinating.

If that still doesn't do it for you then at least you have the chocolate.

Also, in that 25 minutes, you can discover the actual blocker to doing the task. Oftentimes, I find that my dread about a task is because of some ambiguity. By committing to a certain chunk of time working on it, it becomes obvious what that ambiguity is.

Of course, then I have to push through the discomfort of resolving that ambiguity. But that is easier now that I'm an adult and:

1) Know how to frame questions in a way that sets the answerer up for success.

2) Can ask "why are we doing this?" (better phrased "what is our goal in doing this?") and get an actual answer this rather than "because I said so".

3) Have the backbone & confidence to push back when someone says "stop procrastinating, just write the damn essay." and press until I get the question answered or decide that I'm not going to do the task.

Yes! What's stopping me is usually that I'm not entirely sure how to do something or I'm afraid that I will uncover some really hard or time consuming problem when I start doing the task. Instead, often only a short time is needed to get an overview of the task and realize it's not that hard.

For me, the first step is to commit to only a five minute overview and information gathering session. During those five minutes I will figure out what output is expected from me, write down a couple of concrete tasks, and then start with the one that either looks like it will add the most value or, if I'm low on energy, the one that's most fun. When I tick it off, I'm at least closer to completion and hopefully has enough momentum to start the another task on the list.

All of the above are best case scenarios, as I still usually put off things for way too long and have to work through the night to catch up. I constantly try to improve this, but as soon as one deadline has passed with a marathon work session, I relax because the next deadline is far off.

"Oftentimes, I find that my dread about a task is because of some ambiguity."

I think in the 2018 workplace, this kind of ambiguity about problem (or solution) is as responsible for procrastination as social media. Subtle and hidden, but a big-gey, at least that's my guess/anecdata.

By the way "The Psychology of Dreaded Tasks" is a really good name.

I must say, just last night I had a bit of coding to start and it seemed like I was being asked to kill a kitten or something, the thought was so incredibly depressing.

I forced myself, through the resistance, just to start.

I said I'd do it for an hour then I could stop. Note that this was beginning a new, big task. If I was in the middle of it I probably wouldn't have had such a huge urge to resist it.

Anyway, once I started it was cripplingly painful for about 5 minutes. Then I couldn't stop for the next few hours - I think because the thing I was working on was incrementally rewarding - every 5 minutes or so I could see the progress I was making.

Also, it helped a lot that I put on an interesting podcast that makes me feel great.

I suppose my point is that this guy is pretty correct, at least for me: it was pain I was avoiding, and just starting was the biggest hurdle.

I'm a bit ADD-ish, I think, so YMMV.

Yep, it is so hard to actually START doing something. Sometimes I "prepare" myself for multiple minutes, then get too overwhelmed in my head about it and end up procrastinating.

But once I'm into it it's not that bad. It's crazy how aware I am of this behavior, and yet always fall back in it. I've tried every single advice I could find on the internet, but none of them worked because in the end, the only way for me to do something is to start doing it. It sounds easy, but it is so, so, soooo hard.

And the worst thing is that people sometimes associate it with lazyness. I don't think I am lazy. This honestly feels more like something is broken in my brain, and I don't have much control over it.

I'm not giving up tho, still try to fight it daily. Sometimes I spend a whole day with a foggy head, trying to start do get things done, but I just can't...

There is this crazy swimmer here - he swam down 50 miles of the ganges river in some iron man contests - and he constantly swims between islands.

The way he visualizes is splitting down the goals to smaller portions. "I only think about the next 15 minutes, if I would think about the whole thing I would go crazy.".

I've found that's the best for any sort of physical task - for running it was "ok, I'll run to that light post" - a run could be an hour and a half of light posts. And for strength training it's always a lie on the bad days. "I'm not feeling great so I'll only do three sets today." - I always end up doing my prescribed five, but the size of the lies change as I need it to.

When I have days like this, I try to work on bugs. That way I don't have start anything, it's already been written. I just have to fix it. For me it's pretty easy to get motivated to fix a bug because I can just step lazily through the debugger until my momentum catches up.

If I don't have bugs, I'll usually work on a Kata for 15 min or so. Something I've written hundreds of times and can do from memory. This helps my momentum get caught up, too.

I prefer working on bugs, though. I feel more productive.

