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How to overcome resistance to work (dextronet.com)
157 points by jirinovotny on June 10, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

Some great suggestions here, but I find the best method for me is to just crank some music, down a couple swigs of coffee and dive in. About 95% of the time the issue isn't about getting stuck partway through, or approaching the problem wrong, it's about getting through the first ten minutes of work. Resistance crumbles after that and motivation and focus kick in to full gear.

You know, if a task isn't particularly urgent, I have no problem with procrastinating for a couple days on it (and working on other things in the mean time) as long as I keep coming back to it.

This resembles the Feynman method of how to be a genius, but sometime if a task is hard, and seems insurmountable, sometimes all you need is some time for your mind to grasp the task. I have occasionally tackled a problem, given up as it seemed hard, come back a couple days later and discovered a trivial solution, completing in half an hour what I figured would take me 3. So I call this "productive procrastination" and it's a good thing. Another function of my complex to-do list is that it gives me a chance to think about tasks before I start (again, I don't worth through it sequentially). The difficulty is in figuring out when to procrastinate and when not to. There are a lot of things you never want to procrastinate in doing (if you take a long time to bill your customers, they will usually reciprocate when it comes to timeliness of payment, for example). But there are a lot of cases where procrastination can be helpful. So the challenge is when to and when not to.

The 4 things suggested are exactly what I discovered to work for me; but I guess it depends on your personality and your particular case.

I'm the same way, and once I've actually started working it's hard for me to shut it down and stop working.

Agreed, but it's still so hard to do. This is the biggest obstacle I face.

I quit my job 6 months ago to travel and learn programming. And the greatest personal frustration has been staying productive in a work-from-anywhere, no-boss environment.

What I've realized is that discipline is not only about buckling down, but also about using mental hacks such as the ones listed in this article. Its also been helpful to realize that transitioning productivity from a cubicle to a self-directed path is difficult. It has also been the biggest surprise.

There's something to be said for the ceremony of grooming for work, travelling to your workplace, interacting with coworkers, during approximately the same time each day.

Work is the "2nd space" in the Starbuck's "3rd space" advertisements.

Have you tried working in the same seat at a library or other public place each weekday?

That's a good suggestion. I use a spreadsheet to monitor the # of hours worked each day and my goal is to keep that on an upwards trend. Its based on Seinfeld's 'dont break the chain' tactic. This has worked the best for me.

Being able to check time logged against projects is first, crude metric. I settled on an app with week view as a default - one glance and I know everything.

Some of my friends freak out at the possibility of 'wasting even more time' by trying to track time. I disagree. Tracking is light (0.5%?) and clears mind from all unnecessary underground thinking and stress resulting from not knowing the numbers.

The idea is to keep it simple. I track in one place and I (mostly) track projects only (billable and non-billable) plus some phone calls (with comments). Tried to track HN related browsing but... it was... never mind.

Did you added some code to the spreadsheet to make it easier to use? Any graphs to _see_ it?

Is the number of work hours really what you want to increase?

It suffers from what a lot of metrics offer: it's easily measured, easily gamed, and not particularly correlated with output.

I'd say it's probably useful to measure, but also key to keep in mind when you're warming a seat just to move that number up, rather than actually getting things done.

Including other measures of work output would be a very good modification.

That's a really good question. I thought about this and for now its a fair metric. I want to reach 8 working hours a day. Once I hit that goal consistently, I'll have to look for a better metric.

There is a good iPhone app called commit that tracks daily/close to daily tasks well

Whoa, I had no idea that Starbucks was explicitly owning the term 3rd space/place in its advertising. If anyone's interested in the aademic source of this model of places there's a nice intro in this economist article. Cmd-f for 'third places' http://www.economist.com/node/10950463

This is great advice for overcoming procrastination and I use it daily. It has significantly improved the way that I work. I think I learned of the trick from GTD, or possibly Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. A TODO list by itself isn't helpful for me -- in fact, in can increase my procrastination by seeing a giant list of tasks because it's just so overwhelming.

What has worked is coupling the task with the next immediate action. Depending on the level of procrastination, this next immediate action does not have to be a grand vision. It is often as simplistic as "open the lid to your laptop", then, "open a text editor", then "think of the file you need to edit", then "type hello world three times" (just to get me to start writing __something__). Passing that initial hurdle usually gets me to the desired state of flow.

Similarly, I now have the following written at the top of my TODO list at all times: "Direct the Rider. Motivate the Elephant. Shape the Path." This psychology comes from Switch by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, and it's hugely impacted my outlook on work, especially as a researcher.

