How to start doing something even if you don’t want to

Do you remember the last time when you need to start doing something, but you don’t? For example, you have that todo list in front of you, you have tasks and deadlines, you know exactly what you need. You just don’t start, you avoid this for some reason.

Instead, you may pick up your phone, open the Reddit feed, check some news, watch some fun vids. You can also check your Facebook, Twitter or Linkedin. It feels so much better, right?

We tend to break our productive habits

We are humans, so I bet you know this feeling – because I experience it regularly. I have loads of work tasks, tons of ideas I wanted to write about, a file with my next blog post ideas, list of books I want to read.

However, for some reason I choose to check the /worldnews sub and its comments, not the ‘right’ and useful stuff. Isn’t it weird?

The thing is that knowing what to do doesn’t help so much here. Okay, let’s pick a real example, yesterday my notes looked like this:

A screenshot from my Notion to do. Most of these are the work-related tasks.
Cards with a red square emoji in the title mean active ToDo tickets.

On one hand, I can see lots of green checkboxes in the right – it means it’s not THAT bad, I can accomplish something. On the other, how can I not get lost in all of these smaller tasks, which belong to 3-4 different areas/projects?

What I’m trying to say is: listing your tasks and having effective ToDo doesn’t solve the other issue: a motivation to finish them. They help you – no doubt – but still miss this element of helping you start. This is how I feel, at least, about it.

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Starting something looks scary – so our brain resists

Humans are lazy by nature. Our brain is trying to save as much resources, as possible – by introducing different mechanisms to do so. One of such mechanisms prevents us to start (when we need to).

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In my previous example with ToDo list, the brain does its best to make us do anything we can, except for the real work. We may try to seek some quick dopamine, or to get instant gratification. This can be translated into anything from checking a social media feed, to visiting news websites and ‘quickly checking’ the inbox.

Even with writing this article I felt this resistance. I was trying to sit and finish it in 2 sessions. The first one went well – I was focused, motivated and optimized for finishing. The second session brought some troubles – I caught myself searching for any excuse possible to not finish it.

I was checking my Linkedin profile with zero notificatons, visiting inbox, refreshing the /worldnews Sub. It was a heavy resistance, but I managed to break it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be able to read this post. One little rule helped me.

A 5-minute rule to start now, not later

Simple, but very powerful trick is to apply a ‘5-minute rule’. This is a hack that allows you to bypass your brain protection and get closer to execution.

All I did (to finish this article) is – opened my laptop, started a Toggl timer, and opened my blog immediately. No hesitation (this is important). I visited right the draft of this post, ‘straight to the point’.

When I saw it – while the timer is ticking already – I started writing. The idea was to just do it for 5 minutes only – a little tiny time period that’s required for ‘breaking’ our brain’s resistance. Very little, very easy to do. But here is where the magic comes.

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Once you started doing something (like me, writing this blog post) – it’s much harder to stop. You don’t have this urge to check social media, that you had in the beginning. You just act. Execute. Complete something you started (which makes a lot sense – we are consistent. We do our best to finish something we’ve started).

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We keep doing it until our ’emotional reserves’ or ‘focus reserves’ let us do so. Based on my experience, it is somewhere around 45-60 minutes of active execution.

What type of activities can I apply a 5-minute work to?

In the previous paragraph, I brought writing this blog post as an example of application of our 5-minute rule. If we talk about writing a post, we can also do parallel analogy and suggest to apply this same very routine to any other type of intellectual/creative work: reading, writing, analysing, comparing, doing research, etc etc. But is a 5-minute rule limited to these areas? Not really!

In the past, when I was struggling to develop a morning running routine, I found a simple trick that helped me a lot. Basically, my plan was to wake up at 5:30, read/write some stuff for 1 hour (till 6:30 or 7:00) and go for running. The challenge was specifically about making yourself out. Autumns are cold in Ukraine, so you need to have some good motivation to make yourself go outside in the morning and run for 30-40 minutes.

How did I do it? Instead of forcing myself to go run outside, I forced myself to focus on putting on my running sportswear. Only that. No need to go outside – just put these running clothes. Simple, right?

But once you DID put these clothes on – there is no chance that you’re going to take them off now. The only available option in such case to take them off again is after the run (otherwise it’s a double stupidity level, to take it off immediately).

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I noticed it works for me – putting running clothes on requires much less motivation (and has less internal resistance) than going for morning run. But in reality, once you put clothes, you also need a bit less motivation to go for run now – since you’re one step closer to it. That’s the alternative of my 5-minute rule, but for excercising.

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I’m pretty convinced, that you can apply this same principle to any other task or habit that you want to complete. All you need to do is to find this analogy of ‘the first 5-minutes to start with’. After that, the process will go much smoother – and you’ll face much less resistance from your brain to keep doing it.