How to make tedious tasks more tolerable
It’s not you — it’s your brain! Some chores and responsibilities really are harder for us to push through. But research from UBC faculty can help us find the motivation (or at least fake it).
Perhaps dread rushes in soon after you open your eyes in the morning, the last several days having seen you combat a growing sense of paralysis as your to-do list lengthens with tasks that seem impossible to complete. Doing taxes, cleaning out the closet, writing cover letters — tasks you know you’re perfectly capable of executing, that should theoretically be less complicated than open heart surgery but feel twice as difficult. Why are tedious tasks so hard to get done?
“We are innately wired to like easy, rewarding things,” says Dr. Catharine Winstanley, neuroscientist and Professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC. Unfortunately, most of the tasks that make up an average to-do list tend to be significantly less rewarding than the addictively pleasurable TikTok algorithm or any of the other countless distractions that surround us.
The good news? Research has uncovered quite a bit about how our brains and bodies deal with motivation, procrastination, and stress. And those easy temptations that draw us away from our chores and responsibilities?
“It takes energy to resist, effort to resist,” says Winstanley. “But we can feel motivated and focused enough to achieve those other goals.”
One of the keys lies within our brains.
How to trick your brain into thinking you’re motivated
Break up your tasks to bypass low dopamine levels
“One of those common misconceptions in popular psychology is that dopamine is the pleasure molecule,” Winstanley tells me. “But dopamine is like a learning signal. So when dopamine is released in your brain, it generally signals something good has unexpectedly happened.”
When we feel highly motivated, it’s likely a lot of dopamine is being released in response to the triggers we’re seeing in our environment. But if our dopamine levels are low — if there are few positive environmental cues stimulating us to act, like if we’re staring at the blank page of what should be a cover letter — we likely won’t be overly motivated.
“If something's easy to do and requires little energy and effort, then we can still do it,” says Winstanley. “But if it's something challenging that actually requires us to put in a lot of work, that's going to be really hard if our dopamine levels are low.”
Since our brains are inclined to seek out low-effort activities, breaking up your tasks into smaller chunks may help make them more manageable if you’re not feeling very motivated.
“It's going to make the task itself feel less overwhelming than if you just try and attack the whole thing at once,” says Winstanley.
Additionally, breaking up that chore into a series of smaller tasks can trick your brain into feeling accomplished when you complete each “chunk.”
In doing so, “you're teasing your motivation system with things it really naturally likes,” explains Winstanley. “We seem to gravitate towards low-cost, low-hanging fruit. And once you get that one little bit done, you’re going to feel really good about it.”
Because our brains get a dopamine hit whenever we achieve a goal, crossing one chunk off your to-do list might even help motivate you to move right on to the next one!
Reward yourself for the cognitive effort
“Cognitive effort is a resource that is limited,” says Winstanley. She tells me our brains weigh the “cognitive effort and mental strain” we’re “willing to suffer” to complete whatever task we have at hand.
When faced with doing a challenging task that may have a delayed reward versus an easier task with an immediate reward, Winstanley says your brain will naturally be tempted by the latter. This probably won’t come as terribly shocking to those of you who, like me, were all too happy to spend your weekends this spring watching Netflix and going out for dinner instead of doing your taxes, the return of which you now need to pay for your Netflix subscription and go out to dinner.
But fortunately, Winstanley’s own studies affirm that we are all capable of resisting the urge to do the easy thing. Studying rats, she found both the more and less motivated rats were equally capable of doing the task they were assigned, and we can assume humans aren’t too different. So even if you might be less motivated to complete the cognitively challenging task, remember you’re as capable as anyone — and don’t forget to give yourself a reward when the task is finished.
“I think we're all very guilty as humans of failing to really celebrate our successes sometimes,” says Winstanley. “Particularly when those are getting boring things done.” Even if you feel like completing the “boring” task would just be doing the bare minimum, plan to reward yourself when you finish. Knowing you’ll receive a reward after can help motivate you to get the task done, and might even make the task easier to complete in the future.
“Your brain can learn that the difficult thing is associated with the fun thing,” explains Winstanley.
Reframe negative events to avoid procrastinating
Another way to trick your brain might be by reframing the task you have to do. Studies conducted by Dr. David Hardisty, Associate Professor of Marketing and Behavioural Science at UBC, have indicated that people’s desire to get positive things right away might be stronger than their desire to put off negative ones. In some cases though, the negative anticipation from an unpleasant event (such as going to the dentist) is actually enough for people to not procrastinate at all, and to get the unpleasant event over with as soon as possible.
