Waiting in line at the post office. Paying attention to a monotone lecture. Commuting on a tuna-scented train. Life is full of unpleasant and necessary tasks like these — what psychologists call “aversive activities.” A new studyasked a simple question: What are the best ways to get through them?
19 Ways to Lose Your Lazy
For the study, which was published in December in the European Journal of Personality, researchers sought to discover the key to success (at least, self-reported success) in aversive tasks. Was there a secret recipe for perseverance?
To start, though, they asked exploratory questions via the crowdsourcing platform Mechanical Turk. What strategies did online respondents use to “keep themselves going” through mentally and physically taxing challenges? Researchers boiled responses down to 19 broad strategies, which included giving yourself a pep talk, promising yourself a reward at the end of the task, and taking a substance (say, chugging an energy drink).
The strategies were as follows:
- Changing the activity itself, or how it’s performed (without adding an external incentive), like running slower on the treadmill or taking notes while you study
- Changing the environment in which the activity is performed, such as working from a coffee shop or taking a new running route
- Reducing or removing distractions and temptations like closing social media or turning off your phone
- Seeking social support like taking a friend with you to the gym
- Taking a substance like drinking coffee or downing an energy drink
- Task enrichment like listening to music while you work out or watching TV while you fold laundry
- Focusing on the activity itself and how you’re performing it
- Distracting your attention by focusing on something else
- Anticipating self-reward like playing a video game when you’re done with homework
- Focusing on the negative consequences of not completing the task
- Focusing on the positive consequences of completing the task
- Goal setting, or breaking the task down into sub-goals, like “I will write 200 words in the next 20 minutes.”
- Monitoring progress, like checking how much time is left in your workout
- Planning/scheduling, like setting a specific time for performing the activity
- Reappraisal, or using a different frame of mind for the activity (for example, imagine you’re running in a race)
- Motivating self-talk, or telling yourself you can do it
- Thinking about the finish and letting yourself know you’re almost done
- Suppressing the impulse to quit even though you want to
- Emotion regulation like trying to stay in a good mood throughout the activity
Researchers then asked a second group of Mechanical Turk recruits to take a self-control assessment and rate each of the 19 broad strategies. How often did they use each type? All the time? Never? This gave a sense of which strategies were most popular.
More importantly, by comparing the strategy ratings with the respondents’ self-control assessments, the researchers could get a sense of which strategies were most popular among people with high self-control. For these people, the most popular strategies included things like setting goals, making plans and schedules, regulating their emotional state, and focusing on the positive consequences of the unpleasant activities at hand.
Then came the meat of the study: Researchers followed 264 participants, mostly female students, for a week. Each day, they checked in with study respondents seven times; the check-ins were always at least an hour apart and conducted via a digital survey that expired within an hour.
The survey had three parts. First, it asked respondents if they’d done something unpleasant in the last hour, and if so, what type of unpleasant task it had been. Then it asked them what strategies they had used to persevere through the task. Finally, it asked if they had successfully completed the task.
You Can Do It, Put Your Back Into It
Ultimately, there was no silver bullet. People used different strategies for persevering through different types of activities. For example, respondents rarely used “task enrichment,” like listening to music, for emotionally challenging tasks like a relationship talk, but that was common for physically challenging tasks like running on a treadmill.
However, a cluster of strategies still emerged as possible keys to success. Focusing on the positive consequences of finishing an activity — or, conversely, on the negative consequences of abandoning it halfway through — was linked with success. Another successful strategy was imagining the finish line was near, even when it wasn’t. (In other words, it was helpful to break the task into a series of mini-tasks, so you were always near a finish line.)
Finally, emotional regulation — so, doing whatever you need to do to boost your mood, or at least keep it from falling into the deepest depths of despair — was correlated with success. Once people were in a bad mood, their tenacity dropped.
Researchers found that among respondents with high self-control, focusing on positive consequences and regulating emotions were especially popular. However, these strategies didn’t explain self-controlled people’s higher success rate with aversive tasks. They seemed to still bring some special sauce to their treadmill workouts and dull study sessions that transcended any one strategy.
Even if you’re a naturally self-indulgent soul, though, you can use perseverance hacks to get closer to your goals. You don’t have to be innately disciplined to send a package at the post office — though we won’t lie. It helps.
Learn more about how to get through challenges in Angela Duckworth’s book“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.