I’ve had a few conversations recently about the annoyance of mundane tasks and chores, such as laundry and email. While none of these activities would make a list of things I’d do for fun, I realized that I’m less annoyed by them than the people was I was talking to, or even my past self! So, I thought I’d reflect on strategies I use to make this mundane tasks interesting, or at the very least less painful.
What do I mean by mundane tasks?
To me, a mundane task is anything that has to be done, but is boring by itself. On the home front, this includes things like laundry, doing the dishes, cleaning, placing online orders, driving kids around, etc. At work, this includes responding to email, filling out administrative forms, grading, and so on. It’s worth noting that these are the types of things many people outsource, and that is certainly a good solution, but it’s not always possible (like those pandemic times where everyone’s home and I run a full dishwasher three times a day!)
So, how to make these tasks interesting?
It turns out I have a number of strategies!
Entertainment: This is I think a fairly common strategy, but for tasks that are mostly physical and require little mental effort, such as laundry, dishes, and cleaning, I listen to podcasts, audiobooks, or videos. With my phone and bluetooth headphones, this is easy to do while moving around, and actually makes me a little excited to do these tasks because I know I get to listen to my favorite media.
Environment: This strategy consists of making a special environment for these tasks, with small pleasures like a candle or favorite drink. I have special laundry and dishes candles, and will usually choose a special drink for these chores as well (coffee, Spindrift, or wine, depending mostly on the time of day). Particularly when combined with the entertainment above, this can actually make some of the household chores in particular a pleasant experience!
Imagination: This is probably the most unusual strategy, but I have to say it is highly effective! Particularly for tasks where I can’t rely on listening to entertainment, such as answering email or vacuuming, this is my go to strategy. Essentially, I imagine that I am doing the task, but in some sort of fictional or interesting location. For example, while answering email, I might imagine that I’m a 19th century novel writer turning to my “correspondence”. This is essentially what email is, but in a more exciting setting. While vacuuming, I can imagine I’m the housekeeper for a magic castle, cleaning up for a witches ball! This might sound silly or slightly insane, but I promise it is very effective (and yes, I spent lots of time playing in imaginary settings as a child).
Making mundane tasks less painful
While I think making these tasks interesting is the most useful way to deal with them, as this works no matter what, I also like to put some time into thinking how to make them less painful, particularly if they repeat frequently.
Streamline: Streamlining addresses one of the largest pain points, which is the amount of time these tasks can take. By putting a little thought into what exactly has to be done, and the optimal sequence to do this in, the amount of time these tasks take can be minimized, or at the very least predictable. For example, for laundry I arrange my loads by where the clothes will eventually be put away, so I don’t have to sort as I fold, and I can just dump a load from the dryer into my kids’ rooms for them to put away. I also don’t fold laundry, everything is either hung up or placed in a bin (like underwear and socks). For email, I have a bookmarks folder (called correspondence!) that opens all of my email and social media accounts at once, and then I can work through them from largest to smallest (in terms of the number of emails/notifications they are likely to have). I work through my grading in a similar way, and only focus on correcting things that are the topic of the assignment, rather than every error (probably streamlining grading is deserving of a separate post!)
Completable: Making things completable addresses another of the major pain points with these tasks, which is that they are never really done. I can do 16 loads of laundry, or 3 loads in the dishwasher, or answer 100 emails, and there will almost instantly be more. Since I like checking things off, this can be very frustrating. So, I just try to contain these tasks into something I can finish. When all the dishes by the sink are in the dishwasher and it’s running, I’m done for the day, even if my daughter then uses more dishes to make her lunch for the next day. Once I’ve cleared all the items in my “correspondence” bookmarks, email is done for that session, I don’t go back to the first tab and see what’s new. This strategy is mostly a mental one, as it doesn’t impact the actual tasks themselves, but I find it satisfying.
Routines: If something is streamlined and completable, it can be made into a routine. This addresses another pain point with these tasks, unpredictable timing. Because most of them don’t have to be done at specific times, it’s easy to let them pile up, and then feel overwhelmed when you have to do them under pressure or in combination with other pressing events, for example having to do the dishes because you need them for dinner, or respond to an email before you have to leave to pick up kids from daycare, etc. Putting mundane tasks into a routine that happens at a certain time, or on a particular day, or following a particular event (like getting home from work) can take out the stress of this unpredictability. It can also make it easier to switch the routine to another time or day if you need to, because you have a clear idea of what you’re switching and how long it takes.
Rewards: Another benefit of having a specific routine is you can have a reward at the end of it! For example, I have my correspondence routine set up such that I do the boring parts first (email) and then if I finish in time I get to move on to the more exciting parts (social media). If I finish all the laundry, I get to read a book. At least for me, rewards don’t have to be particularly big to be effective, as long as it’s something I enjoy.
Changing the task
A final strategy that I think is worth mentioning is to think if you can change the task itself to make it more interesting and less painful. Grading is a particularly good example of this—if you are in control of what you assign, you can assign things that are more interesting for you to grade. For example, I often let students choose the medium for their assessments, which means that instead of reading a bunch of mediocre essays, I get written work from the students that like writing, and audio, video, art, jewelry and more from students who prefer to express themselves in these mediums. This is definitely more enjoyable for me as well, and can make me look forward to grading rather than dreading it.
So, these are my strategies for making mundane tasks more interesting and less painful. Do you use any of these? Or do you have other strategies? If so, I’d love to hear about them!