In the hope of finding a magic formula to fulfill unpleasant tasks diligently without grumbling like a robot I read one of the most recommended books on the topic: Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney). However soon I got the impression that this book covers mostly nutrition related topics and I got disillusioned. On one hand adopting a healthy diet requires a lot of discipline for many people and on the other side a protein-rich balanced nutrition is also an important factor for achieving willpower. In this article however I will skip the nutrition issue. Anyhow be aware that a healthy lifestyle including sufficient sleep, exercise and an appropriate diet is essential for your brain to function well. Thus to effectively improve your willpower, try to improve here.
Since there is no single method which works like a silver bullet to make you work in a disciplined manner, this article got a bit long. For your convenience however there is an overview with all my tips at the end of it. In the following I present some of the strategies helping me to get tasks done which I only do reluctantly and I’m prone to procrastinate. To get such work anyway done with little mental resistance I suggest to do some planning and other prerequisites before tackling the task.
For reoccurring tasks it’s good to have a routine. For example schedule a certain amount of time for reoccurring work every day and don’t allow yourself to do anything else except to work on the task during that period. Willpower gets depleted during the day. Especially when doing much cognitive work and when forcing oneself to do be disciplined e.g. when exercising, fasting etc. willpower gets used up. Therefore the most unpleasant tasks which require most willpower should be done first. This will make sure that you actually get it done and don’t avoid it by spending your day with other things.
To make it easier to focus remove all distractions. This can be achieved by working at a place outside from home where distractions are less likely such as a library. What’s very important is that your phone is in flight-mode! Don’t allow any messages or calls disrupt you. If you have to use the internet for doing your work and if you are not disciplined enough to stay off certain websites such as facebook and youtube, then you can use a program to block them for the amount of time that you are spending on your task. Ideally there should be nothing on your desk except your working materials. However everything that you need to do your work should be easily available. If possible do also necessary research, concepts and plans ahead of time. If you need certain software for your task, make sure that it’s already installed and working. Once in a while it happens to me that when I’m finally in the mood to do a task I figure out that something required is missing. If it takes time and effort to get it, I end up not getting the actual work done.
Once you are free of distractions and have everything at hand that you need to do your work, you might still feel unwilling to get started. To make it even easier for you to get your work done, do micro planning by setting many easily achievable milestones. This concept is known as divide and conquer. For example if you have to write a report, the first milestone could be to just make the title page. The next little goal could be to write down an outline. Then the first paragraph of the first chapter and so on. The idea is that you make it possible for you to achieve many successes. Every time when you reach a milestone you build confidence and get motivated to go on. One more trick to get started is to tell yourself that the result doesn’t matter. Just write anything, it doesn’t have to sound good and it might not even be full sentences. You will be less reluctant to do this than if you expect from yourself to create a great work at the first try. Of course you will probably have to refine and rework your first version, but a start is half a battle and I intentionally don’t write a good start. Just get started somehow. Any action is better than no action.
In general when doing cognitive work it is recommended to have a break of about 5 minutes after every 20 minutes. These numbers can differ per person and depend on your current morale. I usually don’t track my time and just take breaks when I notice that my concentration deteriorates or when my body gets stiff and painful from sitting. But if you are in a flow state, just keep working. Otherwise make good use of your breaks by e.g. having a little walk and by drinking some water or having a little snack. Now we face once again the dilemma that getting up and taking a walk might also require willpower when sitting comfortably in the chair. However it will be worth the effort because you will continue your work refreshed with new vigor. As mentioned in the beginning to be productive it’s all about making sure that your brain serves you well and this requires however some willpower.
There’s one more strategy to incentive yourself to work diligently. Define a reward that you will treat yourself when you are done with the task. My rewarding philosophy is to use rewards serving several purposes. One is that it motivates me to finish my task and another one can be something contributing to regain my depleted willpower. Thus it should be something helping me to relax and ideally beneficial for my health such as a healthy meal, a walk in the sun, listen to music or a sport session. If you are a pro in tricking your mind, you can even reward yourself with doing a rather pleasant task which you didn’t allow yourself to do until the unpleasant work has been done.
As an example I will describe how I once made sure to study daily for the TOEFL test. To have enough time to study in the morning before going out, I had to make sure to go to bed early enough so that I can get sufficient sleep. Before going to bed I placed my study materials on my desk and removed everything which could be distracting. In the morning after being done in the bathroom and having drunk some water I studied for about 20 minutes English for the TOEFL test while my phone is in flight-mode and my PC is turned off. The first couple of days when initially adopting this morning study routine, I was rather unwilling to study. However since I made the resolution to either study or do nothing for 20 minutes, I quickly got bored of doing nothing, so I started to study. Since man is a creature of habit, making myself to study required soon hardly any effort any more. As reward I enjoyed a good breakfast after the 20 minute study session. The breakfast helped me to refill my willpower and made me ready for the work at my job. By having this morning study routine I didn’t have to force myself to study in the evening after having spent the day at the office when my willpower is much lower than in the morning. It would have been very likely that I would have skipped studying during the evenings many times. Be aware that I’m rather a morning person. Depending on your personality a different time period might make more sense for you.
Overview of techniques to get tasks done easily
- Maintain a healthy lifestyle by having an appropriate nutrition, sufficient sleep and being active.
- Reduce your unwillingness to do a certain task by making it a habit.
- Set a period of time in which you only allow yourself to work on the task or to do nothing.
- Do the most unpleasant tasks first when you have more willpower.
- Remove distractions.
- Have all the necessary working materials easily available and required software installed.
- Prepare research, concepts and drafting ahead of time.
- Divide and conquer by defining many easily achievable milestones.
- Just start: a bad solution is better than no solution. Any action is better than no action.
- Once concentration deteriorates have a break in which you are active to regain vigor.
- Use rewards to motivate yourself. Ideally define rewards helping you to recover.
Note that if you are unwilling to do a task because it is extremely boring, repetitive work requiring little brain activity, applying strategies such as making the task more challenging to stimulate your brain by listening to music or using a different, more creative approach to solve it might be rather effective.
I’m curious about which methods are most helpful for you and for which tasks you apply them to.
I am a (mental) health and sports enthusiast. I love my family, friends and food. I especially enjoy challenges, dancing and humour. For further background information regarding myself, please check my LinkedIn profile.