There is a point not addressed here. Some tasks are distasteful by nature, like cleaning manure out of horse stalls. It’s disgusting but I don’t have a problem with it. Other tasks are neutral by nature but infuriating by their very existence. Taxes fit into this category, even when owed a refund. Any kind of job/school application or process that takes a lot more of my time than the person who will evaluate it. I know that negative thought will come, and I don’t want to have them. Also, there are arbitrary decisions to be made that are irreversible and can have huge negative consequences if done wrong. These are also avoided. The idea that a task is avoided because it is distasteful by nature is really saying something about the simplicity and inconsequentiality of it.

Not really a "task" in the sense that it only takes 5-10 minutes but I hate that in 2018 when I visit many medical offices I have to fill out lots of forms, even when it's an office I have a history with and none of my data has changed. Ideally they'd show me a screen and say "has anything changed?" the end. If a screen is too expensive they'd print out a piece of paper will all my data and just have me sign that it hasn't changed. When I've asked though I'm told "it's the law" and that it has to be handwritten. Maybe Estonia is better at this?

The library manages this the 1-2 times a year I go to a branch. They show me the latest information in the PINES database, ask me if it's all current, and input any changes. Of course, they don't have the same regulatory and liability concerns as a doctor.

Weirdly it feels like it might lead to more inaccuracies to have everything re-keyed many times, due to variances in how people remember things and enter subtly different information in forms on subsequent occasions.

Of course... It's very important to have very accurate information so they know where to send the bills/lawyers.

This is particularly hard for people with ADD. That said, I think it’s potentially dangerous to give advice that’s in any way titled the “Psychology of...” without actually basing it on evidence and the literature because people might confuse it for rigorous or clinically appropriate guidance. I recognize you couch this in your experience, but if you’re going to write about something that in anyway dovetails with a pathology, it could be helpful to include at least some even abridged literature review, since this will be viewed by thousands (given you’re a shoe-in for HN’s front page).

I get what you're saying, but ultimately I think the onus is on the individual to filter all their own information. I'd go so far as to say information filtering is one of the most important skills for modern humans in a digital culture.

The reason I say this is because clinical studies have a limit. Both in the sense that as an individual you may be an outlier, but also in the amount of attention you can get from trained clinicians. By all means, if you are suffering, seek professional help, but sometimes you still have to figure out a way to help yourself even if there's not a double-blind study to back it up.

This is a good goal to strive for, but it's far from the present reality. Bad information is abundant enough as it is. There's no reason to exacerbate the problem with poor framing and inadequate sourcing.


>Don’t “do your taxes”. Just change the label to “gather finance documents”

Finance documents? What finance documents? Which ones? How would I know without having started on my taxes? Wherever did I put them? They're all over the place. This is hopeless. Maybe tomorrow.

You've been downvoted but I laughed because this is exactly the inner monologue I have whenever I try to start a Dreaded Task.

"I don't know where to start! Well, I could start with document A, but then I'd need some information from document B, which requires document C, but I can't do C until I've done A -- oh no, a loop! I can't see how to get round this at all; maybe my head will be clearer tomorrow. Time for a break.

(NB the "loops" often aren't really 100% circular, but seem insurmountable in my head; this is the point where talking to someone is invaluable, if I can get past the usually correct suspicion I'm going to sound stupid for making a big deal about a block which seems totally trivial and non-blocking when I try to put it into words)

...Also, didn't I already work on document B? But I can't remember where I got to, or where I put my notes, or what they mean..."

I do suspect I might have AD(H)D but I live in a country where adult ADHD is not really recognised, so I guess I'll have to do the best I can using some of the good tips posted here instead.

Then you've figured out part of why you're procrastinating on the taxes in the first place. Time to rename the task again: "create list of finance docs needed for taxes."

I've a theory for nasty work, the "Bikini Wax Theory of Nasty Work". The theory goes like this, a bikini wax and nasty work are exactly the same because:

1 - Nasty work and bikini waxes are both painful to do.

2 - you must move decisively and quickly for both nasty tasks and waxes, getting it over as quickly and competently as possible.

3 - if you fail to execute #2 properly the results will be a bloody and even more painful mess, likely taking more time to achieve the desired results.

I've shared this theory with close colleagues. Nobody has told me I'm wrong to my face.

Most people just wouldn't do a bikini wax given the options above. So maybe not the best advice for getting dreaded things done.

And yet thousands of women get them every day, so there must be a reason.

