Can’t escape boring tasks. While we all do our best to fill our personal and professional lives with engaging activities, there are countless menial, but critical tasks that keep our organizations running — and we benefit by finding ways to get better at doing them. In this article, the authors explain how the concept of tangential immersion can help someone persist in a boring task: Through a series of studies with more than 2,000 participants, he and his colleagues found that people often abandon boring tasks prematurely. Grab their attention enough to engage them. Consequently, pairing a boring task with a secondary task that requires more attention is an effective strategy to increase engagement and increase persistence. It’s not just for individuals, but more managers to help their teams stay on track, organizations looking to encourage healthy habits, and product designers looking to improve customer retention.
We all try to make our days engaging – but the reality is, there’s a lot of boring stuff to be done too. Whether it’s washing dishes, filing papers, entering data, or any of the myriad menial and critical tasks that keep our homes, organizations, and communities running, we all have less than exciting tasks to do. Of course, it’s not always easy to persist in these tasks, even when we know we need to do them. What does it take to persevere when work gets boring?
Researchers have explored this question from many angles, trying to understand how we can develop resilience in ourselves and those we care about. Studies have shown that people tend to stay longer when their progress is noticed, they receive rewards, or work is more fun. These findings have direct implications for how we design products and policies. For example, electric toothbrush developers are starting to add timers to their brushes, companies are offering incentives to encourage employees to get more exercise, and managers are implementing various gamification techniques to make employees’ work more fun.
However, my recent research suggests that, for tasks that do not require a lot of attention, there may be a better approach. My co-authors and I conducted a series of studies with more than 2,000 participants and found that in many cases people stop tasks prematurely not because they are not motivated enough, but because the tasks are intrinsic. Don’t beg A lot of attention. Often, strategies designed to increase persistence involve changing something about the job—but you can only find washing dishes exciting or intellectually stimulating. Instead of endlessly trying to make boring tasks less boring, it is sometimes more effective to combine these activities with other tasks that demand more attention. We call this concept Tangential immersion.
Why does it work? Basically, the mind wants to engage. We feel bored when doing tasks that require less attention than we have available, and this causes us to quit those tasks prematurely. But if there is a second activity that we can immerse ourselves in simultaneously with a low-attention task, it occupies more attention, reduces boredom, and thus increases persistence.
Tactile immersion reduces boredom and increases persistence
We first documented this effect through a simple experiment designed to measure the effect of tactile immersion on how long participants brushed their teeth. We told participants that the longer they brushed, the cleaner their teeth would be, and then instructed them to brush for as long as they wanted. While they brushed, one group was shown a video clip of beautiful nature scenes with music and nature sounds, while the other group watched a more immersive documentary video clip about bears and wolves. This small intervention made a big difference: On average, those who watched the more immersive video brushed their teeth 30% more than those who watched the less immersive video.
Next, we are interested in comparing tangential immersion to some of the other common methods of increasing continuity described above. In one study, we asked three groups of participants to perform as simple physical exercise as they could while simultaneously doing a second activity: a control group watched a moving dot on a screen, a second group watched a pleasant underwater image. and listened to piano music, and a third group read an immersive story. Participants who read an immersive story while exercising lasted 10% longer than those in the control group, but viewing a beautiful picture with pleasant but non-immersive music did not increase persistence (even though participants rated the experience as more enjoyable). In a complementary study, we compared tactile immersion to progress monitoring by asking participants to perform a simple typing task for as long as possible. We found that providing participants with a timer to track their progress increased persistence on the typing task—suggesting that monitoring your progress really helps—but listening to an immersive audiobook increased persistence.
Finally, two additional studies explored an important limitation of this approach: People can only really pay attention to so much at a time. Because of this, tactile immersion increases persistence only if the two tasks together occupy more—but not more than one’s total attention capacity. Listening to an immersive audiobook increased persistence for the simple typing task we used in the previous experiment, but when we asked participants to perform a similar yet slightly more complex typing task, tactile immersion had no effect. Similarly, participants who did simple physical exercise lasted longer when reading an immersive story, but not when performing attention-demanding arithmetic.
Putting tangential immersion to work
So how can individuals, managers and organizations harness the power of tactile immersion? Many people already demonstrate an intuitive understanding of this effect in their personal lives – for example, listening to immersive music or podcasts while at the gym is a good example of real-world tactile immersion. But there are many workplaces where employees and their managers can benefit from this approach.
When it comes to small office tasks, many employees use monitoring tools like work timers to increase their persistence. In other cases, managers may rely on incentives such as overtime or bonuses to motivate their employees. And to be sure, these types of techniques certainly have a place — but our research suggests that tactile immersion may be more effective, especially for tasks that don’t require a lot of attention. That could mean encouraging workers to listen to an audiobook while filing paperwork, watch a video while cleaning their desks, or read a news article while stuffing envelopes.
Tactile immersion is also a tool in the toolbox of leaders focused on improving health and safety in their organizations. For example, to encourage employees to wash their hands more often, companies can read the daily news to employees in bathroom mirrors. Similarly, managers can increase persistence in physical wellness initiatives such as step challenges by providing employees with free audiobooks to listen to while walking.
Ultimately, product teams can benefit from incorporating these findings into their designs. If you’re building a toothbrush app to increase brushing time, our research suggests that instead of just offering a timer, developers might consider adding two minutes of immersive soundbites for users to listen to while brushing. Likewise, exercise apps can integrate audiobooks or podcasts into their platforms and encourage users to listen to this immersive content while working out. This can be a win-win for companies and consumers, both helping users increase their fitness levels and helping them use these apps for a longer period of time. Finally, for any company concerned with engaging and retaining customers, our studies highlight the importance of grouping activities together, a product that requires enough (but not too much) user attention – and this has implications for teams throughout the development lifecycle. Idea for sales and marketing.
Can’t escape boring tasks. Of course, we should all fill our jobs and lives with engaging activities – but given the dominance and importance of less focused work in our personal and professional lives (and the lives of our employees and customers). Finding ways to continue in these behaviors will benefit. Tangential immersion offers a simple but effective strategy that empowers anyone to stick with the work they know they want to do, increasing personal productivity, organizational success, and well-being on a societal level.