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8 Simple Tips You Can Use for Doing Dreaded or Difficult Tasks Today

Man sitting at laptop computer with look of dread.

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

We set our “Big 3” tasks each day to move us toward our big goals. But here’s the thing. Many times, those Big 3 tasks aren’t just important. They’re tough to do, or we dread doing them. So how do we deal with doing dreaded or difficult tasks?

I’ve tried nearly all these techniques. And a few more, too, to boot! They work!

1. Use the Pomodoro Technique

When Francesco Cirillo was a student in the late 1980s, he invented what is now known as the Pomodoro technique. Basically, it involves setting a timer for a specific number of minutes and sticking with the task for at least that long, then taking a short pre-set break. This is one of my favorite productivity techniques.

First, I set my timer for my desired number of minutes (usually 15, 20 or 25 minutes). Next, I commit myself to doing dreaded or difficult tasks for only that short period of time. Then, I allow myself to quit, or at least take a break, depending on whether it’s a short task, or a longer task. (This technique can also help to break a big task into smaller chunks.)

Here’s why I find it useful. If I quit at the end of that short period of time, at least I got something done. But if I’m on a roll — which is often the case — I keep going. Meaning, I’m more likely to have trouble getting started, but I can gain momentum thereafter.

I use the free tomato timer when using my computer and or Be Focused app on my iPhone.

And by the way, some people call this solar flaring.

The Pomodoro Technique was originally designed to take on a big task. But it can be a variation on James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. Clear basically advocates for getting started, but giving yourself permission to abandon the task after a short time. Then, continue doing it, increasing the number of minutes you do the task each day, until you eventually work in longer spurts.

2. Do a warm-up exercise

Here’s one that was new to me. Sara McLewin says she does a “warm-up” exercise before doing dreaded or difficult tasks. That is, she writes about 200 words to describe her feelings about tackling the task.

I’ve never tried this, but I think I will!

Here’s why. There’s science to show the efficacy of this exercise.

The American Psychological Association says that “expressive writing reduces intrusive and avoidant thoughts about negative events and improves working memory. These improvements, researchers believe, may, in turn, free up our cognitive resources for other mental activities, including our ability to cope more effectively with stress.”

3. Listen to a special playlist

McLewin says she reserves a special playlist when doing her Big 3. I immediately thought, “Oh, I’ve never heard of this.”

But I realized that in a slightly different way, I’ve done it. I don’t think of it as “playlist.” However, I have used music for my most important or difficult tasks.

Music can be very effective. Research conducted by Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson, a psychologist at Mindlab International has shown that certain music reduces stress. He compared several different songs, and found that one, the Marconi Union Weightless, was effective in creating up to 65% reduction in stress. I’ve used the official version of that many times.

Understand, decreased stress doesn’t necessarily automatically result in doing dreaded or difficult tasks. But at least for me, it helps. I also listen to another recording that can improve focus and creativity.

Should I reserve this music only during the time I’m tackling my Big 3? Maybe!

4. Schedule it for the morning

My creative juices and stamina dwindles as the day wears on.

For many of us, decision-fatigue sets in as the day wears on. That is, instead of making and sticking to the “good” decision, we’re more likely succumb to distractions.

However, I’d be quick to say that if you’re not a morning person, scheduling your most important tasks for the morning might not work for you. My husband is at his best when doing dreaded or difficult tasks after about 10 PM.

5. Eat That frog

More than a decade ago, I got the idea to “eat that frog” from Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. His philosophy is that if you must do something difficult or distasteful, do it first so you don’t have to think about it all day.

I’ve done this! But for me, this can backfire. If that frog is so big and so distasteful that I choke on it, I end up spending the day berating myself for why I didn’t get the task down.

6. Use habit stacking

Here again, James Clear’s book gives insight. He talks about “habit stacking.” Basically, that means coupling a desirable task with one you’d frankly rather skip.

Here’s an example. I don’t enjoy using the elliptical machine at the gym, but I listen to a favorite podcast while I’m using it. This technique is a bit of an incentive for doing the task.

7. Give yourself “you” messages

In his book, Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It, Ethan Kross cites several studies showing the effectiveness of giving yourself directives in third person.

Hence, rather than saying to myself, “I need to do this,” it’s better give the directive, “Marie, you need to do this.” The same is true with encouraging messages, such as, “Marie, you can do this.” Or, “Marie, you have all of the talent you need to do this.”

8. Consider special “start” strategies

Peg Dawson and Richard Guare are experts in helping people who are smart, scattered, and struggling. They’re the authors of The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success: How to Use Your Brain’s Executive Skills to Keep Up, Stay Calm, and Get Organized at Work and at Home.

The book offers an assessment of strengths and weaknesses that people use to execute tasks. Not surprisingly, “task initiation” is one of the executive skills that many or most people have trouble with. The authors give several pages of strategies for getting started.

What’s your favorite way to tackle your weekly Big 3, even if you’re doing dreaded or difficult tasks?

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