(Yes, they're painful. It's about 5 minutes of ripping off band-aids at 30-second intervals. Then it's over and it doesn't hurt at all any more, though the cortisone cream is soothing.)

Oh, the reason to go through that? It saves 6-8 weeks of shaving a very sensitive (and awkwardly shaped and difficult to inspect) area and dealing with 5-o'clock shadows and stubble and ingrown hairs and razor nicks. If you're self-conscious about wearing a swimsuit (or, for some, about your appearance in the bedroom), it's totally worth it.

Now, that nasty work that you're procrastinating on: why do you want it to be done in the first place?

And yet thousands of women get them every day, so there must be a reason. > Yep!

Some good mind hacks here, but I have to say that changing wording from "do my taxes" to "organize my finances" is not a way to reduce dread.

I have done my taxes about 18 times in my life. I have yet to organize my finances.

Haha, seconded. Taxes are just like executing a program. Boring, sure, but fundamentally easy.

Beyond the laugh, though, I find that a very strange rewording suggestion. Usually the advice (and I've found this good) is to make the to-do more specific and concrete. An open-ended project-sized item like "organize my finances" is a foolproof candidate for procrastination. "Do my taxes" is better, but might still be too big depending on the complexity.

A real to-do for either would be something like "Collect tax forms and order by date (note: there may be one under the couch?)" -- it's reasonably scoped and has a very clear "I'm done" criterion.

(EDIT: Looking at the article, it seems that "breaking it down" is indeed the suggestion. The specific wording chosen is still strange; it seems the author means something close to "gather documents" by "organize my finances".)

Great feedback. Clarified. Thanks wool_gather and gnud!

My philosophy is if I hate it and it's not worth my time, I pay someone to do it.

Thing is, watch a 'professional' work in the field you dread, and you will quickly pick on tricks of the trade and workflows that really change it to something quite easy (if you find the right person). Then the dreaded task becomes emulating that person, which is a lot easier the subsequent years. (e.g. have spreadsheets set up like them, follow the same steps, etc.)

That is assuming they themselves do not dread the task. Sometimes even a professional can't do it because the thing is just so big.

From coding perspective, there is a point where rewriting is better than refactoring. Then you get to piecemeal attack the rewrite with the same resources allocated to refactoring, which rarely is possible.

The article's example was "gather finance documents". Like W-2, 1099, etc.

Oh, looks like it was edited. :-)

Also, this is a unique US problem, no?

It's certainly not a problem for me in the UK; PAYE is automatic, and I've not yet had to do a tax return. Although I did once need to get an adjustment, which I did with a short letter. I do wonder why the US puts such a tax administrative burden on individuals.

Lobbying by tax preparing companies is part of it.

HN is ostensibly a forum for entrepreneurs, I'm sure most of the target audience here are familiar with filing taxes. Although I agree with my sibling comment that the requirements for individuals to file a tax return in the US always struck me as odd.

Does anyone else have an absolute dread of FIXING / REPAIRING something? And a solution for this dread?

Sometimes I'm at a point where I would put my hand in a running blender together with a live kitten or something painful and horrible like that, just to get NOT to have to FIX something that needs fixing and instead to START something new or to completely replace or refactor something or to buy something new and set it up in the place of the thing needing fixing... anything, just not repairing, not debugging, not fixing or not optimizing one more little half/broken thing.

The only thing I similarly dread is "going the last mile" from 80% to 100% and finishing any project/task, but for this at least I have a big bag of tricks that works most of the time.

But fixing / repairing instead of replacing something or starting with something completely new... This is HELL for me. Even visually, a blank piece of paper or a blank screen pumps me up with energy. But when I see something already half-working / half-written but know that there are some serious bugs/defects that I need to hunt down and repair somewhere in that. It sometimes fills me with so much dread that my subconscious makes me "forget" that that task exists, or forget what its components are so I end up miss-estimating by factors of up to 100x (with obviously horrific consequences for everyone's budget and sanity).

I've had very similar feelings before, and in my experience that fear of "fixing" is telling me something, that i'm not in a good position to be fixing whatever it is.

You mention that "refactoring" doesn't give you the same dread? Could it be because you know the problem better if you are tackling a refactoring but you don't when you are bugfixing? I've found that that dread wasn't from bugfixing, but was from a lack of confidence about the part of the codebase i'm working on.

