Have a boring task to do at work? Don’t just plow through it

New research suggests toggling between boring and more interesting tasks is a good way to structure workdays.
New research suggests toggling between boring and more interesting tasks is a good way to structure workdays.


New research looks at how persevering through tedious work can make you less productive in subsequent tasks. Here’s an alternative approach.

It’s hard for most people to avoid at least some monotony at work. Complete an Excel. Send a perfunctory email. Read a perfunctory email.

Workers often think the most productive approach when confronted with mind-numbing tasks is to try to fight off the boredom and persist in completing them in one sitting. But new research suggests that may not be the best strategy. Struggling to persevere at boring tasks might actually be hurting workers’ ability to be productive at subsequent tasks.

According to the research, instead of trying to power through, workers would be better off staggering boring tasks with tasks they find meaningful throughout the day.

When workers try to ignore or suppress that boredom, it usually leads to mind-wandering and a decrease in productivity later in the day,

Boredom serves an important purpose, much like pain, says Casher Belinda, an assistant professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and a co-author of the research. “If you put your hand on a hot stove, that pain is telling you take it off," he says. Similarly, boredom signals to us that we should stop what we’re doing and find an alternative use of our mind.

How bored are you now?

Belinda and his fellow researchers designed a series of experiments and studies—first, to find out whether productivity suffers when workers suppress feelings of boredom, and, if it does suffer, what could be done to fix that.

In one study, 406 workers in a variety of occupations were asked to wear special watches that pinged at intervals during their workday for one week. Each time the device would ping, the workers were asked to rate their boredom levels, the importance of the work at hand, how well they were concentrating and how productive they were feeling.

“Our findings were sort of like whack-a-mole," Belinda says. “If we try to push boredom down now, we feel the consequences in our attention and productivity later in the same day."

Next the researchers tested whether performing “meaningful" tasks reduced the effects of boredom on mind-wandering and productivity in subsequent tasks. They recruited 206 undergraduates who were randomly assigned to watch either a “high boredom" six-minute video featuring a man explaining types of paint, or a “low boredom" video in which extreme-sports athletes performed stunts accompanied by high-energy music.

Members of each group were then told to spend three minutes writing an essay that would be used to train one of two algorithms: a “meaningful" algorithm that would help autistic children, or one that would simply be used for another research paper. All participants were told that the algorithm would “learn" the most based on how many unique words their essays incorporated.

Spillover effect

The paint-watchers on average used fewer unique words and experienced more mind-wandering than those test subjects who watched the extreme-sports video. “If you were really bored by that first task, you were less focused and less productive on that second task," says Belinda. However, participants who watched the boring video didn’t show the same lapses in attention and productivity when they were told that the essay was going to help build a consequential application.

“That spillover effect of boredom on future tasks was attenuated by the perceived meaningfulness of the second task," Belinda says.

So, what’s the takeaway for employees and companies? Belinda suggests that individual employees look at each day holistically, dividing tasks that need to get done into “boring" and “meaningful" buckets, and structuring those eight hours so that they toggle between the two. “When a worker engages with something that’s meaningful to them, that can reorient their attention and replenish their energy," Belinda says.

Managers, too, can be part of the solution. “They can explain that trying to power through boring tasks isn’t necessarily the best approach for anyone or for the organization," he says. Managers can also encourage employees to do some daily planning. “Inspire them to think about how different tasks are likely to affect their emotions and attention, and to plan accordingly," he says.

Heidi Mitchell is a writer in Chicago and London.

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