[Image description: The words “how to handle AVERSIVE TASKS” in pink and purple text over a dark blue background. A purple triangle overlaps a pink triangle on the top and bottom of the picture. The bottom right triangle includes the logo for “The Tending Year.”]
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I fancy myself a productivity researcher on paper and in practice, which means I’m always looking for new ways to accomplish tasks with efficiency, grace, and as little stress as possible.
Although I’ve developed strong practices when it comes to planning my weekly routine, habit formation, and practicing self-care, there’s a sneaky little monster that I still struggle with: procrastination.
We are most likely to procrastinate on tasks that are aversive. Aversive tasks are things that we should do but that we avoid doing because they make us feel or think a particular yucky way, such as bored or frustrated. In his book The Productivity Project, researcher Chris Bailey aptly calls aversive tasks “unattractive.”
Fortunately, there are ways to handle aversive tasks and check off your to do list with more ease. Keep reading to learn how to identify aversive tasks and shift your thinking and actions to handle them appropriately. To show you how it’s done, I share how I (finally!) dealt with one of my own aversive tasks. As always, I include specific takeaways that will help you to recognize and tackle your own procrastination once and for all.
What’s an Aversive Task?
Bailey breaks down aversive tasks in his book’s section “Six Triggers of Procrastination.” He writes:
…the more aversive (unattractive) a task or project is to you, the more likely you are to put it off. And there are six main task attributes that make procrastination more likely. Those are whether a task is one of more of the following:
- Unstructured or ambiguous
- Lacking in personal meaning
- Lacking in intrinsic rewards (i.e., it’s not fun or engaging)
The more of these attributes a task has, and the more intense these attributes are, the less attractive a task will be to you, and the more likely you’ll procrastinate on it. (emphasis original)
In other words…
if we resent the idea of doing a task because we think the experience will prove challenging or uncomfortable, we are more likely to say “I’ll just do it later.”
Procrastination Can be a Habit, Too
Procrastination is tricky.
When we repeatedly put off doing aversive tasks, we may build procrastination habits. Remember, habit formation is based in a formula of CUE –> ROUTINE –> REWARD, so when we respond to a cue to “finally do the report I’ve been putting off” with a routine/action of “watch more Netflix instead” because we plan to just do the report tomorrow, then we are actually rewarding our procrastination routine with Netflix. When we do this, we run the risk of perpetually pushing “tomorrow” further and further away. This might feel fine… until we meet the results of our procrastination: missed deadlines, stress, guilt, negative self talk, panic, anxiety, shame, etc.
Don’t believe it? Think about how often you go to open social media or check your email the instant you run into a challenging or difficult task!
Practical Steps for Handling Aversive Tasks
In order to change your procrastination habits, you will need to address the aversive tasks and create an action plan for addressing what is making them feel aversive to you.
Step 1: Recognize that You’re Dealing with an Aversive Task
My aversive task was writing a blog post as a part of the 2018 LGBTQ Research Fellowship I was awarded this year. The deadline for submitting my post is not until the end of the year, but I had planned to knock it out right after I went to the archives in August.
[Image description: The words “one ARCHIVES FOUNDATION” are typed above the photo. In the photo, Kate sits at a table in the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. She is holding and reading a paper from the Lisa Ben papers. Her laptop is open and sitting on the table next to an open notebook and folder. Underneath the image reads: Photo credit: ONE Archives Foundation.]
That’s me at the archives! 🙂 This photo says “One Archives Foundation” because it was featured in a recent email newsletter from the ONE Archives Foundation about the fellowship.
I love my research immensely, and I am extremely grateful that I was awarded the fellowship. I hadn’t delayed in writing the post for a lack of interest. Out of Bailey’s list of six triggers, I could cross off boring, lacking in personal meaning, and lacking in intrinsic rewards. That left me with frustrating, difficult, and unstructured or ambiguous. I write blog posts all the time for The Tending Year, so I didn’t find the task particularly frustrating or difficult. That left me with unstructured or ambiguous, which checked out: the assignment was quite broad. I should write a 500ish word blog post and submit it by the end of the year. How I chose to do write it was entirely up to me, and there were about a thousand different ways I could approach it! Eek!