Personally, I've found good results with tricking my brain into thinking i'm "refactoring" while really "bugfixing". Schedule the time to review the codebase that i'll be bugfixing, talk to the author if possible (and it's not you). If I want to indulge myself I'll sometimes "mock refactor" it, I'll open a new tab in my editor and almost pseudocode rewrite the component or module that needs fixing/debugging. Then once I feel I understand it enough, I can actually dive in and fix the bugs in the original code. And by that time i'm familiar enough with that section that i'm not fearing every letter typed as I know what will happen, I understand the intent behind the code.

I also struggle with the fear of "wasting time" a lot with this kind of stuff. I have this incorrect feeling that if I was able to develop these 300 lines of code in 6 hours, that I can't possibly devote 6 more hours to fixing a few lines. But the reality is that often the small 1-2 line bugfixes are the largest timesinks of all, and that I can't be afraid to schedule those 6 hours to look into that bug. Once I get over that hump that I'm somehow "cheating" the system by allocating so much time to what ends up being so little change, I feel a LOT better about actually doing it.

Besides having decent source control habits so you know you can go back if you mess up, I usually have a "playground" project that is pretty similar to the app I'm working on.

I can do what I like in there, experiment, break things, doesn't matter. That way if I have a problem I can't seem to even get started with in my main app, I go in my playground app and start there instead. It's like my cosy developer "safe zone".

Can of worms scenario.

When something is in a degraded or broken state, it's just that: broken or degraded, but for unspecified reasons.

Once you start messing with it, you're likely to discover numerous unpleasant truths. These are small revelations or griefs:

The damage is worse than you thought.

There is other damage, previously unrealised.

You lack the tools, equipment, or parts to diagnose, repair, or replace broken equipment.

You're in over your depth.

Others around you don't respect or trust in your skills.

You need to dedicate space over time to the repair, contested with other uses or people.

If a repair is in a domain I have experience, skill, tools, trust (or full independence), then it's little problem.

Large or novel projects, or social interference (co-workers, management, vendors, clients, household members, neighbours, politicians) make the prospect far less appealing.

When I was a little child I used to hate going for a bath, but really enjoyed being in the bath, and didn't want to leave. I remember thinking to myself then, "why do I hate getting in the bath when it's so nice in it?!"

I still don't know why, and it's still both amusing and puzzling when I encounter similar things with coding and other tasks as a grown up.

I think exercise can be like this for a lot of people. If you do figure out the solution, let us know, would you?

Fear of change and temporary discomfort. Homeostasis/equilibrium is comfortable when you're in it.

Essential reading on this topic: "The War of Art" by Steven Pressfield https://www.amazon.com/War-Art-Through-Creative-Battles/dp/1...

This has to be the most disappointing book I've read this decade, I came away with nothing actionable. It was like reading the advice "just eat less" as a way to loose weight.

If you crave for further disappointing books, I can also recommend "Do the Work" by the same author. Instead of actually doing the work, I read the book, and it hasn't helped me a bit.

It had the opposite effect on me. It's not so much about what is actionable, but a way of seeing. It opened my eyes to an interesting way in approaching my work that I've never thought of before.

I read the same author's other book ("Do The Work") and I did find it interesting. I'll look into this one.

Please could you explain a little how that helped you?

I'm not the person you're replying to, but I find The War of Art very relevant, and let me explain how it helped me. The book is about the struggle of doing things that one cares about: writer's block and the like. It puts in very clear (if metaphorical) detail the nature of this inner struggle (what the author calls Resistance), has some description of the many pitfalls, and gives a bunch of tricks for beating it. Mostly, if you find you relate to the description of Resistance in the book, then framing the struggle in the way the author does can be inspirational. I have read the book two times so far, and each time it has helped me for a little while at least — until the demon of Resistance conquers me again. (Maybe the trick is to just read it every few months…)

Thanks for this explanation

The key takeaway for me was: you will complete none of the jobs on which you don't work. If you don't feel like getting started, do something anyway. Just do something, no matter how small, and then do another thing. The hard part is getting started: once there is momentum then getting things done follows.

This is like saying "you get to Mars by starting the trip." The advice is sound, but doesn't help with getting off the ground. It's the kind of thing someone who already has little or no trouble starting buys on a poster for their workspace.

This sounds nice, but given that the title is "The Psychology of Dreaded Tasks", I'm saddened there's essentially no reference to psychological findings. The references to the brain in the article are completely unreferenced. They sound fine given what I know about predictive processing, but I can't really tell whether they're just a nice sounding story, or something scientific. There a lot of psychological work on procrastination (I'm not sure how much neuroscience there is, but there's bound to be some).

