If you’re like me, there are certain tasks at work you really love. And then there are others that you dread. There are tasks that turn even the most proactive of us into procrastinators…but why?
Sometimes the answer is simple. Maybe that task is, literally, a dirty job, one where you get dusty, dirty, or sweaty. Or maybe that task is uncomfortable, like taking inventory in a walk-in freezer.
While we may shy away from the dirty and uncomfortable tasks, the reason for doing so is self-evident.
What is less self-evident is why we avoid some tasks without any obvious elements of discomfort. The answer lies a little beneath the surface. Why are tasks satisfying or unsatisfying? And what about a task holds our interest?
The Goldilocks Principle
Enter the “Goldilocks Task.” As the fairy tale goes, Goldilocks wanders into the house of the three bears. She tries out various aspects of the three bears’ home and finds that not everything suits her. Papa Bear’s bed, for example, was too hard, and Mama Bear’s bed was too soft. Baby Bear’s bed, however, was just right.
Similarly, we enjoy tasks that are not too hard, not too easy, but just right. Too difficult, and you’ll give up too soon, or worse, never begin in the first place. Too easy, and the task is so boring that it’s not worth your time. Only those tasks that are “just right” keep you engaged. The task is manageable, so you’re willing to try, but there’s an aspect of it that’s almost unmanageable. And that’s what holds your interest. This combination keeps you chasing after mastery until the task is completed. And that can be very satisfying.
Why are Goldilocks tasks so satisfying?
Goldilocks tasks feel good to us because they are fully engaging. Because the task offers some level of difficulty, you actually have to try (otherwise you might make mistakes). This means staying focused and tuning out distractions. If you don’t have to try hard to get something right, your focus will never narrow, and you’ll never reach that state where you lose track of time. In addition, having some level of difficulty imparts a sense of accomplishment when you’re done, rather than feeling like that’s thirty minutes of your life you’ll never get back. And finally, working on the edge of your ability means that for some portions of the task, you win some, and for other parts, you lose some. If you were winning all the time, your task would be too easy. But losing some means you are constantly learning and fine-tuning your approach, and so your return on your investment is large in terms of skills or knowledge gained.
The concept of the Goldilocks task is not new. The concept of being in a state of flow during tasks that are neither too easy nor too difficult was outlined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.1” Daniel Pink expands on this and outlines this concept in his book, “Drive.2” Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has also explored the importance of being challenged in his work (see a summary here). Many others have adapted this concept to specific fields, such as teaching and building habits. We can apply this concept to nearly any field, including yours.
What about me?
To apply this to your own life, what can you do to make easy tasks more challenging? You can make even the most mind-numbing tasks a little harder by incorporating a time or even a physical challenge, like balancing on one foot. Likewise, what can you do to make your hard tasks a little easier? Can you seek help from a colleague who can walk you through an overview? Can you break it up into manageable chunks that are less daunting than the whole package? With a little creativity, you can transform your tasks into ones that are just right.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
- Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2009.
Erica Bakota is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. After earning her PhD in chemistry at Rice University, she joined USDA as a research chemist, where she studied lipid oxidation and alternatives to partially hydrogenated oils. She then returned to Houston, Texas to join the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, where she led method development and validation for the Forensic Toxicology Laboratory. In March 2018, she made a move back to the feds and is now with the FDA as a chemist at the Kansas City Laboratory. Her work at FDA focuses on active ingredients in dietary supplements and pesticide residues in foods. You can read her posts here.