However, if that’s not quite you, try reframing the task you’re dreading as something positive. For example, if you’re doing your taxes, you might consider thinking about them not as an arduous chore to slog through, but a chance to potentially get some extra cash if you end up being owed money in your return. If that fails, Hardisty even suggests trying to make procrastination productive by switching to a different task you need to do from the one that’s causing you anguish.
That being said, procrastination can be a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, anxieties, and more, all of which can also leave you feeling unmotivated.
Winstanley tells me that an area of our brains called the anterior cingulate cortex (part of the frontal cortex) can help us overcome adversity when we have a challenge ahead of us. In moments where you do feel driven to accomplish a task, your anterior cingulate cortex is probably activated. But neurochemical imbalances related to stress can affect how much dopamine is being released and how activated the anterior cingulate cortex is.
Fortunately, exercising and engaging in other healthy habits can relieve stress and help us perform to the best of our ability.
How better sleep can keep you motivated
It might seem like the most practical thing to sacrifice when you’re confronting a busy week, but getting sufficient sleep is a more consequential habit for our health and daily functioning than many people may realize.
“When people don't get enough sleep, there are cognitive issues with attention, perception, and your reflexes,” says Dr. Nancy Sin, Associate Professor of Psychology at UBC.
These effects have been studied by Dr. Brian Dalton, Assistant Professor in UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences. Dr. Dalton tells me that participants in his study responded more slowly and less accurately, as well as made more errors, while completing cognitive tasks in a sleep-deprived state than when they were well-rested.
Interestingly, in a separate study, Dalton found that participants perceived physical tasks as being more difficult when sleep-deprived, even though their actual physical capacity to do that task was unchanged from a well-rested state. So, lack of sleep can impair your cognitive ability to complete tasks and make physical tasks seem more difficult than they would be if you were well-rested.
Similarly, Sin’s research has found sleep deprivation impacts our overall perception and emotional wellbeing.
“We found that when people don't get enough quality sleep, they have an increase in their negative emotions on the following day, and a decrease in their positive emotions,” she explains.
Lack of quality sleep also means you’re more likely to perceive events as stressful, experience more negative emotion when facing that stressful event, and experience fewer positive emotions in general. None of this will make your tasks seem any less tedious.
But you can always improve your sleep habits. Sin recommends negotiating quiet times if you have roommates or live with family members, beginning a wind-down period at least 30 minutes before you go to bed, and exercising during the day. Additionally, Sin explains that good sleep is necessary throughout the week — sleeping more on weekends to make up for a lack of sleep on weekdays is still related to poor psychological and health outcomes.
And if you just can’t sleep, but still have to get things done the next day? Dalton recommends avoiding complex tasks as much as possible when sleep deprived.
“A person likely also wants to avoid environments where there are distractions or multitasking,” he continues. “Our research showed that the ‘distractors’ are more distracting when a person is sleep deprived.”
So, if you’ve got a lot to do, put away your phone and go somewhere quiet if possible. But the best solution may be getting your shut-eye the night before (and the night before that, and the night before that).
Seek out the positive when you’re feeling stressed
Finally, consider why you find the tasks on your to-do list challenging.
“The perception of control over a stressor is important for predicting whether someone will be able to cope well with it,” says Sin. “But it’s complex, as many of our stressors are ones that we have little actual control over.”
This is particularly true if you’re younger and in a stage of life where navigating work, relationships, and adult responsibilities still feels somewhat unfamiliar. But keep in mind that you’re still learning — older adults actually tend to perceive fewer stressors in their lives, so sticking with the challenges and gaining experience can pay off.
And while you’re still in that learning stage, Sin recommends seeking out mentors who can give you guidance, while also taking time to build strong relationships with friends. This can help give you a network to fall back on when things are tough.
Even small, positive daily events can help you manage stress, whether that’s a walk in the sun, lunch with a friend, or even a hug from a loved one.
“Positive events are very frequent in life,” says Sin. “They’re achievable, and they’re beneficial for your health.”
So next time you’re faced with a tedious task you just don’t want to do, make sure you’re well-rested and try chunking it or giving yourself a reward, remembering that difficult things might become easier and less stressful over time. But, maybe, giving in to that tempting walk in the sun is the right choice sometimes — you just might find yourself more motivated when you come back inside.