3 Ways to Make Boring or Hard Work Easier to Do
Do you struggle to stick with challenging projects?
Can you stay curious when you do tedious tasks?
How do you deal with boring, hard things you have to do?
Habits, routines and rituals help you automate positive behavior and actions on a daily basis. You do things with little effort or thought. You repeat them because you’ve been rewarded in the past.
But habits are not enough to perform at your peak. There will be times when you will have to do boring or hard things that take uphill effort. You can’t delegate them and you can’t get rid of them. You actually have to work through them because they are tied to an important goal or a bigger purpose.
All projects and tasks can get tedious, especially when they lose their novelty. For me, making YouTube videos, playing piano and reading books are fun and rewarding. But, sometimes, they feel like a huge chore.
To stay motivated, you need to have drive, goals and grit, says Steven Kotler in his book Art of Impossible.
Grit is motivation at its best – the energy to push through not just one difficult task but years of many difficult tasks. It comes with the habit of ferocity, where you can rise to every challenge. You lean into difficulties.
This is Episode 51. 3 Ways to Make Boring or Hard Work Easier to Do. Welcome to The Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
So how can you make the impossible possible? If you can make boring, hard work easier to do, that’s more than half the battle.
Now I’ll share three ways to do just that.
The first way is to pick the right task to do in a given moment. The task itself should be ideal for your current level of focus and energy, which often depends on the time of the day and your natural rhythm. You also want to consider the amount of time available and the context - like whether you’re in a quiet office or in a noisy coffee shop.
Peak performance occurs when you’re in a state of flow.
Renowned psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as the optimal experience in which you’re so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
You do not stay in flow, but cycle through it. To reach a state of flow, you move through three stages. The first stage is struggle: you’re loading the brain with information and the prefrontal cortex part of your brain is hyperactive. You feel frustration and resistance as you grow beyond your current knowledge, abilities and skills.
The second stage is release: you’re taking your mind off the problem and allowing the default network part of your brain to take over. You relax and let go.
Stage three is the flow state itself. Aim for the ideal challenge-skills ratio to trigger flow. The task has to slightly exceed your skills set. If it’s too easy, you lose focus and get bored. If the task is too hard, you become overwhelmed and anxious.
Kotler writes the flow channel is the “spot where the task is hard enough to make us stretch but not hard enough to make us snap.”
To do high leverage work that takes deep concentration, I’ll set a morning time block for it, when I have fewer distractions or interruptions, or have more willpower to resist them.
High focus blocks are for writing, video shooting and audio recording projects . Sometimes I’ll also do deep work in the late afternoon, between 2 and 6 pm. By then, I’ve recovered from my afternoon slump and gotten a second wind of creative energy.
Working on a writing project for 2 to 4 hours straight – whether it’s writing a productivity article or writing a legal brief – is not unusual for me. In this time block, I’m not checking text messages, answering phone calls, responding to emails, or scrolling social media.
In a focus block, I’m usually at my desk with all the tools. I have the keychron K2 keyboard, Logitech MX master 2S mouse, dual monitors from Lenovo, a Taotronics desk lamp with several brightness levels, and an ergonomic Steelcase Gesture chair. I sometimes keep a notepad or my e-ink Remarkable 2 tablet on my desk to jot down random ideas that come up while I’m in a focused block.
With training and practice, you can move from being highly distractable to highly focused. You can develop the focus muscle to concentrate on boring, hard things. If you’re not used to doing focused work in 2 to 4-hour blocks, start smaller. You might begin with 15-minute blocks in the first week, and then build to 25-minute blocks in the second week. Keep leveling up until 2 to 4- hour focus blocks become doable.
In a 24-hour cycle, there is a 90-to-120-minute cycle of rest and activity in the brain. Due to the mind-body’s ultradian rhythm, it’s said that 90-to 120-minute blocks of focused work followed by 20 minutes of rest is ideal for most people.
You don’t want to work until you’re depleted. Diminishing returns will start to creep in if you go too far beyond your threshold. This is when the rate of increase in work leads to a decrease in marginal gains of output.
Leave some fuel in the tank. Set a timer if you tend to overwork. Your brain uses 20% of your energy, even though it’s only 2% of your body weight. That’s why you can feel so exhausted if you’ve been sitting and working at your desk all day. You’re more distracted and impulsive and less focused and deliberate when your brain is in overdrive.
Take a real break before it’s too late. Have a cup of your favorite drink, go for a walk, stretch, listen to some music, or have a conversation with a friend or colleague.
Some tasks are easy and can be very boring to do. Emails are a necessary part of my being a solo lawyer with a law firm to run. Each email might only take a few seconds or minutes to process. But because I get so many on any given day, they collectively eat up a lot of time.
So, I batch them in designated time blocks. It usually takes me 1 to 2 days to respond to an email, unless it involves a true emergency- which is very rare. I tend to process emails in the late afternoon, after lunch or in the late morning, right before lunch. By that point, I’ve already done at least one high-cognitive task in the morning.
Experiment to determine what challenge-skills balance and work-rest ratio match best with your rhythm. If the task is too boring, batch it with other tasks. If it’s too hard, break it down into more doable mini-tasks.
The second way is to keep the right mindset for lifelong learning.
