4 Steps to Controlling Your Avoidance Patterns

By Steve McClatchy, President, Alleer Training & Consulting

How is working from home 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?

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 video, reaching out to a colleague to chat, or scrolling Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Sound familiar? These activities are fine when used as a reward for work completed, or a planned lunch break, but if a deadline is missed as a result they can cost you trust, credibility, your reputation, or worse.

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 obstacles to doing our work including workspace, noise, and time challenges, competing responsibilities, and any procrastination habits we might have.

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 do an online search 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 distraction, 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, without the focused environment of an office, 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. Structure Your Workspace. To be ultimately productive you need the right space, tools and location to help you. Is there anything you can change about your physical work environment that can help you to eliminate avoidance patterns? Are you in the right location? Is your desk facing the wrong way? Do you have everything you need at your fingertips? Do you have things at your fingertips that should be further away? Are you socially in a bad spot? Try some low volume classical music to drown out background noise and help you focus. You want to be available to your family or roommate when they need you but not for when they are trying to avoid their work.

    I have a client that gained 25 pounds since the pandemic began because his home workspace was in the kitchen. He spent a day creating a new space to work in his basement, bought a Wi-Fi booster, comfortable desk chair, added a second monitor, and voila! He found himself losing weight and being a lot more productive. Right now, consider your physical workspace and think about what you can change that would help you to be more productive.
  1. 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 and 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.
  1. 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 friend posted a photo on Facebook and tagged you. How hard is it to ignore the message and not open Facebook? Your friends and 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.
  1. 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 and often competing demands on our attention, 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. Less temptation, reduced stress, less wasted time, more personal time, and higher quality work can all be the results of managing your avoidance patterns. Your work is finished, now you can go grab a cookie.

Steve McClatchy

Steve McClatchy is a keynote speaker and author of the award winning New York Times Bestseller Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress & Lead by Example. Decide has enjoyed global success and has been translated into 11 languages including Chinese, Russian, Japanese, German and Spanish. In every speech Steve weaves insight, interaction, and actionable content with humor, inspiration, and motivation. Over the past 20 years Steve has worked with the most prominent organizations in the world including Google, Under Armour, Disney, John Deere, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Accenture, HP, Tiffany’s, Wells Fargo, Campbell’s Soup, and many teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB. He speaks frequently at Harvard, Wharton, and Chicago Booth. He has appeared on CNBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News, WSJ TV, and NBC’s The Today Show and has been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, WebMD, Oprah Magazine, Entrepreneur, and Investor’s Business Daily. Steve’s passion is for continuous improvement and believes that when we stop growing, learning, gaining experience, and achieving goals we stop living. If you would like to learn more about having Steve deliver a virtual or in-person presentation or workshop for your organization, team, or association, email

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