Willpower workout 8: Do your least motivating task

Willpower Workout #8: How to Do Your Least Motivating Task

September 1, 2020

As we have described, certain task characteristics generally are less motivating than others. The less motivating a task is, the more willpower you need to complete it.

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is linked to external rewards. The iconic example of extrinsic motivation is B.F. Skinner’s experiments, in which rats got a sweet drink when they pressed a lever. They performed an action to get something different that they wanted.

Extrinsic motivation can create an immediate change in behavior but often fails to sustain behavior. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, can create enduring behavior change, but it is less reliable.

You don’t know if you’ll find a task intrinsically motivating or not. That said, there are three task characteristics that psychologists cite as being the primary intrinsic motivators:

  • Autonomy, which includes control and purpose
  • Competence, which includes challenge, learning, and competition
  • Belonging, which includes cooperation and recognition

Certain tasks may have objectively lower levels of these characteristics than other tasks, but it’s important to remember that ultimately, our motivation is tied to our perception of these characteristics of a task rather than some objective reality. What this means is that you can convert a de-motivating task into a motivating one by changing how you view the task. In doing so, you increase your likelihood of completing a task and conserve your willpower resources.

In today’s workout, you’re going to either need to change your perception of a longstanding task or muster up the willpower to get it done.

Day 8 Willpower Workout:

  1. Think of a task that you have been putting off for at least 2 weeks because you just don’t want to do it.
  2. Schedule time today to complete it.

If you’re worried this is going to be a struggle, consider applying these techniques:

  • Do the task first thing in the morning when your willpower levels are likely the highest.
  • Determine as much about how, when, and where you’ll do the task in advance of beginning it. This makes the task easier, which often reduces the willpower necessary to complete it and reduces the number of choices you face, which helps prevent procrastination by reducing opportunities to choose to procrastinate.
  • Do the 5 Why’s exercise to alter your perception of the task and find motivation: Ask yourself why you are doing the task (e.g., Because my boss told me to.) Then ask why you are going along with the answer to your last question (e.g., Why are you doing what your boss told you to do?) Keep asking why until you get to a core motivator that resonates with you.

Evaluating Your Workout:

  1. Why had you been pushing off this task?
  2. Did it appeal at all to the 3 primary intrinsic motivators of autonomy, competence, and belonging?
  3. If not, can you adjust your perception to “find” intrinsic motivation?
  4. How did you get yourself to complete it?
  5. What was the hardest part of completing the task: starting, executing in the middle, or finishing? Why?
  6. Was the task as de-motivating as you had perceived it to be?
  7. How can you leverage what you learned in this workout to complete tasks you have a tendency of pushing off?

Willpower Workout in Action:

I didn’t want to make you suffer through watching me complete a de-motivating task, so in this video, I just talk through my experience and share tips for how you can accomplish tasks you don’t want to do.

This is day 8 of a 40-day journey to explore your limits. If you’d like to receive a daily email with the willpower workout of the day, you can sign up here to start at Day 1 with the first workout:

If you’d prefer to jump in where Matt is right now and then make up the other workouts on your own schedule, sign up here:

Past Workouts: