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Keep going! Doing hard tasks is good for you

Imagine you have a list of tasks to do during the day. On the list is:

  • Walk the dog
  • Complete 4000-word report
  • Do laundry
  • Fix laptop for parents

 

Which task would you do first and why? Would you do the easy tasks first and leave the hard tasks until the end, or do you like to get the hard tasks out of the way before completing the tasks that you can do without thinking?

Some people enjoy the challenge of a hard task and others try to avoid them at all costs.

In 1910, the late US President Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech ‘Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life.’

Sticking to tasks we find easy keeps us stuck at our current knowledge and skill level. Although some people prefer not to take on challenging tasks, Associate Professor Linda Byrne from Deakin University’s School of Psychology says taking them on can be beneficial by allowing us to learn new skills and expand our current ability.

‘Taking on challenging tasks can be good for us from both a psychological perspective – that is our well-being, and even a neurobiological – or brain integrity perspective,’ she says.

What are hard tasks good for?

When talking about hard tasks, it can be difficult to pin down specifically what they are. There is no definitive list of hard and easy tasks, so it is up to the individual to know their capabilities and understand what is and isn’t a hard task for them.

‘A hard task is something that’s challenging. It’s something that’s novel and something that often takes a range of different perspectives in order to solve the problem,’ Assoc. Prof. Byrne says.

But completing a hard task isn’t just about the end goal, it is also about the development that takes place when you stretch your capabilities and challenge your mind to do things you may have never done before. Assoc. Prof. Byrne says completing hard tasks has many positive side effects and can be important for your long-term wellbeing.

‘It’s good for our wellbeing to be able to challenge ourselves because that increases our sense of accomplishment and raises self-esteem’ she says.

‘It’s also really important from a neuro-biological perspective. Brain plasticity, which talks about how the brain continues to make new connections and lay down new pathways, is really important, particularly as we get older as it makes for a healthy brain. When we take on difficult tasks that challenge us, we learn to think in new ways.’

'It's good for our wellbeing to be able to challenge ourselves because that increases our sense of accomplishment and raises self-esteem'

Associate Professor Linda Byrne,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Why can’t we just do easy tasks?

Some may think, what could possibly happen if I only do easy tasks? Well, the answer may be worse than you think. Easy tasks will not stretch you in the way that hard tasks can and can leave lasting confidence issues. Assoc. Prof. Byrne says that avoiding hard tasks will lead to a diminished self-belief which can leave you feeling incapable of certain tasks.

‘There was a study from Germany published a couple of years ago that showed that over time people who worked in jobs that required skills such as strategizing, speaking, resolving conflicts and managing others, were less likely to suffer from memory problems as they aged’ she says.

‘When you have a list of things you need to do at work, some people advocate getting the easy tasks out of the way first, however this is often just a way of avoiding the difficult jobs. Avoiding difficult tasks can change our belief in ourselves so that we stop trying. Think of that famous Simpson’s episode where Homer laments that there is always someone better at something than you, and Bart’s take-home message is “Can’t win, don’t try”.’

Making struggles our friend

One of the main ways that we can change our mindset and dive headfirst into difficult tasks is to try and make struggles our friend. To do this, you need to figure out a way that works for you to make tasks less daunting. Assoc. Prof. Byrne suggests this could come in the form of breaking tasks down into manageable parts, getting organized beforehand so the task can be as smooth as possible, and also making sure the list of tasks you have isn’t too long and is achievable within the actual timeframe.

‘Be realistic about what you can achieve and the timeline in which you can achieve it in. If it’s a really complex and challenging task, do you need a team? Some people think that they have to prove themselves and do it all,’ she says.

‘Sometimes we know that achieving something challenging is actually best done, not alone, but with the team that can achieve that goal together.’

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Associate Professor Linda Byrne
Associate Professor Linda Byrne

School of Psychology, Deakin University
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