What to do when you really don’t wanna do the work

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I’m lucky that my first professional writing job was in a newsroom because it taught me something important: You don’t need a perfect environment to get work done. You don’t need silence, an organized room, a particular candle, or a big chunk of time.

The newsroom was loud, messy, and full of 20 or more people, with at least a half dozen conversations happening at any one time. The old-school phones sitting on each person’s desk rang all the time. We had a police scanner that jabbered and crackled day and night. And the staccato clickety-clack of keyboards was randomly interrupted by the pop and hiss of a dozen Dr. Peppers cracking open before a deadline.

Yet somehow, we managed to produce a whole newspaper, not once but daily. Newsrooms across the country and around the world work this minor miracle every single day.

When our three kids came along, I shifted to working from home, which is roughly one million times more distracting than a newsroom. Try meeting a deadline as two toddlers go to war over the same Hot Wheels car while the baby fills diapers at an alarming frequency and the sticky spill you just found on the floor is probably apple juice, but you can’t rule out urine (since potty-training toddlers are also liars). It gives a whole new meaning to the words “toxic workplace.”

I’ve realized over the years that work – in any setting – requires a few mind games. Here are a few I use to make things work at work.

Eat the frog: On my best days, I use the “eat the frog” approach, where the rule is that you do the hardest or most unpleasant task first—also known as the thing you’d most like to procrastinate on. Once you’ve done it, the rest of the workday feels easier because the dreaded frog has already been dealt with.

Also, you’ll get a lovely post-frog endorphin rush because you’re so happy it’s done. It might be bitter going down the hatch, but the aftertaste is sweet.

Build momentum: When my energy is low, and I can’t stomach even the thought of nibbling a frog, I choose work tasks that can be quickly completed. The idea is to build momentum that will carry me into my fight with the frog.

Momentum helps, but it comes with risks. Sometimes, you’ll kill a whole workday doing little things and end the day with a big, beastly project still hovering overhead.

Give your misery some company: Humans are wired for connection. We often postpone a solo project because we don’t want to be alone with it. Students feel this resistance, too. Sometimes I work alongside my teenage daughter so neither of us feels alone while we’re doing hard things. Even though our projects are different, there’s a feeling that we’re in this together.

It’s a concept called “body doubling,” and there are even websites that let you work remotely in the presence of other workers who want to give their misery a little company, too.

Give your inner kid a cookie: Even serious, grown-up professionals have a voice in their head that often acts like a spoiled brat demanding attention. This voice wants you to chase rabbits, make a “quick call,” or “look this up on Google,” and plenty of other time wasters that sound reasonable in the moment.

You could scold this inner kid, but she’ll just keep trying. Instead, I negotiate and appease her with promises. When she tries to steal my attention, I write down her demands and promise to do them when my smartphone timer goes off, and I’m on a break from work. Focus first. Fiddle around later.

Just like parenting, work can’t be all stick and no carrot. For a more rewarding workday, create a few rewards and let yourself enjoy them. You can either stand back and crack the proverbial whip or put something worth running toward at the finish line.

From my desk to yours, here’s hoping we all have a day of fully digested frogs, plenty of momentum, and a sprinkling of rewarding celebration.

Gwen Rockwood is a syndicated freelance columnist. Email her at gwenrockwood5@gmail.com. Her book is available on Amazon. 

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