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04/04/2023

Why You’re Better Off Tackling Undesirable Tasks in One Go

Taking on additional, easy tasks on strenuous workdays is not the most productive option

Fabiola H. Gerpott - 29. November 2023

Tips for Practitioners

Our daily worklives bring with them certain tasks that are simply frustrating, annoying, and arduous. Other tasks are comparatively simple and a joy to complete. It’s in our nature to design our workday around tasks that we most like doing, and, from a psychological point of view, doing so is even advisable. Unfortunately, that’s simply not possible all the time. We all have days when we have to tackle many tasks that require us to exert a high degree of discipline. That’s something we need to overcome while also remaining professional and cordial—and that can take its toll. Does it then not make sense to make room for tasks that we like and that don’t require such exertion? Perhaps it would help us return to less desirable tasks with more gusto and energy.

Jumping between desirable and undesirable tasks is only going to burn you out

A joint study conducted by WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, the Trinity Business School in Dublin, and the Schumpeter School of Business and Economics in Wuppertal has come to a different conclusion: In reality, on demanding workdays, switching between enjoyable, desirable tasks and those that aren’t only makes more apparent just how different those two sets of tasks really are. It’s not just the daily work demands themselves that have an effect on energy levels; how we break up those demands on such busy days is just as important. Overcoming your inner resistance is something you only want to have to do once—at the beginning of the day—and then sticking with that less-than-desirable task until the end. Alternating between highly demanding and easy tasks, by comparison, will only tire you out even more.

Exhaustion on one day can have an effect the following day

The resulting higher level of exhaustion is even likely to spill over to the following day. When an employee is absolutely drained in the evening, they will be starting their recovery period at a lower point. This means that the employee won’t have enough time to replenish the energy needed to overcome inner resistance at work the next day. This, in turn, will become visible in their lower work engagement.

Employees at risk of burnout are particularly likely to suffer from these described dynamics, as they generally experience a high level of emotional exhaustion already and have to use more energy to exert self-control at the workplace. Switching between undesirable and desirable tasks is an effort they find particularly taxing, and they then need a more intensive recovery period after such workdays to get themselves fit for the following workday.

Tips for Practitioners

  • You should generally organize your workflows and routines such that they cause little stress and ensure that you won’t be interrupted while tackling unpleasant tasks.
  • On days when you cannot avoid high demands, “eat the frog first.” That is, start with tasks that require you to overcome some inner resistance—and then see those tasks through. After such a “frog day,” try to make the next day simpler!
  • Be aware that, paradoxically, after stressful days, you may find it harder to experience recovery. Nevertheless, stay active in your free time and make sure you get enough sleep. Those actions alone can recharge you for the next day.

Literature reference and methodology

This research relied on an experience sampling study covering ten workdays. On these days, 86 employees answered four short surveys throughout the day about their work- and recovery-related experiences.
 

Co-author of the study

Professor Fabiola H. Gerpott

Fabiola H. Gerpott is an expert for (self-)leadership, diversity management, and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more highly by managers and employees alike. Her research focuses on how empirical data can be used to help people shape the future of work in humane and productive ways.

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