Tony Onodi's Blog

Noticing You Don't Want to Do the Thing

Everyone struggles sometimes to make themselves do immediately-unenjoyable tasks (IUTs), tasks one might enjoy having done, might even enjoy doing, but won't enjoy getting started on. But my aversion to IUTs has always bordered on the pathological.

When people say they procrastinate by doing minor chores instead of the big, important thing they're meant to be doing, I envy their productivity. I suspect people do this to make themselves feel like they're doing something, even if it's not what they should be doing. But I have a high tolerance for sitting with the gnawing feeling that I'm doing nothing when I should be doing something; which enables me to put off IUTs for hours, days, weeks, sometimes months.

I find it hard to analyse the process of putting off an IUT, because it's such a fleeting act. But I think it looks something like this:

  1. I remember that I need to do X
  2. I feel an aversion to doing X
  3. I decide to put X off until later


  1. I remember that I still need to do X...

And so on. This process happens so quickly, and subconsciously, that I barely notice it happening. In Daniel Kahneman parlance: system 1 will whisk the thought safely away before system 2 has a chance to wake up.

I don't expect to ever find a silver-bullet solution to this problem that will turn me into a person who instinctively does what's required. Though I live in hope. But recently I've been trying to interrupt the procrastination process with this rule:

I should try to notice when I don't want to do X, and, when I notice, force myself to do X.

Ideally this should make the process of remembering an IUT look like this:

  1. I remember that I need to do X
  2. I feel an aversion to doing X
  3. I notice that I don't want to do X
  4. I use my rule about doing things I don't want to do to force myself to do X

This isn't meant to be a cast-iron rule; there are times when doing X actually isn't appropriate (in which case I'll often try to stop and set a reminder to do X at an appropriate time). It's meant to wrest control of this process from my lizard brain, that acts on impulse, and hand it over to the conscious part of my brain, where there's at least some chance I'll be able to make a reasonable decision about it.

Doing this feels like it works, like it increases the rate at which I win internal battles. This could either be because it actually does work, or because it draws my attention to the times when I manage to overcome inertia. If it's the latter, then it's possible that it might have the opposite of its intended effect, by making me feel like I've achieved more than I actually have, and luring me into complacency. Worse still, this strategy is so subjective, I can't think of a way you could be empirical about checking whether it works. But it feels like it does, and it might. So I'm going to keep on using it.