Self-Activation: What’s Getting in the Way of Getting Yourself Going?

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “I can’t adult today,” you know the feeling. It’s known as “self-activation” or “getting that heavy ball rolling”, a phrase coined by author Ari Tuckman. Self-activation is harder some days than others. It’s harder depending on the task at hand. There are certain tasks which really make us cringe, and we ignore, delay, and avoid these tasks as much as possible. Sometimes, these tasks get done late or never get crossed off the to-do list at all.

Some tasks feel so overwhelming that we can’t seem to begin

Whether it’s cleaning out the garage, paying your taxes, or planning a Thanksgiving dinner for a large group, if the task before us feels overwhelming, we may never start. Sometimes these are tasks are emotionally charged. We might worry we are going to disappoint or fail. To overcome this type of overwhelm, the key is to do any small part of the difficult task, and build off that.

The first action of an overwhelming task can be to ask for help. Why not? A task like organizing the garage is often a two-person job, so having a body double to motivate and assist you as well as an extra set of hands will increase the chance of completion.

Meanwhile, start on your own, spend just 30 minutes recycling cardboard boxes. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Another day, spend 30 minutes putting away camping gear or summer toys. Next time, appreciating the progress you’ve made, you might be up for spending an hour putting all the gardening tools in one corner of your garage. You don’t need to complete the entire project in one day even one weekend. To break the overwhelming feeling, you don’t have to start “being motivated,” the small, repeated actions will build motivation and lead to more action.

Some tasks are vague, undefined, and don’t have a deadline

You’d like to get new carpet in the house. It is necessary, but it doesn’t seem critical. If it doesn’t get done, you’ll just have old carpet. It’s easy to delay getting started on a vague or undefined task. It’s on your to-do list, but it’s ambiguous and doesn’t have a deadline. Unless a task has some structure, it is more of a wish.

Use an upcoming event as a deadline. The deadline will create the beginning of a structure. If you set out to replace your carpet by your birthday, then you can look at your calendar and assign yourself small intermediary deadlines. Let’s say you complete the step of scheduling an estimate. Share this accomplishment with a friend, and ask them to be your accountability partner – to check in with you when the appointment occurs. You can even put some skin in the game – say, tell your friend you’ll owe them lunch if you fail to meet your deadline.

A stressful event has triggered  paralysis

A stressful trigger can block our ability to complete difficult tasks. Perhaps you’ve made a mistake you’re ashamed of. Or, you are worried about letting someone down, and you don’t think you can face it. You become paralyzed and unable to move forward. It may feel easier to withdraw, sit on the couch watching movies, ignoring the world completely. For those with ADHD, for whom self-activation is especially difficult, this withdrawal has been described as hibernation. If you’ve experienced this before, ADHD coach Jacqueline Sinfield recommends creating a “damage limitation plan.” “It includes the actions you will take to stop sinking into hibernation when you feel it coming on or limit the time you are there.”

You want to be in a good mood before you tackle the hard task

You might go for a quick run to get energized before tackling that cluttered garage. You might spend some time online shopping before paying bills. This is called “mood based procrastination.” Researchers have found that “procrastination happens for two basic reasons: (1) We delay action because we feel like we’re in the wrong mood to complete a task, and (2) We assume that our mood will change in the near future.”

The problem is these “feel good” activities rarely put us in the mood to start on the difficult tasks. A better strategy might be to identify the most productive time during the day and schedule to work on your “tough to start” tasks then. There is quote by Mark Twain that applies, “Eat a frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” If morning is your most productive, start with the most difficult task then.

You are motivated differently than other people

Writer and happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin describes a framework of “4 tendencies” which drive how we respond to various internal and external expectations. Take the quiz here. Are you an Upholder? An Obliger? A Rebel? Or a Questioner? Learning your “tendency” may help answer why getting going on certain tasks is difficult for you. For example, an Obliger, might struggle with prioritizing tasks or goals which are important only to them, like for example exercising regularly. They would be more likely to respond to external expectations such as the needs and wants of their children or spouse. Learning more about this framework might help you understand why for certain tasks it’s so hard get yourself going.



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