How to Do Things You Don’t Feel Like Doing

The two biggest breaks of my career happened because I did something I really didn’t feel like doing.

The first time, I was a year out of college and in between jobs. Leafing through an internship guide at a bookshop, I spotted an opportunity with a magazine in Washington, D.C. There was one big problem: applications had to be received by Monday; it was now Friday afternoon. That would mean writing a resume and cover letter and sending them by express mail before noon the next day. I drafted them longhand that night and planned to head to the computer lab early in the morning to type and print them. When I woke up, I didn’t feel like going. I was tired, the internship was a longshot, the whole situation felt hopeless. I’d nearly decided to stay in bed when a surge of energy propelled me out the door. Six weeks later, I started the internship – and a career in journalism.

The second time, I was 30 and worn down by the grind of daily newspaper work. While reporting a story, I’d learned about an opening for a public relations manager with a local organization I admired. The job description called for a minimum five years of PR experience; I didn’t have any. The outgoing PR manager, whom I knew slightly, offered to set up an informal meeting with the hiring manager. This, too, felt like a longshot. The day we were scheduled to meet, I woke up with that familiar sense of futility and seriously considered cancelling the lunch. The only reason I didn’t: the memory of fighting through a similar feeling seven years before on the way to landing that internship. I went to the lunch. Within a month, I’d landed the job and a new career in communications.

Those two stories came to mind recently when I encountered this insight in Farnam Street’s excellent weekly newsletter: “The biggest generator of long term results is learning to do things when you don’t feel like doing them.”

I couldn’t agree more. But how do we learn how to do that?

Expecting random waves of feelings to serve as motivation, like I did with the magazine internship, is a very risky strategy. I could just as easily have stayed in bed that morning. Relying on past experience to inspire action, like I did in my second example, isn’t much better. What if that memory from seven years earlier hadn’t crossed my mind when it did? Nor is pure willpower enough to make us do things when we don’t feel like doing them; research shows we deplete it quickly.

What we need is a system, one that trains us to set aside fleeting feelings altogether and stay focused on our goals. My own experience and interviews with dozens of highly motivated, highly productive people points to three clear actions that form the foundation of this system:

  • Shake up your mindset: Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson offer several helpful mental tricks for motivating ourselves. My favorite: employing “prevention focus.” As Halvorson explains, there are basically two ways to approach tasks. We proceed because doing them will make us better off – what psychologists call “promotion focus” – or we do them because not doing them will put us in a worse position than we’re in now, known as “prevention focus.” There’s something to be said for scaring the hell out of ourselves, and that’s likely what got me out of bed 24 years ago to mail that magazine internship application. I already didn’t have a job and money was tight. Continuing not to have a job meant my prospects would only get worse. What did I have to lose, aside from a little sleep, by at least taking a shot at the internship?
  • Make yourself uncomfortable: In his insightful e-book Tranquility for High Achievers, executive coach Nihar Chhaya advises that “you should purposely do something you don’t want to do, at least once a week, if not more often” to help build resilience. In my view, it’s helpful if this task is something physical, moving us out of our heads and into better alignment with our bodies. So about four years ago, I began running outside early on winter mornings several times a week. There was too much traffic on the roads to run safely in the dark after work anyway, and I didn’t want to waste time shuttling back and forth to the gym. 6 a.m. was the best time to go. Still, forcing myself from a warm bed to pound out three miles in the freezing dark is not something I’ve ever once felt like doing, and time hasn’t made it any easier. One morning, after an especially chilly run, I got home and checked the temperature, which I never allowed myself to do before going out. It was 8 degrees Fahrenheit without the wind chill. And you know what? Everything else I did the rest of that week felt easy by comparison.
  • Build in accountability: If you can shift your mindset to manage your feelings better and get comfortable with routine discomfort, you’ll be well on your way to doing the things you don’t feel like doing. To keep the momentum going, it helps to have other people holding you accountable. It doesn’t matter too much who these accountability partners are – they could be family members, friends, mentors, or coaches, for example. The key is that you share your commitments with them and meet regularly to track progress. Nearly a decade after I got out of journalism, a friend approached me with an intriguing offer: writing a twice-a-month Sunday column for a leading metro newspaper. We would keep our day jobs and take turns writing the columns. I figured this gig might last for a year or two – instead it went on for eight years and led to several professional opportunities. Why? Because we held each other accountable, not only for hitting deadlines but also for producing high-quality work. There were many times when I didn’t feel like writing yet another column, but our partnership kept us going.

When I look back over the past 25 years, a clear pattern emerges: every truly meaningful experience – from getting married and raising a family to advancing professionally and completing a series of personal writing projects – has required doing many things I didn’t always feel like doing. Learning how to surmount those feelings and taking positive action requires lifelong practice. It’s never too late to start this work, and always too early to finish.


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