I’ve often had trouble getting myself to do things that need to be done when I don’t really want to do them.
But recently I stumbled upon the best way I’ve ever found for getting myself to do tasks I normally dread. Now instead of avoiding certain tasks, I look forward to doing them and even actively look for the time to get them done as soon as possible.
It’s so simple I can’t believe I never consciously used this technique before.
I’m calling it pairing.
For me, it works much better than bribing myself with rewards.
In the past, I had often tried to motivate myself to do tasks I dislike by offering myself a reward after I completed them.
After I did the laundry, I could read a book. After I cleaned the house, I could watch TV. After I did the dishes, I could eat a piece of candy. For small tasks like this, it sometimes worked, but I still didn’t enjoy the tasks themselves.
Other times it didn’t work at all.
And when it came to bigger tasks I really didn’t want to do, even the offer of a reward often didn’t help. Sometimes I couldn’t think of a reward that was motivating enough — especially in the last year during pandemic restrictions when lots of bigger rewards were off-limits.
As the countdown to summer began, I knew I wanted to get in better shape as I anticipated seeing friends more regularly, including having them over to swim in our pool. I couldn’t stay bundled up in two sweaters at once like I had most of the winter.
Pairing something I enjoyed but rarely did, with something I didn’t really want to do made the whole experience better.
I knew the thing I really had to do in order to get in better shape by the summer was exercise regularly. For me, this meant five days a week for at least half an hour, in addition to daily fifteen-minute walks around the block with my dog.
Walking the dog was no problem. He relies on me, so I always do it. After a year of mostly staying at home, though, forcing myself to establish a strict exercise routine was seriously unappealing. I knew that even if I could force myself to do it a few times, it seemed unlikely to be sustainable for any significant length of time.
What I really wanted was to have more fun.
Doing things just for fun was something that was severely lacking in my life. Mostly because I had stopped giving myself permission to have fun for no reason! The weight of life during the pandemic had seemingly squashed that possibility for me.
Maybe I could take it back?
What if I could make working out something that was more fun — even on the days I didn’t feel excited to sweat?
I thought I needed some structure and a goal. I started two 30-day challenges — one for squats and one for planks. I’d spend a month working up to 200 squats at a time and a 5-minute plank.
It was nice to have a goal and see progress day by day. But within a week when the reps and length of the plank got longer, I found the greater number of squats boring. And doing a plank for two minutes wasn’t exactly fun.
The obvious way to make the squats less boring and the length of the planks more enjoyable was by playing music. I chose a song for each and that helped.
Then I had a breakthrough.
The real breakthrough came on the day I decided to keep listening to music while I did one of my workout videos. I have been doing the same Pilates, yoga, barre, and cardio videos for years and I realized they had also gotten boring. I knew they worked to get and keep me in shape, but that knowledge alone was no longer enough to motivate me.
I discovered that listening to fun music playlists while I did the exercises I already knew really helped. I enjoyed following the videos again and before long I’d exercised consistently for a month.
I hadn’t felt I had the time to listen to upbeat pop music in my day-to-day life. (It’s not the kind I can work with.) So, listening to this music while exercising was a treat. I came to associate exercise with fun. It felt like a little party to start the day.
Pairing something I enjoyed but rarely did, with something I didn’t really want to do made the whole experience better. Now that I associated it with fun music, I actually looked forward to exercising instead of dreading it.
I had discovered the power of pairing.
Once I realized the power — and fun — of pairing, I started to look for other opportunities to do this in my life.
I started to think about all the things I put off, all the things I feel I should do, but usually don’t. What are the things I only do when I absolutely have to?
There was a stack of old credit card and bank statements I needed to shred that had been sitting on a chair in my office for months.
I could shred them while watching my favorite series on Netflix in the evening.
I could watch YouTube videos while on the treadmill.
I asked my husband if he ever paired activities to make one more appealing. Yep, he listens to audiobooks while running. He’s listening to Barack Obama’s latest book now and it’s helping him run more and enjoy his runs more.
That’s when I realized there was one big task in my life that I always paired with something I loved doing: weeding and listening to my favorite podcast. I did it again this week. I listened to three episodes and weeded the whole yard, picked up sticks, and trimmed back some dead branches.
The night before I always search for episodes I want to listen to, and it makes me excited to get up and get to work in the morning. Now, whenever I think of yard work, I think of my favorite podcast and the combination of activities is one I love to do.
Here’s why I’m sticking with this approach.
Guilting myself into behavior is not a long-term strategy. And I only have so much willpower.
But the number of enjoyable activities I can do in a day is only limited by the hours and energy I have available. And I’ve found it’s much easier to find the time to do activities I enjoy, especially while getting something done that you know you need to do. It’s a total win-win.
Now I’m looking for other tasks I dread and thinking about what I could pair with them to make it enjoyable.
Obviously, pairing can’t be done with difficult tasks that take 100% of our concentration. But for those necessary tasks that are less challenging than tedious or time-consuming, it’s the perfect solution.
The best kind of activities to pair with undesirable tasks are the ones that use senses that are not engaged in what you have to do.
For physical labor or exercise, you can choose an activity that engages your hearing.
For monotonous tasks like walking on the treadmill or shredding paper that don’t take 100% visual focus, you can also choose an activity that engages your vision, like watching videos or even chatting with a friend on Zoom or Facetime.
And even for tasks that require more focus, there is still an opportunity to engage other senses like taste and smell. When I sort the mail, pay bills, and clear my desk, I like to use my frankincense burner and have a cup of tea to make the job more enjoyable.
And it works.
What are the necessary tasks in your life you wish were more enjoyable? Is there something you can do at the same time to make them more fun?