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Aaron Swartz (co-author of the RSS specification, founder of reddit.com, Demand Progress, and generally a very cool guy) wrote an (you may want to not click on the link yet) article on productivity which had two illuminating ideas for me:

  1. Time is not fungible. Telling yourself "instead of watching TV I should work on X" can be unrealistic if all you have the energy for at that moment is to watch TV.

  2. We avoid tasks because they are hard/unpleasant, or if they are assigned.

I've spent a bunch of time trying to explore this and the best way I can describe it is that your brain puts up a sort of mental force field around a task. Ever play with two magnets? If you orient the magnets properly and try to push them towards each other, they'll repel fiercely. As you move them around, you can sort of feel out the edges of the magnetic field. And as you try to bring the magnets together, the field will push you back or off in another direction.

Assigned problems are problems you're told to work on. Numerous psychology experiments have found that when you try to "incentivize" people to do something, they're less likely to do it and do a worse job. External incentives, like rewards and punishments, kills what psychologists call your "intrinsic motivation" - your natural interest in the problem. (This is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings of social psychology - over 70 studies have found that rewards undermine interest in the task.) People's heads seem to have a deep avoidance of being told what to do.

The weird thing is that this phenomenon isn't just limited to other people - it even happens when you try to tell yourself what to do! If you say to yourself, "I should really work on X, that's the most important thing to do right now" then all of the sudden X becomes the toughest thing in the world to make yourself work on. But as soon as Y becomes the most important thing, the exact same X becomes much easier.

I'm very interested in the assigned tasks aspect - how do you get around it? Swartz has some ideas, but he admits "I've never been able to overcome this mental force field through sheer willpower". I'm curious what other people can come up with, before reading his article I've linked to in the first paragraph.

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6 Answers 6

An additional bit to Alexandre's answer: There is a concept in the GTD book called "The Natural Planning Model". There's a good summary of it here. Basically the steps are 1. Defining purpose and principles 2. Outcome visioning 3. Brainstorming 4. Organizing 5. Identifying next actions.

I didn't clue into this until a later re-reading of GTD when I was delving to understand the concepts around projects. You could say I was having a real hard time doing anything assigned, and pretty much everything is assigned, eh? By formally writing up and defining for myself a few of these assignments in this manner, I was able to get productive again. The key step for me was the visioning. And I did it not in a cynical or sarcastic frame, but in a rah-rah go-team-go sort of way, which was a little unnatural, but effective. It did build enough enthusiasm to get me going. And having it in writing was important.

Another reference for this is from Fiore's "The Now Habit". (This is the second time in a couple days that I'm referencing this, so I guess it's time to go re-listen to it!) He actually talks about this resistance, but I can't currently recall enough to summarize.

(sorry for answering an old question but it caught my attention.)

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Agree that there seems to be a kind of repulsive forcefield arounds assignments. I've often spent way more time avoiding doing a task than actually doing it would have taken.

As to breaking through this barrier: I've recently started using a GTD system, and I find that this helps a bit.

First I put the task into the system, so that I'm a lot less likely to keep thinking about having to do it. It's this thinking that, in my experience, bit-by-bit contributes most to building up the forcefield, so having it out of my head lessens the effect.

With me choosing what to do at any particular time after a review of the available options, there is also less time to build up resistance in immediate anticipation. And because I chose from several options, even a choice that is more or less forced on me means that I feel like I am starting something based on a current motivation.

None of these factors do away with the problem anywhere near completely, but then all that's needed in most cases is a weakining of the forcefield to allow me to break through.

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Get involved

Ask for more details about the tasks assigned to you. It's important to know the whole project even if it involves tasks concerning people other than you. After some time running some errands to superiors or co-workers, you'll have a reliable voice to take initiatives of your own and make suggestions. It can be compared to how Stack communities work, the more you participate, the more you are trusted to perform your own changes.

Pendency list

I keep a list of ideas and problems with no deadlines. I read them several times a day and when something comes up I describe the ideas with more details or list possible solutions to the problems. When I decide to finally take care of the issue I already have something to work on, by confirming or eliminating.

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But as soon as Y becomes the most important thing, the exact same X becomes much easier.

Ask your boss for another task that's more important but even more hard/unpleasant than X. Or come up with your own list of tasks that really do need done, but you know you'll procrastinate on. I find that if I make a TODO list, then something on that list is going to get done. Just make sure X is the least unpleasant thing on your list that day.

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1  
Yup, that's pretty much what Aaron advises - get yourself assigned some tasks you dread even more. –  Dan Dascalescu Jul 14 '11 at 7:26

Frankly, I would read the GTD book before reinventing the wheel. Nothing wrong with having a personalized bicycle, but perhaps the most productive way would be to jump on already moving train and use the existing metaphors (pardon me for mixing the same).

The task avoidance in GTD is addressed in two ways:

1) Define the Next Action that is easy and clear to do. That removes a lot of reluctance and makes it clearer to see how much effort it actually requires.

2) Do the reviews on the levels higher than the projects as that may clarify your priorities and/or give you the inspiration/guts to get the tasks done. Hopefully, this also means that the thing you are 'assigned to do' is not actually the big thing but is just a small step towards the larger goal. According to your citation, that may help reducing its 'weight' as well.

The energy level is also addressed in several ways:

3) It is important to have "water the flowers" tasks on the list, so when you know you have little energy, you can still do them. That's towards the end of the book

4) You can always chose to watch TV if that's what all you are ready for. GTD ensures that you can do it without guilt because you know exactly what you are trading off.

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Actually, maybe this answer will not help you much but personally, I just don't to the things assigned to me or unfortunately do them really bad with all consequences. I've never been able to overcome the "force field" of assigned tasks. This said, there is one "trick" to do things, which is trying to get behind the rational of the assignment and pinpoint the reasons that would motivate me doing the job if the assigner was unable to motivate me intrinsically by himself.

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Wouldn't this cause you to lose your job? –  jrdioko Jul 13 '11 at 22:41
    
If I real have difficulties carrying out instructions-I'm dissatisfied with the purpose they serve or simply have no idea what purpose they serve-yes, the job isn't suited for me. It's intrinsically counterintuitive excelling at anything which doesn't suite your natural motivation. Meet talents. It is not impossible teaching anyone anything but they hardly excell-except when all of a sudden a "hidden talent" is realized. Rescue plan would be trying to get behind the rational of instructions and motivating oneself by e.g., thinking "this is in line with my goals" while looking for a better job. –  panny Jul 14 '11 at 13:06

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