‘Ugh fields’, or why you can’t even bear to think about that task (Rob Wiblin)

by habryka1 min read11th Sep 202017 comments

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Aversion/Ugh FieldsRationality
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Rob Wiblin with more accessible explanation of the Ugh Field concept on Medium. Some quotes: 

The problem

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.

[...]

Limiting the damage

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.

[...]

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My peevish reaction to this is (sarcastically) "Finally, there's a 1400 word popularization of that 850 word blog post". I dunno why I found that so annoying. It does seem valuable to have multiple explanations available for good concepts

As a manager, I have to say it would NOT come off well for an employee to ask to simply not do a task they had been assigned because they had developed a psychological aversion to it. I agree that ugh fields exist and that there’s nothing shameful in suffering from one, but if this comes up in a work context you cannot just abandon the task.

Huh, my model of a good manager is that like 25% of your job is to manage and handle the ugh fields of the people you manage. Figuring out what kind of tasks different people are aversive to, and generally reallocating workloads when someone seems to not want to do a certain task feels to me like it's core to a managers toolkit.

Are you a manager or are you just speculating? I imagine different fields are different, but it has been my experience that people I manage are able to get things done without a lot of handholding, and while they probably have some “ugh fields” as I do too, they don’t let that stop them from getting the job done. Reassigning things constantly would have a big cost to the organization.

Would probably reassign something due to psychological aversion as a one-time thing, if a trusted senior person asked me to, but not for a new person. My advice to employees would be to be very hesitant about coming to management with a complaint that you can’t/don’t want to do a core part of your job.

I am doing a substantial amount of management work, though like, am myself pretty young so we are only talking about a total of 2-3 years of experience. I have mostly managed junior people over the course of my management career, though also a few people with 10+ years of industry experience. 

Maybe you are talking about management in some context where the tasks are already really well-defined? Or maybe a domain where peak performance doesn't really matter and people are really replaceable? Like, the experience of ugh fields is absolutely universal in every single person I have ever worked with, including people who have founded companies with hundreds of employees and that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or people with 20+ years of industry experience and a really strong get-shit-done attitude. 

Maybe they don't talk to you about their ugh fields? If they are doing a good job I am confident they will talk to someone else about it, or perform substantially worse if they don't have anyone to talk to about them.

Of course, people don't call them ugh-fields, and if you only work with people who have relatively narrowly defined responsibilities, then they probably self-selected out of having ugh-fields about the tasks they have been performing, but like, in the domains I've worked in where generalist skillsets are frequent and you constantly have novel challenges, you will inevitably run into someone being averse to a task that has to be done (like, having to give a public talk even though they usually do focused technical work, or having to write a long blogpost even though they usually don't write, or needing to navigate some conflict with a coworker even though they are usually super conflict averse). 

My experience would be that people generally have Ugh fields around tasks which no-one on the team likes (e.g. report writing). I can't reassign such tasks without being unfair to the people who are dealing well with such jobs.

I would agree that mentioning to a manager that you're finding something aversive is basically fine as long as you're more looking for support than reassignment (although this might be different in different fields) and that a manager should encourage that. 

As an example one employee found that people constantly interrupted him and this made getting into the flow of report writing super hard so we blocked off a day a week to allow him to catch up without interruptions.

I guess to some extent it's knowing what's possible in your context and knowing how flexible your manager is able/willing to be.

>I would agree that mentioning to a manager that you're finding something aversive is basically fine as long as you're more looking for support than reassignment.

I agree with this. Managers can do some productivity/performance coaching and find ways to help employees, although as an employee I wouldn't want to be the one who required the MOST help, unless I was brand new. And "help me find a way to work around this problem" is going to come off a lot better than "please reassign this because I don't wanna."

Hmm, I guess maybe I am more lucky. It has happened reasonably frequently to me that someone gets an ugh-field around a task that some other person doesn't find stressful (examples: organizing spreadsheets, calling businesses, having meetings, writing long explanatory blogposts).

But I do agree that reassignment is definitely much less frequent than just talking through whatever is aversive and usually one can find some other solution to the problem (in my experience pair-programming or pair-writing is often pretty successful here).

Maybe I need to be more heterogenous in my hiring! 

I hadn't heard of pair-writing but it sounds like it could work well in my context.

While I can see that there are plenty of people who don't like report writing and would rather prefer to do other things, it's not my model that most people have ugh-fields around them (that it's very painful to think about doing the task).

Is your model of people different or are you overgeneralizing the term?

My intended point was that if one person has an ugh-field around something then it is often a generally unenjoyable task. Although other people don't have ugh-fields around the task, it still seems unfair (and would likely lead to bad team dynamics) to reassign it to someone else who merely dislikes the task.

EDIT: wrote this before reading someone else's comment, we don't disagree as much as I thought!

>Maybe they don't talk to you about their ugh fields? If they are doing a good job I am confident they will talk to someone else about it, or perform substantially worse if they don't have anyone to talk to about them.

I think you are right about this, and no, it's not a job with narrowly defined responsibilities. I don't disagree that very successful people can have "ugh fields," but in my mind talking about psychological problems is something you would do with a friend, family member, mentor, or therapist, not with a boss. Like other people have said, if the discussion is framed as "help me find a way to work around this," it might be okay to bring up. But I wouldn't go to my boss and ask to get out of a task because I procrastinated so long I developed a psychological aversion to it! And it puts the boss in a pretty bad position too, because if the thing has to get done they then have to get someone else to do it. It's probably going to take the new person longer to do it than it would have for Person 1 to just finish it, and then the boss has to explain to the client why it's late. And the next time there's an important assignment, that boss is going to wonder whether they can trust you with it or whether you'll just get halfway through and then abandon it.

Having to find a way to get yourself to do things that feel aversive to you seems to me to be a vital life skill. Some things that have helped me with "ugh fields" are the 'eat the frog' technique, i.e. do the aversive thing before anything else, doing the task with another person to keep me honest, and using artificial motivation-boosting tools like energizing music or lots of caffeine.

My advice to employees would be to be very hesitant about coming to management with a complaint that you can’t/don’t want to do a core part of your job.

Ugh fields usually come up when people are faced with new challenges that they are not used to dealing with. Plenty of times that's not a core part of the job. 

I guess I've had bad luck on this, because ugh fields tend to come up for me around talking to strangers on the phone, and I have to do that most days with my job! And yet, not to brag, but I do it, and I'm glad I can make myself do it.

This should be much more common if you have to manage volunteers than paid workers, probably.

Is there a more standard terminology in psychology for this phenomenon? "Ugh field" feels LW-cultish.

I don't recall encountering one at least, I think psychologists would just say something like "X feels aversive".