This post would have been less impressive but more honest without the veneer of psychological authority.

I don't think whenever someone says "psychology" they're going to have extensive knowledge on the subject. Sounds like he's speaking from his own experience. What would you call it? He's talking about the brain isn't he? Or are these terms reserved only for those who've gotten their PhD?

Make the title something like "How to approach dreaded tasks", or maybe something a little more creative than that.

The topic really doesn't have to be about the brain. We all have experience confronting tasks we dread, but we don't have to know anything about the brain to talk about that experience.

Now, maybe neuroscience comes along and tells us something new about how that dread happens, how to confront it, etc. If so, that's great--but it should be properly cited. Also note that simply invoking the brain does not necessarily add anything: if you find out dread involves the XYZ subsystem of the brain, that is irrelevant to a discussion of the experience of dread, until you say what we've learned from it being the XYZ subsystem.

So my demand is intellectual honesty. Which parts of your post are grounded in science, which are personal experiences, which are just fluff?

I created a terminator script at work. It shutdowns my system if progress.txt is not updated in the next 3 minutes. If I am dreading any task, I launch this. All I have to do is make any progress and record it in the progress.txt file. It forces me to focus.

Shutting down the system is not a life threatening situation but it is annoying and a minor inconvenience. Especially since it takes a few minutes to restart the system and load all the applications.

What job do you do where you can be productive while interrupting yourself every 3 minutes to update a text file? Or am I misunderstanding something?

3 minutes is an arbitrary time limit, you can set it to anything. This forces you to act. Once you get to a flow state you can turn off the program.

Interesting. What I like about this is that if you're subconsciously procrastinating by avoiding doing the thing you need to do (by say, justifying something else less dreadful to do), this is immediate feedback that will snap you back to reality to focus on the one thing.

Personal gripe, but he just had to mention coffee, didn't he?

Are there any folks out there who like to get difficult things done without caffeine?

edit: I guess not.

edit #2: You're sending me mixed messages, Hacker News.

I don't like to get difficult things done at all, that's the problem. I will take any advantage I can get. Sometimes caffeine helps, and in those cases I'm not gonna leave it on the table.

>Are there any folks out there who like to get difficult things done without caffeine?

Who would like that?

50mg of coffee. If it were pure caffeine it wouldn't be very much caffeine.

I have been doing that for years form me and for others(managing people) so they do not procrastinate with the team like they will do if alone. I do that without telling them I am doing that.

I will add some things I consider very important:

Use paper, write things down. Dividing a big task means nothing if you have no external memory you could trust to free the brain short term memory but you could recover it later. Paper today is the cheapest and more advanced external memory there is.

You could also use a tape recorder if you prefer audio memory.

After creating small sub task(tactics) from your general strategic thinking, put a checklist square near it. When you finish the task, check it.

Every hour of deep work, mark it on a calendar like a prisoner does with sticks. This provides visual feedback for your brain of your accomplishments, specially with hard tasks that takes months to complete.

The word for managing to do dread task is "reframing" into something that is important and positive for you.

Of course if you have money and power you could delegate most of the dreaded task, like googlers do with most of their domestic chores.

There are more things but the important thing is that you need practice, practice and practice until you get it. And like in anything else you will learn it much much faster if you personally know someone who "gets it" and learn from this person directly.

I have met some "naturals" of this processes in my life but I am not. I developed this skill over a long period of time, making me super productive compared to when I started.

I generally enjoy using paper for this reason as well, but I struggle with organizing the paper. Or, sticking to some form of organization.

I've tried setting up bullet journals, but paper discourages me for a few reasons.

- What if I need to edit or add extra content? I generally write in pen so that what I write down sticks around.

- I prefer to write in a stream of thoughts. To organize the paper, I try to think ahead and categorize my nebulous thoughts. This extra effort discourages me from writing and eventually, from using any organization system with paper.

I like Evernote because I can throw it in there and search will eventually help me find it.

This article assumes you're just going to follow the advice it gives. If you can in fact do that, you're half-way there.

But some people have strong resistance to doing anything that will get them closer to the dread task, and will instead distract themselves (say with video games or any number of other distractions), or by doing some other less-dreaded task, etc.

There could be some underlying cause for such resistance which no amount of visualization, coaching, coffee, or workouts could touch.

