6 Tips for Tackling A Dreaded Task

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

Often, I know I’d be happier if I do something I really don’t feel like doing. Making that phone call. Dealing with tech support. Writing that email. Going to the gym.

Those dreaded tasks hang over my head, though; they make me feel drained and uneasy. I’ve learned that I’m much happier, in the long run, if I try to tackle them as soon as possible, rather than allowing myself to push them off.

Here are some strategies I use:

1. Do it first thing in the morning. If you’re dreading doing something, you’re going to be able to think of more creative excuses as the day goes along. One of my Twelve Commandments is “Do it now.” No delay is the best way.

2. If you find yourself putting off a task that you try to do several times a week, do it EVERY day. When I was planning my blog, I envisioned posting two or three times a week. Then a blogging friend convinced me that no, I should post every day. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, I’ve found that it’s easier to do it every day (well, except Sundays) than fewer times each week. There’s no dithering, there’s no juggling. I know I have to post, so I do. If you’re finding it hard to go for a walk four times a week, try going every day.

3. Have someone keep you company. Studies show that we enjoy practically every activity more when we’re with other people. Having a friend along can be a distraction, a source of reassurance, or just moral support.

4. Make preparations, assemble the proper tools. Clean off your desk, get the phone number, find the file. I often find that when I’m dreading a task, it helps me to feel prepared. There’s a wonderful term that chefs use: mis-en-place, French for “everything in its place.” It describes the preparation done before starting to cook: gathering ingredients and implements, chopping, measuring, etc. Mis-en-place is preparation, but it’s also a state of mind; mis-en-place means you have everything at the ready, with no need to run out to the store or begin a frantic search for a sifter. You’re truly ready to begin to work.

5. Commit. We’ve all heard the advice to write down your goals. This really works, so force yourself to do it. Usually this advice relates to long-term goals, but it works with short-term goals, too. On the top of a piece of paper, write, “By the end of today, April 7, I will have _____.” This also gives you the thrill of crossing a task off your list. (See below.)

6. Remind yourself that finishing a dreaded task is tremendously energizing. Studies show that hitting a goal releases chemicals in the brain that give you pleasure. If you’re feeling blue, although the last thing you feel like doing is something you don’t feel like doing, push yourself. You’ll get a big lift from it.

True confession: even as I’m writing this post, at this very minute, I’m putting off two dreaded tasks! I will write no more until I do them.


Okay, they’re done! It took a total of seven minutes, and I’d been procrastinating for days. Phew. I feel great.

How about you? Have you found any helpful techniques to get yourself to tackle a dreaded task?

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

11 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    A confession and a question:  Very often now, a friend will have his parent die.  . and he is distraught as he should be.  But I have never met the parent.  But it seems good manners – and more – to go to the wake.  It takes all I have within me to go.  Today was one of those days that happen more frequently now.  I want to take to my bed, use any excuse to stay away, especially with an open casket. 

    Now was the hour.  I couldn’t put it off though excuses piled to the sky.  As always, I knew no one there but my friend.  I had not even heard him talk about his parents, his family.  . and yet I was there consoling him.  That can only go on so long.  A small number of people were talking, milling about.  . but who are they?  Family I don’t know?  Do I leave?  Sit alone, looking forward at that casket which was very upsetting to me. 

    How could I turn this awkwardness — something I am not used to feeling in other circumstances – around?  What is etiquette in these cases?  I tried something new.  . and if this was a faux pas, someone tell me.  I walked around with my hand out to shake hands with total strangers, introduce myself and engage in conversation.  I asked questions to locate family members, approaching them as dear friends, finding them actually anxious to share their stories with me, a total stranger.  With the mother of my friend, found late in the “visit”, I found myself throwing my arms around her like we had been close for years.  She talked about her loss, we shed tears together as I became so caught up in her own love story, suddenly ended.  In forgetting myself and my being uncomfortable, I felt I perhaps was really helping with my own thoughts.  Strangers were holding my hands as we talked of the most personal of stories.  They didn’t seem to want me to part from them.

    Gretchen should be pleased.  I did go.  But was it proper for a total stranger – except for my friend (who happened to be immoblized in a wheelchair) – to make the rounds, so to speak, of the funeral parlor “mourners” and offer my own thoughts and kind words when it seemed right – to people I had never met??

    Or does one somehow slip very soon out the door?  As deaths are beginning to occur with some regularity, I need guidance from those far more experienced than I. 

    I must say that by trying to say the right words, being warm, and extending hugs to strangers was almost longed for, I did feel so much better and lighter when I went down the stairs and drove home.  While I could have used lots of pushes in the beginning to get out my own door, I was so glad that I had made the effort. 

    It isn’t easy.  If there is a right way, I would really like to be told.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Joan, I don’t know if there is an “etiquette” for such things either. But if you consoled some people who needed to talk, and pleased your friend in such a trying moment, isn’t that much better than any “etiquette” that you may have breached? You did a real service to people in need. What could be better?

    • avatar Linda Myers says:


      I think you were the perfect in attending and handling what seemed to be maybe an awkward feeling of being there.

