A tall stack of paperwork and folders

Coaches and strategists often encourage us to maximize impact by spending most of our time and attention in the zone where we make the greatest contribution. We’re told: Focus your days on the projects and tasks where you have something unique to add, or where only you can make the magic happen. Clear your plate of anything that doesn’t make the most of your specific skills, experience and wisdom.

It’s an approach that deprives us of a crucial resource: tedious work.

Tedious work has been on my mind this week, because I’m in the middle of a short annual stretch of time-consuming, repetitive, unavoidable work on a project I otherwise love. This patch takes a lot of hours, it’s pretty boring, and unlike other tedious tasks I do, requires a fair bit of attention: It’s not like organizing all my receipts for the accountant.

I was kvetching about this to my friend Dana Osiowy when she countered with an even more serious complaint: She doesn’t have any tedious work at all! That made me realize how much value I get from tedious work—yes, even the work that’s annoying me right now.


Life beyond your sweet spot. 

Tedious work is the stuff that doesn’t fit into your sweet spot. It might include the annoying, rote tasks that you could theoretically drop onto an underling’s plate: invoicing, expense reports, filing, data entry. It might include stuff that is not so easy to delegate: synthesizing your latest metrics in a quarterly report, turning your notes into a slide deck, reviewing your call logs to decide who’s due for a follow up, or conducting a routine but detail-oriented facilities check.

Tedious work is anything that doesn’t spark joy, tap creativity or leverage talent. It may well be the stuff you avoid, or alternately, the bitter medicine you swallow quickly to get onto the more interesting, more rewarding parts of the day.


Tedious work is crop rotation for your brain.

Whether mindless or challenging, however, tedious work can and should be a valued part of your working life. That’s because it’s the cognitive equivalent of crop rotation: By forcing you to put your attention on something other than the work that uses you to your fullest, tedious work gives you an opportunity to let your insight or creativity lie fallow for a little bit. It provides a moment for your best brain to regenerate.

Here are the strategies that have made tedious work an important part of my own working life, and indeed, have encouraged me to keep it on my plate.


Mix it up.

It’s a lot harder to face tedious work if it’s the only thing you’re working on. So aim to structure each day (or at least, each week) as a balanced meal that includes some meaty assignments (or, for my vegan friends, some tofu) and some tasty treats, as well as some stuff that is bland but necessary. A day that includes hours of tedious work is a lot more bearable when it’s interrupted by projects that are more engaging. And you may find that breakthrough idea or fresh perspective on your meaty work arrives after you’ve given your brain a couple of hours of something else.


Harness the power of the procrastination cascade. 

Precisely because I so often want to avoid my tedious work, it often motivates me to tackle even more aversive tasks. If there’s something challenging or anxiety-producing on my plate, I somehow finally manage to get to it….when it allows me to put off my tedious work for an hour or two. Lean into this “procrastination cascade” and use your desire to put off a tedious assignment as the incentive to tackle other stuff you’ve been avoiding, but which you hate a little bit less.


Learn your attention cues.

Sometimes I have a hard time getting down to my tedious tasks, and sometimes I have a hard time sticking with them.  But it’s become less difficult over the years, because I’ve learned my attention cues: the habits and stimuli that help me focus. I’m someone who has a really hard time focusing in total silence, so I always tackle my tedious tasks with something on in the background, whether that’s a TV show or a really great cast album. (A big shout-out to my favorite listen of recent months, the Into the Woods 2022 revival recording, which just won best cast album at the Grammys.) And I’ve found that a big dose of caffeine helps rev me up for the job.


Reward yourself. 

I’ve trained myself to feel less averse to tedious work by associating tedium with reward.  When my tedious tasks are simple enough that I can do them with the TV on, I save my favorite guilty pleasure shows to watch while I do something I’d otherwise hate doing. I allow myself extra snacks on tedious task days, so that I get little reward pellets throughout my work. And if I’m planning to make a fun purchase, I hold off on visiting the store—or clicking the “buy” button—until I’ve hit a target on my tedious chore. I’ve even found a payoff in the form of previously ordered packages: If I ignore any packages that arrive during the course of my workday, and then open them once I’ve finished my boring work, it feels like a reward for finishing the job—whether the package is a box of chocolate bars or a box of file folders.


Make a tedium trade.

Not all forms of tedious work are equally aversive—and different people find different activities more aggravating. I’m happy to do anything that involves a spreadsheet, while my husband is happy to do the final polish and copyedit on a document draft. So I deal with our business bookkeeping, and he does the document proofing. Be honest with your closest colleagues about what you each hate most, and you may be able to redistribute your tedious assignments in a way that is less aggravating.


Keep parts of every tedious assignment. 

Even when I’m working with a team that is taking on most of a tedious project, I try to keep a little bit for myself. When you know what’s involved in completing a task, it’s a lot easier to provide effective guidance to your team. And if your team members know that you’re working alongside them, it lets them know you’ll appreciate—or at least comprehend—their efforts.


Accept the pain.

If tedious work is part of your job, don’t gaslight yourself by trying to pretend it’s super fun to spend seven hours comparing retail sales receipts. And just as important, don’t delude yourself into thinking there is some magic role out there where you’ll never have to do a tedious task. Particularly in the earlier stages of our working life, tedious work is just part of work; trying to avoid it is a recipe for constant dissatisfaction, or professional turbulence.

Once you find ways to make tedious work not just tolerable, but constructive, you may find that your tedious tasks help you engage with your most challenging and rewarding work in a way that brings you even greater joy.

This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.