Do you ever find yourself resisting doing something that you know you need to do? I’m not talking about everyday procrastination: wandering to the refrigerator, talking to a co-worker or reading your favorite news site to delay some non-preferred task. I’m not even talking about those times when you say to yourself, “I don’t want to do that,” but then slump your shoulders, hold your nose and dive in anyway.
I’m talking about those times when you absolutely refuse to do something and your refusal makes you feel like a kid determined not to eat his broccoli, even if it means sitting at the dinner table until he turns 18 and no longer has to comply with his parents’ demands. But in this case, you’re not rebelling against a parent, a boss or any other authority figure. You’re refusing to do what you have told yourself you need to do. In effect, you are rebelling against yourself. I call it “auto-petulance.”
I’m prone to it myself. Some of the things I might say when I’m in the throes of auto-petulance include: “I don’t want to go to the gym today, so I’m not going to.” “I don’t want to answer that email now, so I’ll move on to something else.” “I don’t want to write that documentation today, so I’m going to work on that new project.”
Obviously, this sort of behavior gets in the way of accomplishing your goals. If you need to complete 20 tasks to finish a project and only one of them triggers your auto-petulance, the project will never be completely done. And if your resistance is related to career development, your opportunities to progress will be curtailed, perhaps severely.
But auto-petulance can affect more than just progress toward your objectives. It can affect your relationships at work as well. If you consistently fail to deliver on your commitments, or if the quality of your work suffers, you can end up with a bad reputation. A history of succumbing to auto-petulance can give your supervisors and co-workers a sense that you are disengaged, unreliable or undisciplined.
But perhaps worse, it can give you a negative view of yourself as someone who is out of control, lazy or temperamentally unfit for your job. Your negative judgments about yourself will extend beyond your behavior to your character. And when you think of yourself as irreparably damaged, it’s easy to just stop trying. You become a victim of your own self-image, transforming yourself into the person you fear you are.
So how do you combat auto-petulance?
First, you don’t have to convince yourself that you really want to do the things that need to be done. That’s just silly. If you hate doing something, pretending that you like doing it isn’t going to change anything. Denying reality is a poor way to start.
No, when you’re confronted with a task that you don’t want to do, accept that it’s OK to feel that way. That’s how you feel, and you should acknowledge it to yourself. What you don’t want to do is to think, “I don’t want to do that, so I’m not going to.” Instead, you have to train yourself to accept that, “I don’t want to do that, and I will do it.”
Can it really be that simple? Yes, it can. With that short thought, you are giving yourself permission to feel what you feel while recognizing that you don’t have to love doing something in order to do it. And once you’ve done this a few times, you’ll notice that you have a greater sense of accomplishment when you finish the thing you really didn’t want to do and move on to something you’d rather do. You’ll start seeing yourself as powerful and effective. And who doesn’t like feeling competent?
Beyond that, ask yourself how often you tell yourself, “I don’t want to do that, and I will do it.” If it happens with more than half of the tasks you face, you probably should think about finding a new job. But if you love 80% of what you do, admit it: You’re pretty lucky. There are lots of folks who hate every minute at work.
Paul Glen is the co-author of The Geek Leader's Handbook and a principal of Leading Geeks, an education and consulting firm devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.