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How to stop abandoning the most boring to-do's on your list, according to science

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Key Points
  • Adding a more stimulating activity to a mundane task might reduce boredom and make you less likely to abandon the chore, according to a recent study.
  • Researchers call the concept "tangential immersion."
  • "You should be able to compartmentalize and keep doing the tasks simultaneously because one is not going to interfere with the other," one expert says.

Updating your resume, answering emails, sitting through a lengthy workplace training video — these are all horribly boring tasks. They are also important ones, and demand at least some attention now and then.

If you find yourself dragging out life's more mundane to-do's, adding a more stimulating activity to the task could make you less likely to abandon the chore, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

The logic is that the less bored you are, the more likely you are to stick with an activity. Researchers call the concept "tangential immersion."

Not all tasks pair well together

The key to tangential immersion is to make sure the tasks pair well together, and not all of them do.

"Five experiments across a range of low-attention behaviors (e.g., toothbrushing, coordination exercise) demonstrate that concurrently performing a task that occupies excess attention (e.g., reading, listening), delays boredom and increases persistence," the paper says.

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Which tasks you can do at the same time might vary from person to person, says Raquel Benbunan-Fich, a professor of information systems at Baruch College who studies multi-tasking. Take working and listening to music, for example.

"If I'm listening to music, I cannot focus on what I'm trying to study," she says. "The music takes over my brain in a way. Some people just need the music for relaxation. It's kind of in the background and helps them focus."

How to pair tasks effectively

Pair tasks that use different senses, Benbunan-Fich suggests. "I find folding laundry very boring," she says. "If I watch TV while I'm folding laundry, I probably can fold all the laundry I want."

One task is using her hands while the other is using her eyes and ears.

If you need to listen to a training video, you might be able to do so while answering emails. If you need to fill out an expense report, you might be able to do so while listening to a podcast.

But you may not want to pair together tasks that both require you to use your hands, say, by folding laundry during a work call where you ought to take notes.

"You should be able to compartmentalize and keep doing the tasks simultaneously because one is not going to interfere with the other," she says.

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