This reminded me of those long sales pages with an email list signup box at the bottom. This is what I got from the article. Break it down into small tasks. Work out what the next easiest actionable task is, like say "Opening an application". Set yourself a time limit on the task. Discover and remove any internal resistance you may have. Use you new found insight now. Maybe on this link to download our to-do list software.

Don't get me wrong the advice will no doubt help some of us, most likely more then the software would.

The technique recommended in the article is similar to Kaizen, the method that Toyota implemented in the 50's to overcome quality and productivity problems. It's the practice of using continuous small incremental changes to lead to larger improvements. It also happens to be a great way to overcome many psychological hurdles.

Social media bar floating above the article's text on my Android phone.

I cannot remember just how many articles I did not read because of this. Guessing one word per line lowers my reading enjoyment.

This is why I often browse (sites other than HN) with JS turned off in the Android browser.

I still find the ticking of a pomodoro timer to be the best way to make me start cranking out work. There's just something about tik tik tik tik that springs me into action.

I've just discovered Pomodoro (on Day 5) and I have to say it's completely revolutionised my productivity. I've gone from 3 or 4 hours of unfocused time a day, to 12 hours of laser like focus on stuff that matters.

Step 1:

Realize that if you don't work, you'll fucking starve.

Step 2:

Close HN.

Step 3:

Work like fucking crazy, to put as much distance between yourself and starvation as you possibly can.

Step 1 is not really true for a large number of middle-class Westerners, though, and even less true for middle-class Westerners with tech skills. There are a lot of unpleasant things that would happen if I stopped making money tomorrow, but it would be a long time, if ever, before I starved. Between savings/friends/parents/foodstamps/etc., I would have to seriously run through about 20 fallback plans before literally not having food.

And in particular, it doesn't solve the independent-motivation problem. There are a lot of people who can work a regular job who have trouble, at least initially, getting into a productive self-directed work mode. If someone is trying to figure out how to transition from regular employment to self-directed productivity, telling them that their motivator should be money-making to eat misses the point, because they could do that via the "failure" option of just giving up and going back to a 9-5, too.

If I stopped working tomorrow, it would be months before anyone even noticed. Probably much longer before they got around to stopping my pay. This doesn't help with motivation at all.

This doesn't help with motivation. You folks who are living on the edge of starvation have it easy!

"You folks who are living on the edge of starvation have it easy!" Where did you assume that from?

I think it's a joke.

i think this concerns working on stuff beyond satisfying basic needs

that project you wish you'd get done in your spare time

Step 4:

Burnout, depression, homelessness

The above is the advice of an amateur who hasn't actually had to tackle work in a self-motivated manner whether the OP fits that mold or not.

Moderation and focusing on what is actionable is how you keep rolling.

This is spot on. After four years as an independent, burnout is a huge issue. I'm 1/3 as productive as when I started down this path.

I have had unproductive patches too as an independent. right now I am going through a reasonably productive time. There are times when the inspiration just kind of flows, and even hard problems end up being easy when confronted. There are other times when simple problems end up hard. There is some natural oscillation between the two. I have started to learn to take advantage of the pattern. Take down time when I need it (that's a hard thing to do as an independent) and work hard a lot of the rest of the time, even if it's only 6 hrs a day of hard programming (and probably 4 hours a day of other crap, and another 2 hours a day of still other stuff).

Do something else, and exercise. Both help incredibly with burnout.

I hit burnout and was less productive for a long time.

It's taken about five years, but I'm almost back to full productivity. I'm basically back to normal, or better, in my day-to-day work, but I still have almost nothing in the way of progress on side projects compared to before.


1. Pace yourself, get some work done, then go make coffee/food, or in my case, go for a motorcycle ride/work out at the gym.

2. Exercise. Hard. No walking on the treadmill shit. Start strength training and do sprints for conditioning/cardio. Our bodies weren't meant to languish in front of a computer and tend to throw a snit-fit if you don't satisfy them.

3. Have a hobby/hobbies that don't involve a computer. As stated before, for me these are strength training and the motorcycle.

4. Read a lot.

5. Focus on actionable, bite-sized amounts of work. Don't think about macro, long-term, or broad scope stuff. You'll just get overwhelmed. Let the dopamine hits come rapid-fire as you check things off in quick-succession throughout the day.

With that, I'm off to ride in the mountains.

Good luck.

100% agreed with all of the above, except I would add one caveat to #5....

I think one does need to focus on macro, long-term, and broad scoped stuff a bit. This doesn't mean keeping it as a goal (which I think is your point) but it does mean setting aside time to plan, think about the long-term, re-evaluate where you are from time to time, etc. At the same time these plans should be shelved once complete and only reviewed periodically. The point of such planning is to think about the long-term not map out how you are going to get there. As Eisenhower said, "Plans are nothing. Planning is everything."

