4 Strategies for Persevering Through Difficult Tasks

May 13, 2020

Even during times when life feels like a stroll through blooming meadows, we humans regularly find ourselves battling against gusts and gales on our way to reaching our goals. You want health? Push through the pain on the treadmill. You want academic success? Power through the laborious articles. You want dental hygiene? Breathe through the deafening drilling noises this close to your brain. You want harmonious relationships? Sweat through uncomfortable conversations with colleagues.

All that practice has made us rather skilled at finding ways to overcome ourselves and persevere at things that are aversive and unpleasant, and yet necessary for achieving our objectives. A recent study published in The European Journal of Personality—aptly titled “Doing Despite Disliking”—explored what it is that people can do in these instances of self-control conflicts to help them persist at everyday tasks.

For lead researcher Dr. Marie Hennecke, one of the biggest surprises of the study was the great variety of strategies that people have in their arsenals to help them get through what they are doing. Most of these creative strategies were a variety of regulatory processes such as changing the situation, focusing on something else, reappraising the task in a different way, or using sheer willpower. For each of these broad categories, Hennecke and her team found 19 different strategies that people used to accomplish their goals.

Here are 4 of the most successful self-regulatory strategies from the study, according to Dr. Hennecke.

1. Focus on the positive consequences of the activity.

This was the most popular and most frequently reported strategy from the study, and it can be applied in a variety of situations. For example, if you find yourself on a treadmill—exasperated and ready to give up—you could remind yourself of the good that you are doing to your physical and emotional wellbeing. Or if you are a student laboring over tedious reading material, you could think that studying now will likely help you pass your exams and achieve your academic goals. In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “No mud, no lotus.”

2. Regulate your emotions.

There are many ways that people can regulate their emotional states to keep themselves in good mood—even despite being in the middle of an otherwise unenjoyable task. For example, thinking of something that makes you happy—whether a memory of a sunny beach or your pet’s joyful greeting when you come home.

As Hennecke notes, regulating your emotions can be conceptually different from distraction, because distraction doesn’t necessarily have the component of changing your mood for the better. When you think of your grocery list and dinner plans while you are pushing through on the treadmill, you may have successfully distracted yourself from the here and now of your circumstances, but not necessarily made yourself happier with your thoughts.

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