      When my mom died, the church was filled to the doors, 80% of the people outside of family I could not have told you who they were, since I wasn’t a part of her daily life. My sister pointed out a woman who had done her hair for years, being there alone and was grateful to see her. With only a common factor being the person who is having the service – being there is welcomed whether the person is known or unknown. You did beautifully!

      • avatar Joan Larsen says:

        Thank you both.  I am not shy in social situations, and always feel deeply and hopefully am able to express my feelings – usually deep – well.  However, my emotions of the moment – even if the story or the person is a stranger – make me as one with the one suffering.  Tears are not unheard of as I relate quickly.  However, the funeral home is an uncomfortable setting for me.  There always seems a hidden time frame of how long others – not of the family – stay.  But I have never been able to catch that.  I find it also offensive to find friends in the funeral home and have the conversation go far from what we are there for.  It doesn’t seem right, even with the family not around. 

        Actually, looking back on this particular situation, it may have taken nerve to actually approach strangers as I made the rounds of the room.  But I could break the social conversation down easily I found, making it personal though I did not know the deceased.  And I found – particularly men – spilling what seemed private memories to me. 

        I think the result was actually good.  But where is the line on doing too much I think.  Perhaps, there are not rules.  I better know as I have a line of dying friends suddenly — almost overnight – and I can see this funeral home situation will become almost my other home., sad to say.

        • avatar mary burdt says:

          Joan, Just show up, be your kind self, and listen to those who need to talk. I can’t imagine you would not do the right thing—it’s not who you are. I am positive you gave comfort to those in attendance because you somehow, know what to say in times of need. I , personally, have been touched by your words and the sympathy you showed me in the last year. Thank you, Joan

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    A few weeks ago, the 10 (five days shy of 11) year old son of a friend of my daughters passed away. Immediately, anybody feels bad when a child dies. This child was born with a heart which couldn’t keep a steady beat. His mother was told when he was born, he would not live past five. Single mom and son spent the last almost 11 years living one day at a time to the FULLEST!

    He was well aware all of his life that any day could be the last and each night the last thing he would do is smile at his mom and say “they didn’t get me today mama!” He planned much of his own funeral during talks with his mom. His IPOD was connected into the sound system and his music played constantly. It was one of the most light hearted and uplifting services ever attended. It was done his way. A steady string of speakers telling about this wonderful little boy, his wisdom and humor that he gave to others. He knew his mortality was short and was happy each day to wake up and see his mom again. He loved school even though he never knew which grade he would finish. After getting a glimpse of his life through his services, I don’t think I will ever look at life the same again. And like you, I was a stranger in his life.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Linda, your story made me cry . . . but it tells me that love and caring and direction his mother gave him through the years made those years “the best years”.  Often we have regrets later with our children that we have not given them our all, but in this case, the story and ending are beautiful.  Thanks for sharing this — as it is a beautiful story.

      I think what I have learned from the comments here is there is no “right” or “wrong”.  Instead, if we go strongly with our feelings and our emotions of the time, we are not putting on a fake face and going through the motions but we are going where our heart tells us to go.

      And that is what it is all about.  We are never sorry when we are there for others . . . but often, later, we have regrets when we weren’t.

      • avatar Linda Myers says:

        ABSOLUTELY! 🙂 When you follow your heart, it won’t steer you wrong!

        What was incredible about Cooper’s services was the lack of tears. He had talked with his mom and she shared their belief that he would not go away, just to another room with people he loved. He would see her, know her and just not be able to be with her for now. His grandpa died a few years ago, and she said her first thoughts when he died was visioning him running for the first time,since his heart would not let him run during his life and seeing grandpa again and she could not help but smile. Incredible story they shared for almost 11 positive years.

        • avatar Joan Larsen says:

          Linda — your story was beautiful and the mother somehow said ALL the right things — the words could not have been better.  Thanks for the ending.

          A P.S. on my funeral home story:  on Saturday, a note came in from the friend I had seen at the funeral home, not knowing anyone else.  After thanking me, he added a whole paragraph, saying that his whole family (who obviously I had greeted and talked to on my walk around to various unknown groups) had told him that I had helped them so.  But it was his mother – he said – who said that I was the kindest, warmest, and said the most perfect things to her more than anyone did — and he wanted to thank me for helping his family so.  That he told I felt amazed at — and I do think I will perhaps talk to strangers and family once again when I next have had bad news strike!

          • avatar Linda Myers says:

            Your intuition guided you to the perfect contacts and let the words flow exactly as needed, with a dreaded experience becoming a perfect one. Funny how that works at times. 🙂 A day probably many will never forget.

            My dread is usually an after affect, I go on impulse and then when I think about it, at times I tend to dread the outcome. As a rule, just to realize I did not have anything to dread at all.

  3. avatar calgal says:

    Funerals are for expressing connection and grief. Just showing up does both, but what you did, Joan, was to give individuals a chance to say it out loud. They each got to give a eulogy to an audience of one, you, who really listened and validated their feelings. You did them a wonderful service, and as always happens, benefitted yourself from your gift to them. You did a brave and positive thing.