How To Motivate Yourself Through Something You Hate

Photographed by Ashley Batz.
Whether you’re running a marathon or running to the grocery store at 6 p.m., we all have moments where we find ourselves in the middle of things we’d rather not being doing — yet, we must persevere. We trained long and hard for the race. Dinner is counting on us. Luckily, there’s plenty of research out there suggesting the best ways to get through these tasks — things that we hate in the moment — making them both as painless and rewarding as possible.

1. Acknowledge the suckitude of the thing you’re doing.
This is a thing you hate. Sugarcoating it won’t make you think it sucks any less — you’re way too smart for that. Research suggests we should start by admitting to ourselves that this will not be much fun — and that’s okay.

In a study published last month in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, researchers wanted to figure out exactly how long-distance runners made it through all those miles. Participants (who all ran a minimum of 20 miles per week) were asked to verbalize all of their internal thoughts while running, from the mundane to the profane.

Although we might think that distracting ourselves is the key, the researchers found that most of these successful endurance runners think about what’s in front of them — and how much it sucks. “Hill, you’re a bitch...it’s long and hot — Goddamn it,” said one participant. And another participant, who had been so unfortunate as to get her period on the day of the study’s test run, said, “Ugh, I feel like shit.”

Yet, they all made it through. You can, too, but if it’s not pretty, don’t feel like you need to pretend it is.

2. Resist the temptation to compare your progress to that of others.
Yes, the thing you’re doing is far from your favorite task. And how dare those assholes just go about their day enjoying this torture? I know, it’s tempting to measure yourself by how others are doing, but constantly comparing yourself to them will only slow your own progress.

Research consistently shows that while competition can benefit some of us in some situations, in others, it’s more of a hindrance. For instance, in an often-cited 2003 paper looking at how participants solved maze puzzles, results showed that men and women performed equally in non-competitive circumstances. But when more was on the line, that pressure helped men perform better while women performed worse than in relaxed environment.

3. Get a little wacky!
Creativity thrives in challenging times, especially when we feel like we’re not cognitively up to the task. Ever have to change your morning subway routine pre-coffee? Yeah, it’s rough. But research suggests that’s when our most out-there ideas are likely to come through. Of course, they won’t all be winners, but you might not come to those conclusions under any other circumstances.

And all that outta-the-box thinking might make the next time you have to do this gruelling thing a little more pleasant. For instance, if your workout is just draggingggg onnnnn, take the opportunity to try out some quick intervals or a totally different machine. Or if you’re finding it daunting to do all your work, grab groceries, make dinner, and pick up your dry cleaning in the same evening, try experimenting with a new organization app to make things go as smoothly as possible tonight — and in the future.

4. Keep the big picture in mind.
But don’t get too distracted — you’ve still got to get through this dumb, horrible thing so that you can continue with the rest of your life. Remember, this is just one (probably small) piece of it. If you’re a perfectionist who tends to give every detail of a project as much energy as possible, this may not be your daily M.O. You don’t need to make it your only approach, but there are strategies to make it feel like an option when you need it.

For instance, you can set yourself a time limit (if your circumstances haven’t already done so). Gotta get eight job applications out tonight? Don’t let yourself spend more than 15 minutes on each one. No fussing with fonts on your résumé or the best 150-word answer to a question; this is time for business. But give yourself a quick break in-between each one to keep up your momentum. Tools like Tomato Timer — which divides work into intervals of 25 minutes split by five-minute breathers — are perfect for this.

5. Reward yourself for making it through.
Perfectionists tend to set high goals for themselves, but even if they achieve those goals, they set their sights even higher without skipping a beat. In some ways, this is a good thing — getting that big promotion or just finishing a 1,000-page book you’ve always wanted to read are admirable things — but going after these things continually often comes with dips in self-confidence, burnout, and potentially serious health issues.

That's why it’s important to reward ourselves and celebrate when we do reach one of those milestones, rather than just continuing on like it was nothing. This doesn’t mean you should go crazy and let yourself off the hook forever, but it does mean you should acknowledge how truly unpleasant that was and that you still managed to do it. So whether this was a major or minor awful thing to get through, do what you need to do to get yourself back up to 100%. You’re probably way stronger than you realize, so take this as proof — and take a break.
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