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Get It Over and Done with: The Secret to Managing Tasks We Do Not Like

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Most jobs involve tasks we don’t like. But should we complete these tasks in one fell swoop or split them into bite-sized portions and spread them out over time?

According to new research from Trinity Business School, WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and the University of Wuppertal, doing the tasks you don’t like in one go is a good idea.

A recently published study shows that when you face high work demands, you may want to push through and do one unpleasant task after the other instead of frequently switching between pleasant and unpleasant tasks. Interestingly, pushing this reduces your mental energy and allows you to engage with your work the next day fully.

The research was led by co-authors Wladislaw Rivkin (Trinity), Fabiola Gerpott from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, and Stefan Diestel (University of Wuppertal).

Dr Fabiola Gerpott, professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, explained: “We all know that constantly working in jobs with high demands is draining. But what this means for people’s actions on specific days hasn’t been studied yet.”

“A frequently shared “urban legend” is that rewarding yourself with some easy tasks on highly demanding days may be a good idea. Our research shows that this may contrast your easy tasks and the unpleasant tasks more salient.“

Dr Wladislaw Rivkin, associate professor in organisational behaviour, added: “To illustrate, imagine working on a highly tedious task at the beginning of your workday. After this, you switch to a very enjoyable task. Following these two tasks, you resume the tedious task.”

“On such a day, switching between pleasant and unpleasant tasks triggers a mental comparison between these tasks, making the unpleasant activity worse as you keep thinking that you could engage in the pleasant activity instead.”

Dr Stefan Diestel, professor of work, organisational and business psychology at the University of Wuppertal, further outlines for whom this risk is particularly strong: “While our findings generally hold for a broad range of employees, we also found that being chronically exhausted (i.e., burnout) makes employees more vulnerable to higher levels and fluctuating job demands, requiring them to overcome their inner resistances throughout a workday.”

“This is because their overall resource battery suffers from a “memory effect”, thereby providing employees with a chronically impaired capacity to exert self-control.”

Although it would be great to reduce work demands generally, this is often impossible. According to this research, you still have leeway to manage yourself better on days with high work demands: You should better consistently work on the tasks you dislike and get them done instead of repeatedly changing between high and hardly straining demands over your working day.

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