This is where working with the right therapist might help. "Right therapist" being the key phrase there. There are so many different therapists out there, and so many different approaches to therapy too. What might work for one person might not for another.

> This is where working with the right therapist might help.

What exactly would a therapist do? Saying consult a therapist seems a bit like a trope. It isn't within itself an answer.

Simply talking through the mental block as if it is a rational decision isn't particularly helpful, a lot of the bad roadblocks are something deeper than your conscious mind or inner monologue.

For example, there are many people who have read the books, followed the steps, and still struggle daily with these kind of dread task problem that seemingly get worse the longer you avoid them.

"What exactly would a therapist do? Saying consult a therapist seems a bit like a trope. It isn't within itself an answer."

Seeing a therapist won't magically make your problems disappear, but it could give you insight in to their cause, and if the therapist is good they could help you overcome those problems.

No one should be under the illusion that it'll be the therapist doing all the hard work. The hard work will have to mostly come from you. As the saying goes, you have to want to change.. and also you have to be able to put in the work to change.

The difference between this and trying to go it alone is that you'll have a trained professional on your side helping you to see your own blind spots, making suggestions you might not have thought of, and hopefully helping you to open up and look at issues you, your family, and your friends aren't trained to or necessarily willing or able to uncover or face.

It's no guarantee, however. Maybe you'll wind up with an ineffective therapist, or a therapist you can't trust, or a therapist you don't like, or one that's using the wrong methodology for you, or maybe you just won't be willing or able to put in the hard work or face the pain you might encounter along the way of self-discovery and change. No guarantees. But hope and professional help and support -- things you might be lacking if you've tried to go it alone and failed.

Some of us are stuck in a loop and need more than another self-help book or blog post to make progress with our issues.

Or maybe therapists just don't work and have no evidence of working for this kind of disorder. The argument that "maybe you wind up with an ineffective therapist" is a pure No True Scotsman. How do you know which therapist is effective and when, or whether they are better than talking to friends or perhaps just time?

Actual scientists are having problems formulating good effectiveness studies there. Much less a person with problems who is geographically limited and cannot shop around.

While in some cases there is clear evidence, trying to fix personal issues with work like this is not one of them.

> What exactly would a therapist do?

Diagnose your ADHD and prescribe you medication.

Only a psychiatrist (an actual medical doctor) can prescribe medication.

A therapist is usually what people refer to as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), who does "talk therapy". They are typically NOT MDs, so they do NOT prescribe meds, because they can't.


I'm not from the US, so I'm not familiar with that system. Although I would have expected "therapist" to mean a psychiatrist in the context of attention control (as opposed to interpersonal relationships).

One way to think of the difference is: whereas one focuses on helping you feel better through mere conversation[1], the other focuses on achieving the same goal but through the use of chemicals.

They are not mutually exclusive, and everyone's thoughts and bodies are "wired" differently, so it's very common to have a combination of both solutions (talking & meds) to achieve the same goal.

I think too many people think "therapy" == meds 100%, and that is absolutely not true. Many people can benefit from just the "talk" therapy (no meds) and feel better about it.

[1] I say "mere" conversation in jest, but it is no less significant (IMHO), than that of a lawyer's output (mere words too, right?)

Problem solved /s

>> Break down a big idea into small bits.

I'm not getting this. Of course you would start by breaking down the task. This is what you do with every task. You don't just gulp down an entire task without planning ahead or thinking about steps. So this is no different than saying "now start doing the task". It is silly self-encouragement, trying to trick your brain into thinking that you did something to alleviate the problem. You did not. You just started the dreaded task and made yourself focus.

I am tired of seeing these kinds of "advices from experts" online and in self development books.

Comments like this make me realize there's an entire universe of people who don't have the problems I have, and I wonder what it's like to be like them, and have learned the things that are so obvious to you.

For example: Is it obvious to you that faced with a task you're dreading and procrastinating on, it helps to replace it in your mind with something smaller? It was not obvious to me, and was learned after years of misery, and even now I have to consciously remember to do it, and whenever I do do it, I find it helps immensely. (For example, when there's an email I'm dreading replying to, and have been procrastinating for weeks—it hanging on my mind every day of course—it helps when I replace “reply to Ram's email” with “just write a reply to Ram's email” or (if that doesn't work) even “write a garbage outline of a reply…” or even “reread Ram's email”. For another example, I had to apply for a travel visa and was procrastinating for months, and what finally helped was mentally replacing “finish the rest of application process” with “create a travel history document” with (when that didn't work) “collect all travel history”… along with the “talk to people” trick.)