Step 2: Make a Plan of Attack (or a Plan of Attempt)
[Image description: The left side of the image shows a yellow sad face connected to three thought bubbles surrounding the words “Boring!,” “Irrelevant!,” and “Frustrating!” The right side of the image shows a yellow happy face with three thought bubbles connected to the words “Meaningful!,” “Fun!,” and “Relevant!”]
The above image is taken from productivity researcher Nils Salzgeber’s “To Procrastinate Less, Make Tasks More Attractive (4 Ways).” Salzgeber suggests that we can make aversive tasks more attractive by doing 4 actions:
- Connect tasks to your values and future goals
- Make it a game
- Promise yourself a reward
- Temptation bundling
Using Salzgeber’s four ways as a guide, I made a plan for drafting my blog post once and for all:
- How does it connect to my future goals? Writing this blog post will further connect my name to my research on Lisa Ben and will help me practice my skill of writing about her in short pieces.
- Make it a game: How much can I write in 2 hours?
- Promise myself a reward: If I draft this post, I will take off work on Saturday.
- Temptation bundling: I will drink fancy tea and coffee while I draft.
Once I shifted my perspective to feel more intrigued, I was inspired dive in.
Step 3: Find Out the Best Way to Just Do the Damn Thing
Procrastination researcher Tim Pychyl writes in “Procrastination 101: It’s Not About Feeling Like It” that we can use the prompt “what action comes next?” to take small steps forward in accomplishing our tasks. He writes:
It is this simple, and it is this difficult. The simple part is the focus on behavior and tiny choices. The difficult part is the volition or volitional skill to keep focused while acknowledging the emotions that are working against this. It’s much like someone who is afraid of public speaking who must keep his or her feet planted firmly behind the podium, resisting the impulse to run away, and instead focus on the next line to say. Success is found in staying put, staying on task.
Because I’d been procrastinating on this aversive task for months, I tried to envision it as three distinct, manageable steps: write an outline, draft up a raccoon report style draft, and revise (and a hidden fourth step: submit it!). Writing the outline gave me a lot of comfort and confidence because I established a theme and purpose for my post. And when I gave myself 2 hours to draft, I actually ended up only needing 30 minutes to write 600 words! I plan to do my final revision this week and submit it by the weekend!
In order to handle your own aversive tasks you will first need to see them for what they are.
To do this, write a list of tasks that you are currently procrastinating on starting or finishing.
Next, identify why these tasks are aversive.
You can use Bailey’s examples provided above (boring, frustrating, difficult, unstructured or ambiguous, lacking in personal meaning, or lacking in intrinsic rewards) or you can generate your own definitions for what makes a task aversive (i.e., the task requires a lot of spoons that I may not have right now). As I did above in the “Step 1: Recognize That You’re Dealing with an Aversive Task” section, hone in on exactly why certain tasks feel aversive to you. You can choose how many tasks to write about, but I personally suggest doing a few to see if there is any pattern to your aversions.
Finally, pick ONE of your aversive tasks and make a plan for handling it.
If at all possible, try to approach the task in a way that makes it beneficial for you. You can use this quote from Salzgeber’s post as a guide: “Once you connect those small, irritating tasks to your values and your future aspirations, they become much more meaningful. You now want to do them because they help you be and become the best version of yourself.”
To get to the nitty-gritty planning, answer the following questions:
- Where will I do it?
- When will I do it?
- How long will I spend on it?
- Is it better to do it in steps or to do all at once?
- Do I need to ask for help doing it?
- Do I want someone to look over my work once I’ve done it?
- Do I need accountability (working alongside others, ask someone to check in on my progress)?
- Is there a way to make doing it more comfortable (physically, emotionally)?
- How will I feel when the task is accomplished?
Then, do the damn thing in a way that feels more attractive and beneficial!
If you want to read more methods for battling procrastination, I recommend Bailey’s “Here’s why you procrastinate, and 10 tactics that will help you stop.”
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.