How to get boring tasks done

Use insights from psychology to stop procrastinate and start getting things done

Doesn’t matter if you’re a student, a startup founder or a middle manager at a huge corporation — you will most likely procrastinate sometime during your work week.

People do a lot of different things when they procrastinate, that is you postpone the stuff you really need to get done by doing something else. Sometimes these other stuff could be joyful activities like hanging out with friends, playing videogames or just chilling with a great podcast. However, most of the time people who procrastinate spend time on doing something called pseudo tasks. A pseudo task is a task that we percive as important but really is just an excuse for not doing what you should be doing. Classic pseudo tasks include:

  • Cleaning you house/apartment
  • Sorting files, clothes, book etc.
  • “Researching”, i.e. browsing the internet at random

On our e-learning site we have this amazing course on how to deal with procrastination. It’s written by the Swedish psychologist Alexander Rozental who also does research on procrastination among university students. The course is free but we thought we should share three insights from the course on how to deal with procrastination.

Alexander’s three steps on how to deal with procrastination

Identify the most important task of the day

One of the most common causes of procrastination is the fact that we have a hard time moving from intention to action. This is often due to our tendency to set goals based on our current ambitions rather than what we will actually want to do further ahead in time. This phenomenon is called projection bias, and is characterized by the assumption that our future selves, the ones who will actually follow through on our plans, will have the same preferences as we do here and now. The problem is, however, that when it’s time to get started our preferences have often changed, leading to procrastination.

The effects of projection bias can luckily be minimized by making sure to keep our promises. If we are to achieve this, setting goals for ourselves isn’t enough — we also need to establish some form of guarantee that we will get started. An efficient way of doing this is using phrases like “if…then” or “when…then”. For example: “when I get to the office at 9:00 I will write one page of the company report”. The important thing is to be as concrete as possible regarding which actions are necessary.

What to do
Take a few minutes to think about today’s work and identify one or a couple of tasks that have top priority. You’ll probably be surprised by the impact this simple exercise can have on the probability that you’ll actually get the most important things done by the end of the day!

Identify your focus thieves

Distractions are a common reason for procrastination — we get interrupted in our work. On many occasions it is not the burden of work that causes problems for us, but rather the fact that we feel like we are not in control of the situation. Repeatedly getting interrupted at work becomes another source of everyday stress.

“We check our email on average 50 times during a normal workday”

Research has shown that employees in the service industry manage to work on a task for at most eleven minutes before being distracted by something else. Some sources of distractions are beyond our control, such as working in an open plan office or needing to frequently talk to our coworkers. Other distractions are easier to control. For example, we check our email on average 50 times during a normal workday, which takes up a lot of time we could spend on other, more pressing matters.

What to do
By identifying what regularly makes you lose focus while working, you can lessen the risk of getting stuck on activities that compete with the things you actually need to finish. What is your biggest focus thief? Perhaps it’s Facebook, talkative co-workers, cat videos on Youtube or a phone that’s constantly beeping from text messages and notifications?

Take a couple of minutes to write down a list of your focus thieves.

Fusing — utilize the power of fun

Things that cause discomfort or boredom are often perceived as unnecessary or even threatening activities, which soon leads to us doing something else instead. Instead of forcing yourself to finish something that feels altogether unpleasant you can use rewards to boost yourself. Tasks we avoid can be associated with an activity that feels rewarding, in order to make them more appealing. This principle is called fusing, a term coined by Henry Murray, professor of psychology at Harvard University. By combining long term achievements with something that provides an immediate reward our work becomes more appealing, which in turn lessens the risk of procrastination.

What to do
You probably already apply the concept of fusing by combining things you need to get done with something you enjoy. It could be things like listening to music while you work, studying for your driver’s license at a nice café or working out with a good friend.

Now take a moment to think about today’s tasks. Are there any that feel especially boring? How can you apply fusing to make those tasks a bit more enjoyable?


If you liked the insights and exercises above please sign up for Alexander’s free online course!