How to Get Sh*t Done When You Don’t Feel Like Doing It

When it’s about getting shit done it may be more about outsmarting ourselves then it is about trying to muster the willpower to overcome our indecision, apathy, or just flat out laziness.

To make this make sense there something that you need to understand first…

and that is…

You weren’t built for this environment.  We weren’t built for the modern age.

Our biology is not suited to resist fatty foods, and sugar EVERYWHERE.  Our bodies were built to move; to wander in search of food–hunt, gather, explore, etc.  But as it stands today, the climate we find ourselves in, caters to a culture of convenience.  The need to hunt, gather, and let alone move, is all but becoming a distant memory.

I mean, we even INVENTED exercise, in an effort to incite movement.  

Researchers refer to us as an evolutionary mismatch, and it’s the idea that evolutionary traits that were once advantageous have become maladaptive due to the change in the environment.

You see, we are hardwired to want to eat fat, sugar, and high caloric food.  So having fast food restaurants, all you can eat buffets, and 24/7 diners are not really in our best interest.

We have a fear and stress response that doesn’t know what to do with itself anymore because we aren’t looking over our should every 10 seconds to see if we are being stalked something that’s going to eat us. Turns out that urban cities don’t have too many man eating predators walking around. Instead, now, it reacts to non life threatening situations i.e. speaking in front of a crowd, or zombies (yes people are really, in real life, scared of zombies).

We also have a predisposition to be lazy; or if you want to be nice about it, “conserve energy”.  So with inventions such as Door Dash, online shopping, segways, voice controls, etc. this means we are having to exert less and less effort.

As a result we have developed anxieties, and mental disorders. We struggle with diabetes and heart disease.  We feel a constant need to find comfort and seek distraction (cue social media)

And our environment and culture is happy to oblige.

So what are you to do if you want to eat better, get more sleep, move more, etc?  How do we get ourselves to do the things that we want to do, that we know we should do, knowing that we are at odds with our environment and culture.

Well, that’s why you have a brain…thankfully.

Our brains consist of two systems.  Psychologist Daniel Kahneman refers to them poignantly as system one and system two. Psychologist Johnathan Haidt refers to them the metaphorically as the elephant and the rider, respectively.  However you choose to identify them what you need to know is that one side is lazy, reactive, and largely makes decisions based on impulse and intuition (system one).  The other is slow, rational, reflective, and it’s where self control and critical thinking reside (system two).

Image Courtesy of FinnKollerup

Most of time we are operating on system one (the elephant). We are making day to day decisions based on previous experience, habit, routine, and ritual.  But when it comes to choice and decision that require our attention and/or removes us from our routines it’s system two (the rider) that has the last say.

Both systems work well together, but as our environment and culture change we need to start employ the rider more often to live well in the modern day.

Here’s the thing, while the rider has control over most things it can’t just TELL the elephant what to do. The elephant is HUGE animal, and can easily overpower the rider if feels like it has free reign.

The key to this is that the rider must subtlety influence the elephant. Using the environment, rewards, cognitive hacks, or whatever other tools we have available to us.

The point of mentioning all of this is that I am going to ask you to be clever. I want you to think critically about how your are going to solve the problems your are faced with in life.

You are going to need to be intelligent if you are going to outsmart your biology, and not only that, life is evolving, changing, so your wittiness will need to have an adaptive quality to it.

What I mean by this is that demands change, schedules flip, kids are born, careers are overhauled, etc. these are facts of life. So you will need to be able to adjust and make changes as your messy life unfolds.

So without further adieu. Here are 3 ways to get shit done, when you don’t feel like it, or to put in another way, when the elephant has somehow found itself having free reign.

Control Your Environment

The first, and probably the most important, is having a hand in the design and function of your environment.

We do this intuitively when we move into a new space.  We design our bedrooms, our living rooms, bathrooms; kitchen utensils go in the kitchen, the coffee maker is probably on the kitchen counter, etc.  These ideas are so ubiquitous that if you saw a refrigerator in the living room you’d question it with a look of surprise.  

We do this to make our lives easier, to make the activities that take place in the kitchen (i.e. cooking, baking, making coffee etc) more likely to happen because we have made it easier to accomplish.

Which brings us to our first strategy:

Make the things you want to do easy/convenient and make the things you don’t want to do hard/inconvenient.

It should go without saying…

…if you keep taking an alcoholic to a bar, at one time or another, and probably more sooner than later, he is going to have a drink.  I don’t give two shits how much willpower he thinks he has.  

And just to add to that, it’s not like we have a  “willpower” gauge.  No one I have ever met has ever said, “oh I think I can handle this my willpower tank is about 3/4 full.”

Our environment, to put it in the words of author Marshall Goldsmith,

“…is a magnificent willpower-reduction machine.”

Is a old adage, a pervasive cliche, but it’s probably because it’s true,  

Set yourself up to be successful.

The key to that statement is YOURSELF.  

Design your environment to help YOU specifically.  Not some schmuck you read about online, your best friend, and not your lover.  

The ideas you come up with will need to take into consideration your tendencies, your personality, your habits, etc.

Here’s a few to start get the ideas rolling:

  • Setting out workout clothes the night before to remind you to hit the gym
  • Put pre-cut veggies, and fruits in the fridge.
  • Design your own garage gym
  • Have a timer go off in your office to remind you to stand or move
  • Place your alarm clock across the room to make sure you get up earlier

Again, these ideas are only as effective as the person employing them.  If these ideas don’t “fit” you, throw them out, and create new solutions.  

