Some self-help books note the difficulty of starting a boring or cognitively-difficult task (relative to maintaining the 'momentum' once the task has been started). Sometimes they describe an analogy to physical systems whereby a certain amount of 'activation energy' needs to be provided in order for a process to start.


To generate this initial energy, some self-help authors have described simple techniques:

The moment you feel an instinct or a desire to act on a goal or a commitment, use the Rule. When you feel yourself hesitate before doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1-GO and move towards action.

Robbins, Mel. The 5 Second Rule: Transform Your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage. Simon and Schuster, 2017.

See also: Is there any direct or indirect empirical support for the effectiveness of Mel Robbins' five second rule?

Shrink your desired hyperfocus period until you no longer feel resistance to the ritual. Minimize the amount of time you’ll dedicate to focusing on one task until you no longer feel mental resistance to it. Even setting a mental deadline of five minutes will likely be enough to get you started.

Bailey, Chris. Hyperfocus: How to Work Less to Achieve More. Macmillan, 2018.

One could certainly enumerate an endless amount of techniques beyond these. For example, closing the eyes and visualizing oneself of performing the task, or one could pretend with a high degree of conviction that there is an infinitely large payoff for doing the task and an infinitely large penalty for not doing the task. However, it is not clear whether any of these methods would actually be effective.


However, I have not found a single study that evaluated these, or similar, methods (i.e., interventions that increase the probability of people to initialize a psychologically unpleasant task).

What are effective methods to overcome the initial psychological resistance towards an unpleasant task?

Assumptions and differentiation from related questions

Kelly McGonigal distinguishes between I won't and I will willpower (see The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2012, ISBN 978-1583335086)). The former type of willpower (I won't) has been discussed in this Q&A forum previously:

Best meditation techniques to overcome Behavioral Addictions?

Beyond CBT and MBI, what are effective behavioral interventions for modern lifestyle addictions during their engagement?

However, the question here is more in line with the I will willpower type.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Nicely researched question. I think habituation is probably part of the answer, but I can't point to specific studies right now. $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 11:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Fizz That's a great suggestion. From a strategical lens (long-term), I have no doubt that consistent self-image, reduced fear and many other neuroplastic benefits from repeated exposure to the task will increase subsequent commitment. There is also work that claims that willpower can be trained like a muscle over time, but this has recently come into question with the reproducibility movement (perhaps it even started it). My intent with the question was more in the direction of tactical (short-term) cognitive or behavioral interventions. $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:47

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I don't know of evaluations of those types of techniques. To broaden your query slightly, there is strong evidence from social psychology that increasing helpful behaviors and decreasing unhelpful behaviors is more about context than willpower (e.g., see how Nisbett & Ross talk about the power of the situation for behavior: http://faculty.babson.edu/krollag/org_site/soc_psych/ross_pers_sit.html). So if a person were seeking to initiate difficult behaviors, I would first modify the context rather than use the tools mentioned. For example, if a person had trouble doing a work task and was using stackexchange as a distraction, they could disable their internet for a period.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the helpful answer. One instance of altering the context in this way is precommitment ( cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(13)00448-0 ) . Your example falls more in line with the "I won't" type of willpower (at least immediately), although I would certainly agree that a person is more likely to start an unpleasant & productive task if the pleasant & unproductive task is terminated. Still, one can come up with "I will" scenarios using context: E.g., sleeping with gym shorts on in order to make it easier to go to the gym in the morning. $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ That being said - all else being equal - I have noticed people with similar context behave in completely different ways w.r.t. the unpleasant work. Once we fix the physical context, are there cognitive interventions that are likely to yield better outcomes for initializing work tasks? $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, individuals' behavior varies widely even within the same context due more to their individual differences (e.g., genes & environment --> personality) than to their cognitive strategies. To search more I'd look at the literature on procrastination interventions, e.g., this query: scholar.google.com/… $\endgroup$ Commented May 16, 2019 at 14:43

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