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How to Make Yourself Work When You Really Don’t Feel Like It

Photo: Alfred Gescheidt/Getty Images

Do you want to be working right now? Me neither. Who can concentrate on spreadsheets — I don’t know what it is you do but I imagine it involves spreadsheets — when the country seems to be collapsing around us? And yet you still have things to do, even if it seems sometimes like a patriotic duty to stare in mute horror at the news all day.

Everyone likely has their own ways of bossing themselves around, but here are three things that reliably work for me.

Procrastinate, but be smart about it.

Sometimes I think the only times I’ve ever gotten any work done has been when I’m supposed to be doing something else. Oh, that project is due by the end of this week? Then this sounds like a great time to start working on this other, easier assignment that isn’t due till the end of the month. Psychologists call this “structured procrastination,” a term for the way we tend to turn to smaller tasks that we can finish more quickly, even (or especially) if that means ignoring the messier, more difficult thing that really needs our attention. It is maybe the only reason I’ve ever felt moved to deep-clean my apartment.

Dan Ariely, the best-selling author and Duke University behavioral scientist, tends to be pretty pessimistic about certain forms of structured procrastination, particularly those that involve your in-box. Replying immediately to emails, or chasing the In-box Zero dream, are not the best ways to spend your time, he has argued. “How many people are going to die happy knowing they got to email zero?” Ariely recently said on the Bloomberg podcast Game Plan. “This is not the stuff that makes for long-term happiness, but because it’s present and immediate and beeps and someone’s waiting, it takes precedence over the things that are important to us.”

So don’t do that. But you can use the spirit of structured procrastination more wisely. If you really don’t feel like working, sometimes it’s fine to just follow that feeling, and do something else that’s mindless, but still important, for a while. Most of the stories I write tend to involve a description of some psych study, which tends to be the easiest part of the piece because it doesn’t involve much creativity; there are only so many ways of stating the results of a survey or experiment. Sometimes it’s fine to start at the easy part. It’ll have to get done eventually, so it’s still a good use of my time — while having the added benefit of letting me feel vaguely like I’m getting away with something.

Just tell yourself you’ll work for 45 minutes.

One day, the work will do itself, when the efficient band of office-robots finally comes for all the jobs we now entrust unreliable humans to do. But for now, you can’t put the difficult tasks off forever. When there’s no time left for structured procrastination and you still don’t feel like working on the thing you’re supposed to be working on, try this: Set the timer on your phone for 45 minutes, and ignore social media and email and just work until it goes off.

This turns out not to be something I made up, as I had assumed — it’s similar to something called the Pomodoro Technique. Here’s how Quartz recently described it:

To get started, all you need is a timer that can count down from 25 minutes. Then you just follow the next few steps:

1. Choose a task (or a batch of tasks, like answering emails) to work on.

2. Set the timer for 25 minutes and start working.

3. Keep working on your task until the timer goes off. Do your best to avoid switching tasks or getting distracted.

4. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break to stretch or grab a drink. This built-in break helps ensure that you don’t get burned out on a particular task.

5. Repeat.

Each 25-minute block of work is a pomodoro. Once you’ve completed four pomodoros, take a longer break of around 20 to 30 minutes. This will help you brain relax and refocus before your next session.

The official advice, then, is to take a break after the timer goes off, but I often find that something weird happens when I do this: When the alarm rings, I shut it off, and keep working. It’s like the spell of inertia has been broken. I can kickstart an hours-long block of actual work this way, but only if I trick myself into it.

The real secret to motivation is that you don’t need it.

You don’t need to feel like working in order to work, a fact that is at once obvious and so easy to forget. It’s possible to acknowledge your reluctance and your apathy, and then set them aside and get down to work regardless. Psychology writer Oliver Burkeman notes this in his 2012 book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? The problem, from this perspective, isn’t that you don’t feel motivated; it’s that you imagine you need to feel motivated. … If you can regard your thoughts and emotions about whatever you’re procrastinating on as passing weather, you’ll realise that your reluctance about working isn’t something that needs to be eradicated or transformed into positivity. You can coexist with it. You can note the procrastinatory feelings and work anyway.

Good snacks help, too, though.

How to Make Yourself Work When You Really Don’t Feel Like It