Simple Rules

This may come as a surprise to you, but I am not always thrilled to work out.  In fact, “thrilled” is a strong word.  I am probably never thrilled.  Sometimes I am more motivated than others, but not matter how I am feeling I always make an effort to move.  It’s a rule of mine…


I can choose to walk, play, dance, lift, as long as I do something in the realm of activity.  

On days when I have a little more juice, and decide to workout in the gym I have another set of rules…

  • Do something powerful
  • Move something heavy
  • Do something novel

If I can satisfy these criteria, I can walk away saying to myself that it was a pretty good day.

Simple rules provide a straightforward set of guidelines for us to follow.

Other simple rules you may have heard of are:

The 5 min rule:  just do the activity for 5 minutes, and if you want to stop after 5 minutes, feel free to do so.  What usually ends up happening, is that you just end up completing the activity because you already got started.  And even if don’t complete it you end up doing more than you would have if you decided to avoid it all together.

Just GET to the gym:  its a common saying, “just get to the gym and you are halfway there.”  The idea to this simple rule is similar to the 5 minute rule, if you can just get past initial barrier and GET there, you are likely to finish it out because, well, you’re already there, mind as well do it.

Shut Down at 7:00:  this is a simple rule a client of mine came up with because her work was taking away from here quality time with her family.  So she made a simple rule, “shut down after 7:00 PM.”  This meant no computers, no smartphones, no email.  Now she can enjoy the time she spends with her family which is one of her core values.  

Simple Rules are ways that we can overcome initial opposition by creating a simple set of guidelines to follow.  In a lot of ways they define the minimums.  The allow us to hedge our bets to some extent, by not forcing us to commit fully.  And sometimes this is needed.  Sometimes we need to coax ourselves to be better.  Sometimes a soft touch is needed, rather than a blunt stick.

One thing to mention, simple rules are only effective if they are created by the person employing them, within the context of personal change.  In my experience, there aren’t many people that like to follow rules given to them, at least not for any extended period of time.  So if you are to use the strategy of Simple Rules make sure they are a product of your creation, or if you decide to adopt someone else’s, be sure to fully adopt them as if they were own.

Habit Stacking

Habit stacking, also referred to as chunking, is taking habits and making them routines.  

We already have several routines that we take part in on a daily basis.  Most of us have a morning bathroom routine, a morning routine before leaving the house for work, a routine for once we get into work, etc.  They are a series of actions that we do almost without thinking about it.  

One of the most effective ways to do something that we have a hard time doing is to attach it to an existing routine.  This will take a little effort on the front end, but it will pay dividends later on.  

It’s best to start with small habits, and then progress from there.

First identify your existing your routines, and write out the actions in the order that they occur. For example here is my morning bathroom routine:

  1. Wake up around 5:00 AM
  2. Head to the bathroom
  3. Put on book from Audible
  4. Brush my teeth
  5. Floss
  6. Rinse my mouth with scope
  7. Brush my hair
  8. Put on a shirt
  9. Comb my hair

Next identify a habit that you would like to develop that takes less than 5 min to complete.  For me, part of what I would like to be able to do is keep our bathroom clean for longer since I am responsible for keeping the bathroom tidy.  The idea of it’s easier “keep up, than it is to catch up” is something I believe, but don’t always adhere to.  So the habit I would like to attach to my morning routine is wiping down the sink. My fiance and I both have long hair so the bathroom sink can get a little out of control from time to time.  So making sure to wipe down the sink can make my job easier when it’s time clean the entire bathroom.  So now my morning bathroom routine looks like this:

  1. Wake up around 5:00 AM
  2. Head to the bathroom
  3. Put on book from Audible
  4. Brush my teeth
  5. Floss
  6. Rinse my mouth with scope
  7. Brush my hair
  8. Put on a shirt
  9. Comb my hair
  10. Wipe down the sink

Now here’s how to make it work.

Make it easy to complete.  

This goes along with the first strategy of designing your environment.  

In regards to the habit I was trying to develop, I made sure that there were cleaning wipes in the bathroom so I didn’t have to leave the bathroom to complete the task.  This made it easier to accomplish.

Set up a reminder (trigger)

When trying to develop something new, you need an impetus to remind you to do it.  In my case I taped up a 3×5 card listing my routine by the bathroom mirror.  It was a check list of sorts, and it had “wipe down the sink” in bold letters at the bottom.  

Next, use a simple rule

It should come as no surprise that simple rules became part of the strategy.  The rule I chose to employ here is the 5 min rule.  I told myself that if for some reason it took longer than 5 minutes, maybe because I would just start cleaning other things, I would just stop if I wanted to.  This help me overcome any initial resistance.  

Lastly, remind yourself of the larger picture

We haven’t talked about this much, but we will in more posts to come.  I reminded myself of how much I hated having a dirty bathroom, and for whatever reason, I feel more at ease when things are clean and tidy.  I reminded myself of the larger picture and how this simple act fit into the larger scheme of things.

This just one example of how habit stacking can prove to be very useful.  I have also used the same methodology to add more vegetables to my daily diet, as well as other menial, but important, tasks around the house that I found myself neglecting to do.

Habit stacking is an excellent tool and if your are interested in finding out more about this strategy please check out the book Habit Stacking, by S.J. Scott.  You can also find his blog HERE.

So there it is 3 ways to get shit done when you don’t feel like it!

It should be stated that using more than one strategy; using them in unison, is more effective than trying to use one on its own.

This is a common mistake people make.  When you can bring all of your resources to bare to solve a problem you are more likely to be successful, rather than using one at a time.  Because even if you got one target, aren’t you better off with two darts?