27 September 2023

How to face projects that are less than exciting

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Brian de Haaff* offers suggestions for people approaching tasks they really don’t want to do which nevertheless they know has to be done.

People say I am logical. In most scenarios I look for a pattern of past behaviour or a methodical approach that will reveal a sequential order of action.

Usually it is clear what needs to be done and how, but knowing what you must do does not necessarily mean that you will want to do it.

That is true even if the work can be quickly done.

Motivation is not a given — it is unlikely that you will find all aspects of your work interesting and deeply satisfying.

It is easy to dedicate time to the things we enjoy. The incentive is already there and so we are intrinsically motivated to keep going.

This is true in our professional work and personal life.

I know I prefer to spend my time on forward-looking strategy, new product and go-to-market development, and helping the team be its best.

I find this work energising, but administrative upkeep, required filings, and reviewing complex contracts? All are needed, but not loved.

There is always the work we love and the work that needs to be loved for us to sustain our success.

Digging into less than exciting projects can be a challenge.

There is the reward we get from completing something, the level of investment required in order to do it, and how difficult we perceive it will be.

The solution must be to sweeten the carrot or sharpen the stick.

There is plenty of life hack-ish advice that supports mental bribery as a way to get things done: “If I finish this, then I can watch some sports highlights online.”

Sure, that kind of payoff might work for a while, but you will eventually hit a limit and the value of the reward or demerit diminishes over time.

A more lasting solution is to harness your intrinsic motivation in a new way. It just takes a bit of practice and perspective.

Claim with intention

There is pride in efficacy. Think of the old saying: “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”

I often talk about how we do not sing that many songs in our life — so we should always perform our best.

Create the right environment for your motivation to thrive, even if it is as simple as reframing a task as an opportunity to be productive and experience a sense of achievement.

Connect to a purpose

To-dos will always be there waiting. Before you dismiss something as humdrum, look again.

Can you connect it to a greater meaning? How might you learn and grow with this new piece of work? Is someone else depending on you finishing it and doing it well?

That is a big motivator for me — when people assign me a to-do I know that they need me to do my part, even if the work is not super enjoyable.

Settle on your answer and use it to buoy your momentum.

Put up distraction barriers

Create a structure for action. Time limits can be helpful if you know you will be tempted to stop and start.

You might try blocking off time on your calendar to tackle your to-dos. Or you can create accountability by telling someone else what you plan to complete and when.

Stick to the schedule you set.

Take one step at a time

Procrastination is a symptom. You might be avoiding the discomfort of a certain task’s difficulty or your inability to get it right the first time.

This is especially true if you are embarking on a large project or building a new skill.

Or you might just be lacking discipline and feeling unsure of how to start.

Free yourself by focusing on completing one item rather than trying to tackle the combined enormity of all the work ahead.

Human beings are hard-wired to be self-determined — we do best when we do what we want in the active pursuit of growth.

I do think it is possible to find meaning and satisfaction in all of our work. Success is the totality of your efforts, not just the parts that come easily.

That list of to-dos or daunting tasks is merely part of the journey.

I know that I have rarely felt worse after checking something off my list. In fact, I usually feel much better.

That is because dopamine is triggered in the brain when we accomplish small goals.

When this reaction is mixed with a sense of pride from each accomplishment, over time your brain will want to keep repeating the associated behaviour.

Some days it may feel painful to get started, but you will never regret getting good work done.

*Brian de Haaff is the Chief Executive of cloud-based software company Aha! He can be contacted on Twitter @bdehaaff.

This article first appeared on the Aha! company website.

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