How to Stop Procrastinating on Mundane Tasks: 5 Ways to Get the Boring, Unchallenging, and Repetitive Tasks Done
Formatting documents, filling in spreadsheets, answering emails – we all face mundane tasks that bore us but need to be done.
While delaying them for a bit is perhaps inevitable, we need to get them out of the way sooner or later, so we can focus our energy fully on purposeful and fun activities.
But how do you do it? Here are five strategies I use to get boring, unchallenging, and repetitive tasks done.
One thing I’ll do is reward myself before the task – allow myself to watch some YouTube videos, eat a snack, make another cup of coffee, or take a nootropic.
The conversation going on in my head: “Ugh, that task is so boring and pointless. Oh well. I’ll do something enjoyable beforehand. Relax a bit. Have some fun. Grab a snack. Then make another cup of coffee, and get it over with.”
I’m bargaining with myself. And my experience tells me that it works and that I can trust myself. I often combine this with the next strategy to make sure I begin with the task after my pre-rewards.
2) Set Implementation Intentions
When I allow myself some pre-rewards, I make sure to set an implementation intention for beginning the task within a reasonable time frame, such as in twenty minutes. I usually use an exact time for that, like so:
At 5 pm, I begin answering emails.
This works. I don’t know what else to say. When 5 pm hits, I begin the task of answering emails. I might even start earlier, because I know there’s no way out anyway.
Sometimes, I’ll set additional implementation intentions, such as:
When I feel like giving up, then I just ignore it and continue working.
When I feel like abandoning the task, then I just ignore the urge and continue working.
3) Restrict the Time and Put a Reward at the End
When I have too much time on my hands, I find it hard to begin uncomfortable tasks. My mind sees no end to it. It feels like a bottomless pit, like I could put endless hours into the task. Unconsciously, this makes an already dreaded task even more aversive.
That’s why I create a deadline for myself. Ideally, I schedule a deeply rewarding activity. Knowing I’ll be able to see my girlfriend, play a game of tennis, or grab a beer in two hours' time, I find it easier to get started and work diligently for the set period.
(There’s also Parkinson’s law which states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”)
4) Think Concretely
As explained in this article, thinking in concrete terms (asking what and how we do things, focusing on the details and means rather than ends) can help us take action, while thinking in abstract terms (asking why we do something, focusing on the big picture and ends rather than means) can keep us stuck in overthinking. Note that for other purposes, such as resisting temptations or getting motivated, abstract thinking would be favorable.
Here are some examples I’ve used recently (not necessarily on mundane tasks):
- To hoover the floor – get the vacuum cleaner out of the closet, plug it in, press the ‘on’ button, begin vacuuming.
- To meditate – sit down, play the guided meditation, follow the instructions.
- To begin writing – walk to my room, open up the laptop, press the start button, load a word document, start typing.
It takes time to get used to switching between the two modes. Over time, though, it becomes habitual and adds another tool to your productivity and willpower arsenal.
5) Get it Done “the Dysfunctional Way”
“Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible, then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers.” – Franz Kafka
When all else fails, I’ll wiggle through in admittedly dysfunctional ways. Namely, I’ll use smart caffeine (coffee + l-theanine), modafinil, ephedrine, kratom, or some other focus-boosting and mind-numbing substances.
The idea is to artificially create high levels of energy, focus, and motivation, while numbing thoughts and emotions that interfere with beginning the task.
While this is not a long-term solution, it’s the easiest way to “just get it over with.” It’s not healthy or sustainable, but it gets the job done. And if you feel bad for having to rely on such dysfunctional ways, check out Mason Curry’s excellent book, Daily Rituals, which details the routines of some of the most successful creatives the world has seen over the last four decades – famous poets, painters, scientists, novelists, and philosophers.
The book teaches you that these A-players relied on dysfunctional strategies as well. Sigmund Freud, for example, heavily relied on cigars, “which he smoked continually, going through as many as twenty a day from his mid-twenties until near the end of his life.” William James “used chloroform to put himself to sleep.” Ayn Rand used a drug called Benzedrine and relied on “amphetamines for the next three decades, even as her overuse led to mood swings, irritability, emotional outbursts, and paranoia – traits Rand was susceptible to even without drugs.”
I give more examples and explain the strategy in greater detail in this article.
There you have it. Five strategies I use for getting the repetitive, unchallenging, and monotonous tasks out of the way. Now I’d love to hear from you – what do you do to get mundane tasks done?
My bete noir is preparing and sending out about 100 invoices to customers in the first few days of each month. I should love it, because that’s how we get paid! Plus the faster I do it the quicker we’ll get paid, making the next round easier (because I don’t to track as many payments still hanging over form the previous month). But it is a reasonably big job and it’s super repetitive and boring. Ideally if I’m really focused I can get it all done in a day or two, but sometimes it stretches out over a week or more!
My best tactic for it has been to create a ridiculously detailed subtask list, and each month when I sit down to do the invoices I open the Word document, highlight the whole thing, then unhighlight each step as I complete it. The highlighting and unhighlighting is fun and gives me a visual sense of accomplishment, and the list makes it feel less “scary” because I know exactly what to do and how to do it (I mean, I do know how to do this job after years of doing it each month, but using the subtask list makes it so I don’t have to think about it – just follow the instructions).
That sounds like an excellent strategy, Angela. Thank you so much for sharing. I actually do the sub-task thing as well sometimes 🙂
I love #5 lol. I will never feel bad about popping my Adderall again!