What things will you do this week, not because you particularly want to, but because you feel you have to? For many people, this probably includes everything work related, from waking up early in the morning, to gritting teeth through a rush hour commute, to trying to stay awake through a particularly torturous meeting. Whatever obligation you are dreading this week, would it help you get through it if you remembered that, strictly speaking, you don’t have to do it?
As Sheldon said on The Big Bang Theory: “We have to take in nourishment, expel waste and breathe in enough oxygen to keep our cells from dying. Everything else is purely optional”. It’s meant as a humorous (and, to other characters on the show, frustrating) perspective, but perhaps it is one that might help us persevere through unpleasant tasks.
Take a very simple task, like completing a word search puzzle when you don’t know what words are in it. Even when you’re getting paid for each word you find, the search will start to frustrate or bore you after a few minutes. Sooner or later, you’re going to decide it’s time to quit and move on. To make it “later” rather than “sooner”, it helps to remember that you had a choice about beginning the search to begin with.
This was a task that researchers gave a few hundred volunteers. The volunteers who were only presented a choice between searching for famous actors’ names and capital city names kept at the search for almost 5 minutes before deciding to move on. Other volunteers who were presented a choice between those same two puzzles and a third option of not completing a word search at all, however, kept at it for a few minutes longer, only quitting just shy of the 7 minute mark. Even though they had been reminded that completing the word search at all was entirely optional, they didn’t use that information to decide to give up at the first difficult moment, but actually stuck it out a few minutes longer.
How could remembering that you don’t have to do something perversely make you keep at it longer? The theory here is that by explicitly deciding not to “opt out” of a task, we think about the task we are doing in a different way. Think about this with another kind of choice, between two desserts. If you are just deciding between a decadent chocolate cake and a simple fruit salad, you will probably think about all the ways that fruit salad falls short of the moist, chocolatey cake. However, if you were reminded that “no dessert” was also a third choice of its own, you might automatically think about the ways that a fruit salad is a sweet and tasty treat in its own right and certainly better than no dessert at all. This explains another experiment where volunteers who made their choices in two steps (first, “Do you want to do the word search puzzle, or not?” and only then “Which word search puzzle do you want to do?”) weren’t any more likely to stick with the task, because they didn’t have that side-by-side comparison between their chosen task and doing nothing.
Sadly, the analogy to choosing a healthy dessert over an unhealthy one doesn’t match with the experiment shows exactly; the research was based on how long you stuck with your chosen task, not which task you chose. Most of the tough decisions I get faced with are between doing something unappealing that’s good for me – like working out or eating healthy – with “do nothing” is the happy default response. The biggest question mark in this study is what happens when opting out would be a dangerous option to present, because it would appeal to most people. Take working out; trying to reframe a choice between “go for a run, or lift weights” to “go for a run, lift weights, or don’t workout” might backfire; instead of helping me make it all the way throughout whatever workout I choose, it might just make me flop back on the couch.
But the reminder that opting out is technically a choice might help at the office. There, the tasks all have to get done, even if they aren’t thrilling, and it’s a question of which one will be tackled right now. Thinking of your to do list as “Do I want to start put that proposal together, or arranging the agenda for that meeting?” might feel like choosing between the lesser of two evils, and slowly sap morale over the day. Automatically adding a third option, “…or do neither of those things, and eventually find myself unemployed and looking for a new career?” might help put a more positive spin on whichever task you choose, or at least help motivate you to get it done.
Schrift, R.Y., & Parker, J.R. (2014). Staying the course: the option of doing nothing and its impact on postchoice persistence. Psychological Science, 25 (3), 772-780 PMID: 24452603