To learn and develop any new skill, it’s better to have a growth mindset than a fixed mindset. Even if you have natural ability and talent, you will more easily give up if you have a negative attitude toward failures and setbacks.
If you love learning, you’re usually more interested in reading books. You get more value and performance boosters from reading a book than from reading blogs and articles. As Kotler writes, “Books are the most radically condensed from of knowledge on the planet.”
If you love learning, you’ll be more able to master the skill of learning. This is a meta-skill for achieving success on your terms.
In his book, The Art of Learning, author Josh Waitzkin describes the two modes of learning theories: entity versus incremental theories of intelligence. Entity theorists think, I am smart at this. Ingrained ability determines the level of success or failure. Intelligence or skill is fixed.
Incremental theorists think, "I got it because I worked hard.” Effort determines the level of success or failure. Intelligence or skill can grow.
The incremental approach to learning allows you to take on risk, add novelty and uncertainty, but not too much or too fast.
Learning to play a new piano piece is hard for me. I did not know how to play at all until I was well into my adulthood, after I was done with law school. Despite years of lessons and practice, I will not achieve mastery as a pianist. But I’m way better than when I first started out.
Plus, playing the piano gets the creative juices flowing. I’ve enjoyed learning to play some of my favorite songs by heart. I also find that the focus and patience I build in playing music applies to many other fields of endeavor.
When you have a growth mindset, you’re more willing to do hard work to learn, get better and maximize your potential. You keep your brain sharp, boost your confidence, and build skills for new opportunities.
The third way is to choose the right turf. Not all great work occurs in an office with a closed door. You might just need to switch environments to get creative, motivated and inspired. Maybe go to your living room and try to do some work on your lap top while sitting on the couch. Or maybe go outside to get some fresh air.
If you find a task boring or hard, it might be due to the space you’re in. Is the environment conducive to the type of thinking you seek to engage? This is one advantage that remote workers have over workers who have to go to a shared office space.
I’ve run my law firm remotely from my home office since I started it in 2014. As a mother of two young children, I would have a much lower level of flexibility and freedom if I had chosen to open a physical office. I know this because I used to have to go to a Downtown Minneapolis office in my prior lawyer role.
If I ever wanted to hire an associate or grow a team, I would likely still continue with the remote work setting. I’m just way more focused, productive and creative when I can choose the space for the type of thinking I need to do.
That said, when I worked in Downtown Minneapolis, I would often take walks through the skyway system to clear my head and get ideas to percolate. There are always little things you can do about your workspace.
You need both focused and diffused thinking modes to make neural connections and grasp new concepts.
Focused thinking is for understanding a problem, identifying key facts, analyzing data, and creating solutions. Being at your desk is usually best for this kind of deep, heads down work.
Diffused thinking is for mind wandering without a plan. It’s dreaming, incubating and not thinking deliberately about any one thing. I get most of my topic ideas for podcast episodes and YouTube videos when I’m driving in my car or taking a car ride.
Walking around from room to room in my home or doing mindless chores also help. Most of my content is already scribbled in a note pad, on an index card, or on my e-ink tablet by the time I sit down to record a podcast or video.
There’s also divergent thinking and convergent thinking. You need both to ask the right questions, solve complex problems, and generate ideas that are original, meaningful, valuable and practical.
Divergent thinking asks, “Why not?” Convergent thinking asks, “Why?”
Divergent thinking draws on imagination and intuition. It involves curiosity, originality & novelty; fluency (which is how many ideas were generated); imagination & Ideation; flexibility & Adaptability, and risk taking.
It considers the big picture. It is more about exploring what could be.
Convergent thinking relies on reason and logic. It involves subject knowledge & expertise; focus & concentration; intelligence & aptitude; and risk reduction.
It is narrow and focused. It is more about capitalizing on what is.
In his book, My Creative Space, author Donald Rattner gives 48 tactics to design your ideal environment to spark ideas. Here are a few.
Tactic #3 is to work under a lofty ceiling (ten feet or higher). When I’m brainstorming ideas, I’ll usually go to my kitchen or family room, where the ceiling is higher than what’s in my office.
Tactic #4 is to take in a view. A windowed environment reduces mental fatigue and promotes a sense of freedom. If possible, place your desk or workstation perpendicular to a window so the view is within your scope of vision.
Tactic #10 is to face your space. Rattner suggests you arrange your furnishings and equipment so that you face into your creative space and have a wall or opaque screening element behind you.
Although you could face the window, you might become too distracted by the view. And this usually exposes your back to an entryway, which gives you a sense of insecurity. You’re bound to be startled or feel discomfort if someone walks up behind you when you’re working at your desk.
Tactic #47 is to get out of the house. Go to a coffee shop, bookstore café, library, museum or outdoor park to add novelty, spark creativity, and connect with the world at large.
For more on how to make boring, hard things easier to do, check out my book, The Incrementalist at leanpub.com/incrementalist.
If you have feedback or questions, drop them in the comments section of our YouTube channel or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you found value in this episode, hit the like and share buttons. And if you want to keep learning on how to make big changes in small steps, be sure to subscribe. Thank you for being with me and join me again on The Incrementalist.
Join our newsletter
Sign up to get updates on blog posts, online courses, bonus tips and exclusive access to Empower Toolkit