I wish a psychologist research all the suggestions and laid out the effectiveness of each approach.

For now, I guess we goes with "whatever works for me".

I know what you mean. Most of the time such advice like this makes sense, and some of it is indeed backed up by psychological research, but it's hard to see that unless you know of the research yourself. A lot of the time what seems like common sense is actually contrary to findings in psychology research. The book 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman is a good starting point here and it offers lots of advice which is backed up with research and data. For example, the book talks about how smiling can make you feel happier, which I had discovered to be true for myself on my own accord.

One thing I'm looking into is using self-administered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to overcome various problems, such as procrastination. I have found this, which I posted on HN earlier:


This uses REBT, or Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, which is a form of CBT and, apparently, the most extensively researched form. See here for more details:


CBT has been proven effective for a number of psychological issues such as anxiety and depression and I'm really interested in its potential applications to other problems. There's more info here with a ton of citations:


You have to go with "whatever works" in any case. If a study showed that technique X improved productivity for 95% of the people, you might still be in the 5% that it didn't help. Research psychologists will emphatically tell you that all people are not the same.

I think non-monetary reward is important issue here. Trying to focus not only on smallest but most pleasurable thing if when the result is there is important. It helps to reduce friction to get yourself to get momentum going. Pomodoro is a great way to keep the momentum. Having a realistic checklist with some cool and some less cool things to accomplish for the day has done wonders form my productivity as well.

Remember you've got to treat yourself well while doing work and work will treat you well in return.

My approach is horribly more complicated and involves a set of two TODO lists. The first is my immediate list, and always has 12 items on it (4 harder ones and 8 faster tasks). 3 tasks (1 hard and 2 fast) are always marked as current works in progress. 3 more are listed as next up. The next six I choose freely from to promote when I complete a task.

Then I have my mid-range to-do. Tasks usually stay here for days to weeks (my short-term I get unhappy when something is there for more than a few days). Items here are coded with a * for a bigger item and a % for an item I think I can do quickly. The % are moved to my short-term list in chronological order (with some exceptions) while the * ones are moved in based on what I think i can tackle next.

This gives me some variety and some freedom to jump around between tasks and stay productive. I have ADD so thats a good thing. It also lets me set goals that I can usually meet and procrastinate constructively. More than once I have had tasks I really had resistance to starting become trivial after thinking about it for a day or two. But yea part of that is breaking the task down, thinking about it, maybe making a couple abortive attempts to complete it.......

I don't have ADD, but this is absolutely true for me. I prefer seeing exactly what I need to do and having the freedom to tackle components of them one at a time.

With that said, are you using any special applications for your TODO list? I've been looking for a good one (I'm on Linux) that fits my workflow better, but so far, I keep going back to RTM which isn't exactly the most optimized for me.

I want something that is a desktop application that also syncs with Android/iOS that is lightweight and at my fingertips. I want it easily editable and possibly with a checklist rather than just deleting finished items. I want the list to be rearrangeable rather than static. If anyone knows of a good TODO application, please let me know!

I am using gedit. I would use vim but doing more visual copy/paste seems to work better for me here.

Holy hell I'm reading this instead of working. What has my life come to.

Programmer here, I usually start to procrastinate when I find something difficult/too tedious to do. Whenever something like this happens, I find that taking my dog out for a 20 minute walk really refreshes me up and motivates me to do the task!

NB/offtopic: this page design is horrible.

On mobile, there's a "social sidebar" which hovers over the text, as others have noted, to the left side of the page, obscuring the first word or so of each line, in a manner that it cannot be dismissed.

Reading with NoScript enabled on Iceweasel, the text is squeezed into a narrow 2-3 character column to the far right of the page.

My solution is to disable stylesheets and read the page unstyled.

Distractions such as this take a great deal away from actually being able to access content.

Get started at any cost.

You are ready.

Build it wrong, but build it.

Don't work too long, it's harder to get started next time if you flogged yourself into the ground last time. Pavlov rang and told me so.

When I set to do a task for a few minutes in order to trick myself into working all day, it never works because I already know what I'm doing and why, and the trick fails. I have been struggling with this for a long time, and I, too, have discovered that the method that works best is to suck it up and just start working.

"resistance to work" usually means that you don't have any passion for that work, and that you shouldn't be doing it. if you're running a business you should think of outsourcing any task that you don't want to do, unless it's mission critical.

This isn't necessarily true- for me, resistance generally means I'm scared I can't do the task well enough, or scared that someone else will look at my work and think it's awful.

I have the same thought process as you, and I find it quite debilitating. It often manifests as a need to know everything about a problem space before even starting on a solution.

The upside is that on the whole I produce code that is logical, consistent, maintainable and relatively bug-free. But it takes a long time.

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