And yes, the idea is indeed to “trick your brain“ into doing the dreaded thing. At least, I have found it to help.

The matter-of-fact way in which you say “You don't just gulp down an entire task without planning ahead or thinking about steps” is really inspirational, because that's not my mental model of doing things, and I have to consciously practice it. I wish I learned these things in school, instead of just coasting by and now struggling with getting anything done at all.

>> For example: Is it obvious to you that faced with a task you're dreading and procrastinating on, it helps to replace it in your mind with something smaller?

I am not immune to procrastination, I did it for five years straight and dropped out of a college. I just don't experience frustration or anxiety when trying to figure out how to do something in general. It isn't really education or upbringing, but perhaps I watched carefully when I saw people trying to do things that are hard for me and easier for them.

Thanks, that's interesting. [And hi! I dropped out of a degree too :-)] Did you mean only “when trying to figure out how to do something…” as you said, or do you include even “when trying to do something”? Because not experiencing anxiety or frustration in the former is something I can manage too (a challenge is always fun, especially when it's a purely cognitive task like figuring something out), but the problem arises when one thinks one is in the latter situation.

To take the example from the OP, “do your taxes” is probably something that I have done a few times before: so I don't think of it as something to figure out how to do. (Maybe the fact that I'm so unsuccessful every year at doing it until the last minute means that I really do need to figure out how to do it, but it doesn't seem that way: it seems that I know roughly what it involves.) The mental model is that I'm just going to sit down for a few hours to “do my taxes”, and do all the things it usually involves. And it causes dread, avoidance, resistance. And the OP's suggested fix, the one you're commenting about, of replacing it in one's todo list with things like “gather bank statements” (or something smaller and concrete like that) seems to help immensely. Does this not fit your experience? (Maybe not with doing taxes, but with some dreaded task… or is there usually nothing you dread?)

>> And the OP's suggested fix, the one you're commenting about, of replacing it in one's todo list with things like “gather bank statements” (or something smaller and concrete like that) seems to help immensely. Does this not fit your experience?

Therein lies the distinction. I don't figure things out roughly. Perhaps it is a habit of generalized thought about Todo lists that I got rid of at some point. Instead, I keep in mind just the first exact thing I need to do, avoiding the thought of seeing the whole picture instinctively.

Congratulations, you do not need this particular advice!

However, the rest of us still exist.

Here's some real advice: find out what is blocking you and slowly move to remove it from your path. First; It is not a "mental block". It is a tangible, existing stopper, you are just not focused enough to figure out what it is. It may be an academic topic you need to study, allocation of time, reading a guide, getting a permission or something as simple as getting feedback. If feedback is not available, try to find existing precedents to inspire you.

Now you’ve gone and ruined the placebo for the rest of us.

That is very obviously not how I begin a large, dreaded task when I am forcing myself to just start. Sounds to me like our brains work differently.

The highlighted sections on this page drive me crazy. They really interrupt the flow of the text.

Most browsers these days offer a "reader mode" - great for reducing those distractions. (Also for dealing with sites with awful fonts or layouts.)

There are so many articles on productivity on the internet that I'm starting to wonder whether there isn't a deeper problem at hand here.

Coffee will give you a boost for a limited amount of time, then you feel worse then before. I still drink coffee, but I don't do the morning routine anymore. I have energy in the morning, the afternoon is when I need the boost.

Working out and the resulting endorphin rush is great, but once again that's a temporary fix. You probably got a couple hours of the endorphin rush until you're more tired than you normally would be. Don't overdo the workouts, know when the best time for you to workout is, and get plenty of rest.

My instinct is always to talk about my goals for the reasons listed in this post. But research suggests that talking about goals makes it less likely that you'll follow through: https://www.inc.com/melissa-chu/announcing-your-goals-makes-...

I'm a big believer in attacking a big problem after a workout and a good coffee. Also set a time for it. "8 am tomorrow, I'm doing this thing"

After a work out, I can clean the entire house, pumping music in my ears, for example.

The idea of a prediction being painful matches my experience. I never thought of it that way, but now that I do, that makes things a lot easier. (I meditate, so just knowing about this helps me a lot).

I'm avoiding a dreaded task by being on hn right now...

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