‘Ugh Fields’ are a really useful concept. There’s an explanation on LessWrong, but it’s written for a niche audience, so here I’ll have a go myself.
Have you ever had a long-overdue task to do, a task which isn’t so bad in itself, but which you can barely bring yourself to think about without feeling awful?
Most people experience this from time to time. Here’s how things get to such a strange and dire state.
The first day the task is on your to-do list, you don’t end up starting, because the short-term reward isn’t large enough to overcome the psychological cost of doing so.
Maybe you feel low energy. Maybe you have more urgent priorities. Maybe you’re insecure about whether you can do a good job. Maybe the task involves a bit of social awkwardness. It doesn’t matter the reason — you delay.
Unfortunately, this task is one that only gets more unpleasant over time.
For instance, maybe now you’re going to have to rush it and do a bad job, and you fear everyone is going to judge you negatively.
Or now that it’s late, you feel you have to do an especially great job to make up for it. Or whenever you do send it out, the late delivery is going to embarrass you, no matter how good it is. Or maybe you’re simply ashamed and annoyed with yourself that you haven’t finished already.
Either way, as time goes on, the task becomes even less appealing to work on. Even less appealing than it was the first day when it was already bad enough that you didn’t do it!
It’s now inevitable that — unless you’re rescued by a day when you feel especially energetic or a deadline that makes the costs of further delay intolerable — this is a task that you’re destined to put off until you yourself shuffle off this mortal coil.
Alright, almost everyone has experienced this horror-show.
There’s another important thing that occurs in the meantime. Each time you think about the task, you a) don’t start it, and b) feel a pang of guilt/shame/fear about your ever-more-procrastinated task.
Those bad feelings will probably get worse over time, as your situation makes you feel more and more ridiculous and ashamed. You feel so terrible, but even that’s not enough to make you start — what a joke of a person you are!
As a result, and this is the interesting thing, you’re also negatively reinforced for even thinking about this topic.
Gradually the thing you mentally associate with this task stops being what’s required to complete it. Or the reward of doing so. Or the reason you took it on in the first place.
Rather your only association becomes the flinching pain you feel whenever you accidentally remember it.
From this, your brain gradually learns that thinking about the task is the mental version of stubbing your toe and sets about finding creative ways to prevent the task you’re avoiding even coming into your conscious awareness.
For instance, you’ll avoid looking at your inbox, where your dreaded email awaits you, or make sure your eyes never slow down long enough to read its loathsome subject line.
After all, you won’t do the task, so why suffer the pain of thinking about it and your perpetual failure not to do it?
While on one level it’s quite funny, this psychological phenomenon is no joke. Most of us have had days or weeks ruined by an ugh task hanging over our head, pushed just out of mind but always haunting our stream of consciousness.
In serious cases it drives people into depressive episodes that steal months or years from their life.
At a social level the ugh problem is probably getting worse, due to the rise of email (anyone can add an unwanted to-do to your list), knowledge work (it’s less clear when you’ve finished something or whether you’ve done a good job), and remote work (at no point in the week do you get to feel there’s no way you could be doing your ugh task right now).
And pity poor PhD students whose programs seem designed to make their entire life one enormous Ugh Field.
I don’t have a perfect way to escape this mental flytrap but here are some things that might help:
1. Urgh Fields happen to basically everyone, even very conscientious people, so it’s worth trying to see the humour in this absurd design flaw in the human brain. There’s no more reason to feel ashamed about it than there is to feel ashamed of e.g. enjoying eating food.
It’s just how people are built and sadly there are no brain engineers around to roll out a patch to the human race. We have to find practical work-arounds instead.
2. Just recognising and labelling the Ugh Field phenomenon can make it less bad, because it’s an accurate systemic explanation for what’s going on, rather than a misleading personal one like “I’m hopeless and never get things done”.
3. Because you’ve been avoiding thinking about the problem, if you do think about it for a bit while keeping an open mind, you might quickly strike on a way to get out of the task, or a way to do a much shorter version of it.
For instance perhaps you could just email back something like: “Thanks for your patience on this. Unfortunately I don’t see how I’m going to be able to fit it into my schedule just now, is there anyone else who can take it on?”
4. If you think about it calmly, you may well find that the task actually isn’t as important as it has come to feel. The person you imagine is disgusted by your failure may only be 2/10 annoyed, or perhaps not even have noticed.
Remember, they’ve got plenty of their own stuff going on.
5. By the time something is deep in an Ugh Field, often it’s no longer the most productive thing you could be doing anyway. Especially relative to the willpower it now requires. So consider just deciding to deliberately drop it in favour of something else that’s more motivating.
Actively cross it off your to-do list. Throw away those New Yorkers you’ve been planning to read for months but never gotten to, or whatever else will be a nagging reminder of the task.
You have more valuable things to do; the task is gone.
6. Hire/ask someone else to do it.
E.g. if you’re procrastinating on your taxes, maybe it’s time to accept that it’s aversive enough that it’s simply worth paying a professional.
E.g. If you have to write an unpleasant and overdue email, get a friend or family member to draft it for you. They’ll probably find it way less awful, as for them it won’t be emotionally charged and marinated in shame.
7. This happens more to people with depression, anxiety, ADD, or other mental health and energy issues.
If Ugh Fields are a constant issue for you, it might be best to try tackling those underlying health and well-being issues first and foremost.
8. There’s all the normal literature on overcoming procrastination that is useful but which I won’t repeat here.
9. Over time learn to recognise tasks that are likely to end up in your ‘Ugh Field’.
The worst offenders are things that are kind-of unpleasant to do, get more unpleasant as you delay, and have no clear deadline or expiry date.
Before taking on any optional responsibilities, reflect on whether they’re likely to get ‘Ugh Fielded’. If they will, do everything you can to steer clear of them before you even start.
10. If you’re a line manager, talk periodically with the people you’re managing about whether anything at work has gotten ‘Ugh Fielded’.
If something has, don’t be judgemental and instead just find a way to give it to someone else.
There’s many reasons to do this: i) it probably won’t get done by the original person now, ii) if it is it will be done late or badly, iii) regardless it will make them miserable in the meantime, iv) because it’s fucking with your employee’s head, it’s going to cost you lots of other work they could do which you’d value more, and v) someone else can likely do it way easier anyway.
Hope this helps!