Here's a win for the chronic multitaskers.
The best way to accomplish boring tasks is to do them in tandem with other low-attention tasks, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by researcher Alicea Lieberman.
People abandon menial tasks because the tasks don't demand enough attention--which leads to boredom and abandonment, Lieberman and her co-authors found. While other research suggests using rewards or gamification of boring tasks as a solution, this study offers an alternative: tangential immersion, the act of pairing two low-attention tasks to keep the mind occupied while accomplishing both. Think: Listening to a podcast while filling out an Excel sheet, or watching an episode of TV while you catch up on your emails. Because the secondary activity must be "low-attention," it is typically a non-work activity.
The researchers came to their conclusion by observing how long people could brush their teeth while multitasking, Lieberman wrote in Harvard Business Review. All while brushing their teeth, the control group watched a moving dot on a screen, another group looked at an underwater image and listened to piano music (together, considered one secondary activity), and a third read an immersive story.
The third group brushed their teeth 10 percent longer than the other two groups--showing that, for tangential immersion to be effective, the secondary task needs to demand enough attention to keep the person focused.
But the task shouldn't require too much attention: in another experiment, the researchers found that when they asked participants to do a simple physical exercise--like brushing their teeth--when reading a story versus while doing arithmetic, the group reading the story was able to perform the exercise longer than the group asked to do math.
The ways this technique can be used in the workplace are manifold. Tangential immersion can help entrepreneurs power through their "busy work" when motivation is low. And in a remote workplace, it can help employees to stay on top of their more administrative duties. With that in mind, a word of caution to business leaders: If your workers are listening to podcasts on the job--or have the TV running while they're working from home--don't be too quick to judge. These strategies might actually make them even more productive.