Don’t want to do something? Tell yourself that it will be horrible. The worst. A godforsaken burden.
This is the finding of a trio of new studies out of the University of British Columbia. The key to getting tasks off your to-do list is to harness the psychological discomfort of dread, which is negative and unpleasant—and therefore a feeling that most people seek to relieve.
For example, if you need to break up with a significant other who is in love with you, negative anticipation of the painful conversation will stress you out—so you’re likely to do it reasonably soon, just to relieve the stress. Similarly, researchers found that people concerned about not having enough savings for retirement expenses were 43% more likely to jolt into taking action than people simply looking forward to retirement.
It turns out that people delay and procrastinate on deeply negative events and tasks much less than you would think. You know this from your own life: You don’t indefinitely put off a root canal. You want to get it over with! But mildly uncomfortable tasks such as doing taxes or organizing a messy closet? Months or years will pass.
The research adds notable insight into the timing with which people address negative matters.
The study, by the way, notes that positive desire for the immediate gratification of, say, ice cream or a nap will always trump negative anticipation or dread. But make that awful-yet-necessary endeavor ghastly enough, and you’ll find yourself doing it.