‘Ugh Fields’, or why you can’t even bear to think about that task
‘Ugh Fields’ are a really useful concept. The existing explanation is written for a niche audience, so I’ll have a go at explaining them 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. Whatever the reason — you delay.
Unfortunately, this task is one that only gets more unpleasant over time.
Maybe now you’re going to have to rush and do a bad job, and you fear everyone will 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 regardless. Or perhaps you’re simply ashamed and annoyed with yourself that you haven’t finished it 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!
So 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 shuffle off this mortal coil.
Alright, almost everyone has experienced this horror-show of a situation.
But there’s another very important thing that happens 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 usually only 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 get you to start — what an embarrassment of a person you are!
As a result — and this is the interesting bit — you’re constantly being negatively reinforced for even thinking about the 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 this task is the mental version of stubbing your toe. Just as your brain learns to avoid whacking your foot into things, it learns to find creative ways to prevent the task you’re avoiding rising into your conscious awareness.
For instance, you’ll avoid looking at your inbox, where the dreaded email awaits, or make sure your eyes never slow down long enough to read its loathsome subject line.
You’ll think as little as possible about people who might remind you of the task. And whenever you do remember it you’ll immediately try to focus on some other distraction instead.
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 this behaviour is quite funny, as a psychological phenomenon it’s no joke. Most of us have had days or weeks ruined by an ugh task hanging over our head, pushed out of mind but always haunting our stream of consciousness, sitting just out of view.
In severe cases, it drives people into depressive episodes that rob them of months or years of their life.
At a social level, the ugh problem is probably getting worse due to the rise of emails and text messaging (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 relax knowing there’s no way you could be doing your ugh task right now).
And pity poor PhD students whose entire programs seem designed to make their life one enormous Ugh Field.
Limiting the damage
I don’t have a perfect way to escape this mental flytrap, but these things might help:
1. It’s worth trying to see the humour in this absurd design flaw in the human brain. Ugh Fields happen to everyone, even very conscientious people.
There’s no more reason to feel ashamed about them than there is to feel ashamed that you enjoy 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 just have to find practical workarounds instead.
2. Simply recognising and labelling the Ugh Field phenomenon can make it less harmful because it provides 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 entirely, or if not, do a shorter version of it.
For example, you could 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, like you, they’ve got plenty of their own stuff going on.
5. Usually, by the time something is deep in an Ugh Field, it’s no longer the most productive thing you could be doing anyway. Especially relative to the willpower it will now require. So consider deliberately dropping it in favour of something 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 get 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.
For example, if you’re procrastinating on your taxes, maybe it’s time to accept it’s worth paying a professional.
Or if you have to write an unpleasant and overdue email, get a friend or family member to draft it for you. It will likely be much less unpleasant for them because it won’t be emotionally charged and marinated in shame.
7. Ugh Fields occur more in people with depression, anxiety, ADD, and other mental health and energy issues. If they’re 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 the usual large literature on overcoming procrastination. I won’t repeat it all 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, simply find a way to give it to someone else.
There are many reasons to do this: i) it probably won’t get done by the original person now, ii) if it is it will be either late or bad, iii) regardless it will make them miserable in the meantime, iv) which means it’s going to cost you a lot of other work they could be doing — work you’d probably value more, and v) someone else can likely do it way easier now anyhow.
Hope this helps!
If you enjoyed the above, you might also like my article A simple checklist for overcoming life and career setbacks, my podcast, or my other research for 80,000 Hours.