First Let Me Grab a Cookie – 4 Steps to Controlling Your Avoidance Patterns

How is working from home during this pandemic going for you? Do you feel a sense of increased productivity with that extra commuting time back in your day? Or do you feel as if you are working all the time now? Let’s be honest. Is work taking longer at home than it did in the office? Could it be that work is expanding at home to fill the time you have for it?

Because of COVID-19, we have come face to face – not with our co-workers – but with a transformation in organizational working practices and acceptance of full-time home-based work. For some employees productivity has increased; for many others there are pitfalls.

Working at home harbors many distractions. When an unstructured environment meets with stressful, unknown, demanding, or simply new work tasks, avoidance patterns may arise. Faced with difficult or tedious work, we feel uncomfortable and frequently turn to things that make us feel good but are counterproductive to getting our work done in a reasonable amount of time.

What does that look like? Suppose you have some research to do for one of your projects. You find this task to be difficult and unpleasant. The process drains you… it immobilizes you. That’s where you will find your avoidance.

So what do you do? Just before you dive into doing some research you go to the kitchen and grab a cookie. A “cookie” can represent anything you go to that’s easy, comfortable, entertaining, fun, addictive, or makes you feel good. Your “cookie” could be checking email or your text messages, scrolling the news, watching a YouTube or TikTok video, reaching out to a colleague to chat, playing a game on your phone, or scrolling Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Sound familiar? These activities are fine when used as a reward for work completed, or a planned lunch break, but when used as an escape from responsibility they will cost you time, peace of mind, and if addiction level is reached, eventually they will cost you your job.

In an office setting, there are boundaries, structure, and people who hold you directly accountable for your time and results. At home, the unstructured environment can trap you in a web of avoidance patterns. You are asked to accomplish the work in isolation from your coworkers and there is no one looking over your shoulder. Not only are you isolated from your previously familiar work environment and routine, but many of us also have family or roommates working or attending classes at home which creates more ways to avoid work.

When I hear people who are working from home say, “I’m working 24/7. I’m working all the time now,” I ask them to check with their small inner voice to discover the bigger external reason. Are they really working all day? Or are avoidance patterns throughout the day elongating the amount of time the work takes making the tasks longer, leading to unproductive days or longer work hours?

This concept is captured in the adage known as Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available. Put simply, the amount of work required to complete a task adjusts, usually increasing, to the time available for its completion.

For example, your supervisor assigns a writing assignment due tomorrow morning. You write a little then check Amazon for a gift you have to buy…write a little then see what the stock market is doing that day… write a little then scroll LinkedIn because you received a connection request…write a little more then wander to the kitchen for a cookie…write a little more then walk the dog. You then proceed to spend the afternoon yielding to avoidance behavior in a way that furtively mixes into your day. The result is that you did not finish the assignment and you wind up “working late” to get it done.

While procrastination and avoidance patterns are siblings, avoidance patterns spring from the well of what makes you feel good. You are faced with a difficult assignment at home so you escape from the demanding work and seek a little lift with these avoidance behaviors. The problem is that a one hour writing assignment became the reason you have to work tonight instead of having the night to enjoy at home.

What are your go-to avoidance patterns? Here are four steps to resist these patterns and revitalize your productivity.

  1. Be Aware. When you notice an avoidance pattern coming on, stop yourself and create a structure that is more productive. I have a client that gained 25 pounds during the earlier days of the COVID-19 crisis. He knew exactly what his go-to avoidance pattern was – it was located in the kitchen. His “Aha!” moment led to setting up an office in his basement to prevent proximity to the kitchen and his poor avoidance decision of reaching for food to feel good. He decided to commit to one location, structure the amount of time he spent in his workplace, and establish a boundary that resulted in greater peace of mind and productivity.
  2. Break Tasks Down into Baby Steps. Break down what you are avoiding into baby steps and take the first step. Very often we put one item on a to-do list that actually has many steps involved, then we become overwhelmed, and never get started. Years of various studies in psychology and biology tell us that initiating a small step toward progress can release endorphins, the chemicals produced by the body to relieve stress and pain. We can tap into this endorphin release when we need motivation, energy, and focus. When we execute a baby step toward completing something, a small burst of positive emotion results, we feel a sense of accomplishment and confidence that we can tackle the next task in the process. We get a little lift and a push toward progress. Don’t wait for work to attack you. YOU must break it down into manageable pieces and attack the work if you want to benefit from endorphins.
  3. Avoid Others’ Avoidance Patterns. Don’t let other people drag you into their avoidance patterns. For instance, your coworker is not engaged in their work at home so they text you “Hi, what are you doing?” which means I don’t want to do my work and I’d rather talk to you. Or you receive a notification that a colleague posted a photo on Facebook and tagged you. How hard is it to ignore the message and not open Facebook? Your coworkers have now pulled you into their avoidance of work. If you take a peek, use your phone to set an alarm that allows you no more than five or ten minutes to get out of the unproductive activity.
  4. Switch. When you notice an avoidance pattern taking over, switch to something easier that is also productive. Don’t escape. Find another work-related activity that is easier and switch rather than passing time with an unproductive choice or mental distractions that derail the entire workday. Save rewards until you have committed to doing a percentage of the work, then reward yourself.

To ensure productivity and efficiency in the home-based workplace where there is less structure, we need to address avoidance patterns and recognize them as decision-making moments. Repeatedly succumbing to these avoidance patterns is the same as making a decision to waste small amounts of time throughout each work day. These small chunks of time accumulate quickly. I have said before, your time is your life. You probably wouldn’t purposely make the decision to waste any of it. Actively making decisions about how you will spend your time, and having strategies to recalibrate when you stray off course will help you take control of your day. This includes being aware of your avoidance patterns and making decisions to control them so that you can efficiently finish your work on time and produce the results you want, even at home. If you can accomplish this, the extra time in your day that you don’t have to spend commuting becomes actual added personal time in your day…imagine that!

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