How to conquer task avoidance

Photo by Alex Iby on

Photo by Alex Iby on

Are there some things you find yourself avoiding? A task? A difficult conversation? A paper you need to write? A project you aren’t sure how to tackle? Sometimes these things can significantly affect your productivity. You may be a generally productive person but something you keep avoiding can become your stumbling block. There is a way to understand this and to conquer it.

Why do we avoid tasks?
Avoidance is subjective. A task one person will avoid or struggle to complete, another will do easily. When looked at objectively, often the task at hand is not difficult. Yet, something gets in the way of us doing it.

Leadership consultant and author, Peter Bregman suggests that “our minds and bodies can adapt to just about anything … the hard part is … adjusting” (Bregman, 2018). This is a psychological challenge. It lies in making the transition from your current situation to engaging in the task. It requires getting past the reluctance to engage and the procrastination that leads to avoidance.

Conquering avoidance
The key to conquering your avoidance is getting started. This means moving from something comfortable (doing what you want to do) to doing something uncomfortable. Sometimes this discomfort comes from a self-imposed concerns about our competence to do the task, or  to perform it at a high level. This is where we come unstuck.

Just do it!
Like the Nike “just do it” brand campaign, we need to just engage in the task at hand without overthinking performance levels at the outset. This requires a moment of will power to engage. This might mean setting up the equipment for the task, starting writing anything that comes to mind, setting up a time to meet someone you need to talk to.

Each of these actions engages you in steps that lead into the task. You just need to engage in a small step. Bregman calls these transition points. He suggests you set a time and place to start these.

Prime yourself
Engaging in tasks we find difficult can bring up feelings of discomfort, fear, anxiety and/or insecurity. Prime yourself for this so that you can push past that, and keep going. Bregman calls this “emotional courage”. He asks “are you willing to stay in the feeling long enough to get to the other side?” That is the key.

Once you have done this once, you can repeat it with more ease. You can get traction with it. Complete small chunks of the task. Continue without questioning yourself too much about it. Push on past any distracting thoughts that might deter you from action.

Do it again
Repeat these actions on a daily basis. The challenge will diminish and the transition into engaging in the task will occur with lessening discomfort. Your engagement in the task becomes an established behaviour and a “new normal” is created.

Developing these skills in conquering task avoidance will lead to greater productivity. Try it on one thing at a time, and as your skills in emotional courage develop, you can apply them more widely. The satisfaction you gain will be worth it.

Source: Bregman, Peter. 2018. How to actually start the task you have been avoiding in Harvard Business Review, 30 May 2018.

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