This Trick Will Help You Get Your Most Dreaded Tasks Done

Get ready to annihilate your to-do list.

You know those items that stubbornly sit on your to-do list, day after day? The ones you habitually push down to the bottom, ensuring that you’ll never actually get them done?

Some of mine include going to yoga, taking a jacket to the tailor to have the zipper repaired, searching for the password to an old bank account that might still have a little money in it, and answering emails from family that require more time and attention than I ever feel like I can spare.

I totally zoned out even writing that list, it’s so boring. Even the thrill of checking boxes and scratching things off (a list-lover’s ultimate pleasure) can’t get me to gather up my old jackets, bags, and shoes and haul them to the tailor’s shop.

So when I read about a technique developed by a Wharton School of Business professor that promised to help motivate me to stop procrastinating and get my most-dreaded tasks done, I was all over it. It’s called ‘temptation bundling,’ and here’s how it works…

The difference between important and urgent

The first thing to understand, says Katy Milkman, who pioneered the technique, is the difference between an urgent task and an important one. An urgent task is one that you really have to do immediately, or close to it – things like like answering your boss’s emails, changing your baby’s diaper, or taking a sick cat to the vet. These things will have clear consequences fairly rapidly if you fail to do them; they are both important and urgent.

On the other hand, some tasks, while important, never seem urgent at all. Exercising, for example, is proven to help extend your life – but if you don’t lace up your sneakers and go for a run right this minute, nothing terrible is going to happen. Likewise, wading through old emails you wanted to answer more thoughtfully never feels particularly urgent. Once you’ve let an email sit in your inbox for a few days, what’s another week or two, right?

The difference is the short-term versus the long-term – and most of us are pretty bad at thinking long-term. We’re more concerned with our immediate comfort and pleasure. Milkman, for example, was always putting off exercising because she wanted to curl up and read a book or watch TV after a long day at work. That’s when she had her epiphany…

Let’s make a deal

Milkman decided to implement a rule for herself: she could only read a book or watch TV after work if she was at the gym. “I struggle at the end of a long day to get myself to the gym even though I know that I should go. And at the end of a long day, I also struggle with the desire to watch my favorite TV shows instead of getting work done. And so I actually realized that those two temptations, those two struggles I faced, could be combined to solve both problems,” says Milkman.

And guess what? It worked! Milkman found that she actually started looking forward to going to the gym, because she’d get to read or watch TV, which was what she really wanted to do in the first place. Essentially, she made a deal with herself that she could only do something that felt good in the short-term (the temptation) by doing it at the same time she did something good for her in the long run (hence, bundling the temptation with another task).

Since she’s a business professor, she naturally decided to test her discovery by creating a research study that bore out her theory. She and her colleagues gathered 226 students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pennsylvania, taught some of them how to implement ‘temptation bundling,’ and then studied their exercise habits over the course of the study. People who used Milkman’s temptation bundling theory were between 29 and 51 per cent more likely to exercise, compared with those who didn’t know about it.

Building the perfect bundle

Maybe exercise isn’t your struggle – and maybe watching TV or reading books isn’t your indulgence of choice. The great thing about temptation bundling is that you can craft it to work exactly how you need it to. Here’s how: make a list with two columns. One column will list things you love to do – things that tempt you away from other, more important tasks. The other column will list things you should do, but don’t. These are the bottom-dwellers of your to-do list: the things you consistently procrastinate.

Not every behavior can be bundled, so write down as many in each column as you can think of. When you’ve got enough, look at the two lists and see what might naturally match up. For instance, could you only allow yourself to scroll Facebook and take Buzzfeed quizzes when you’re on the treadmill? What if you only allowed yourself to get a pedicure if you were replying to those overdue emails at the same time? Or maybe you can listen to your fave podcast only if you’re scrubbing the bathroom at the same time. Get creative, and make it a game.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to take some things to the tailor, because I promised myself I could stop at the sushi place next door afterward. Boom! Taking care of business.

GIFs via tumblr.com and youtube.com.

Comment: Do you have any surefire methods for being more productive?