Tedium Management (older version)

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

There is also an newer and longer version of this article, which is much better, in my opinion.

Download a more readable PDF Version of the new version of this article.

My brain is about to explode, scattering the few contents that might remain within it across the computer screen in front of me.

Actually, it just got a lot better. I am putting down the task that was making me apoplectic in order to write. And writing is something that I can feel comfortable with. This is particularly so if I allow myself to express my angst with a gruesome yet amusing metaphor. I feel much better now. Thank you for asking…

The task which was aggravating my brain, and which I am now procrastinating doing, is an extraordinarily tedious task. I'll spare you the details because I know that you have tasks just like this yourself. And you don't want me to even remind you of them. But I do want to tell you that your ideas about your problems with those tasks are probably incorrect.

You think that you have a time-management problem. Or maybe you imagine that you are procrastinating. But I want to suggest a better term for the reasons why these things don't get done. Tedium. People with ADHD have a lower tolerance for tedium than other folks. There is a specific reason why we don't manage tedium well, which is central to the experience of ADHD.

Tedium management is a fundamental skill in the toolbox of skills we call "executive functioning." Executive functioning just means your ability to plan, strategize, prioritize, remember your plans, and consequently get things done. In simple terms, it's what we don't do well. ADHD is really a deficit in executive functioning.

Tedious tasks are not just boring. The word boring derives from the behavior of a person who plods on without any consideration of the other person who is becoming bored. People with ADHD can be boring to others. But boredom is only a problem for the person with ADHD in so far as they get distracted.

Tedium is different than not being interested enough to resist distraction. I reserve the term "tedium" for precisely those tasks that overwhelm our executive functioning. Tedium is when the difference has been lost between the important parts of the task and the trivial ones. No matter what your good intentions, the executive functions cannot sort out the task.

As a metaphor, imagine a well lit image, with good contrast between the lighter and darker parts of the image. As you dim the light on the image, the contrast is more difficult to see. In low light you can hardly tell where the lighter or darker parts of the image are. Conversely, if the contrast in the actual image were particularly poor, it would take even more light to make out the image.

Your task is analogous to this image. The relative importance of the things you need to pay attention to is like the contrast in the image. Executive functions are your light. In good light with good contrast in the image, all goes well. In a non-tedious task, you can easily distinguish dark from light areas, important from trivial. As the contrast in the image is poorer, as in a tedious task, you would be likely to try to hold the image under a brighter light to make it out. If your executive functioning is weak, you can't access that light at all. You have to rely on the image having excellent contrast (being non-tedious) or become frustrated trying to decipher it.

You can see that effectively making out the image relates to the intrinsic "contrast" in the image itself as well as the executive functioning (light) you can bring to it. Of course tasks that would be simply boring to the ordinary person are more likely to be tedious to the person with ADHD, since they can't just shed more light on it to bring out the important features, If they could, it would still be boring, but not tedious.

The word tedious comes from the Latin root for wearisome. It relates to those things that simply wear you out. Tedium is that experience of drowning in the detail and complexity of a task, where you can't hold all the pieces in front of you at the same time in order to sort out where to start, to see what's most important or to anticipate the consequences of different options. Often the reaction to tedium is a great deal of anxiety followed by exhaustion and maybe resignation. You have overwhelmed your executive functioning. You're in the dark.

I contrasted "tedious" with merely "boring." I want to add that tedious is also not the same as "difficult." Writing actually calls on more intellectual functions than my now procrastinated tedious task. But writing flows much more easily for me. Often the only part that is truly agonizing in writing is the getting started. In fact, getting started is often the reason that tedious tasks are so tedious. At the start is when you have to engage your executive functions to grasp the entire plan of the task. It calls on all of your organizing abilities.

One of the most popular strategies, usually arrived at by accident, is to wait for the adrenaline of a deadline to fill your brain with the neurochemicals you need to sort out the important from the trivial. It is similar to the way that stimulant medications help. They actually increase the "light" at the neuronal level that makes you able to distinguish what is important.

Hopefully this gives you some perspective on what is going on when you find a task tedious. You can be more aware of how you got stuck.

I will be following up this article with another on specific strategies. Some will be familiar, some will be new. But now you will understand how they work and maybe use the same principles to create your own strategies.

In the mean time, I have to go and attack my tedious task again…

Part II: Strategies

This is the second half of an article on managing tedium. These are some categories of strategies, not an exhaustive list. Once you understand the categories, you may be able to invent some strategies that work for you based on them.

Lighten Up

The first tip is to notice that succumbing to tedium is more often than not also accompanied by anxiety and self-reproach. Furthermore, setbacks can be discouraging. So your first strategy ought to be to lighten up on yourself. It's going to be hard, but you don't need another taskmaster giving you grief over it. Move forward when the time allows for it. Let go when the time is just wrong.

Chunk it Up

This is the favorite strategy of those who do not have as much of a tedium management problem. Just break a big task up into smaller tasks. Yeah, and whistle while you work. Sometimes it works. And sometimes you just stare at the task longer, trying to figure out where to make the divisions. However, if you can find a way to take bits at a time, setting the rest aside so that it does not overwhelm you, this will be a winning strategy. If you can provide yourself some structure, you might set a particular time each day that you will do a part of the task.

A very effective variant of this strategy is to commit to doing just a few minutes of the task. By removing the dread of taking on the whole thing you can get a lot done in a few minutes. Then rest and come back for another chunk later. Intersperse tasks that you enjoy and that re-energize you.

The reason that this strategy works so well and why it is so hard to do is that it really amounts to applying your executive functions. If it were easy for you, you would already be doing it. Nonetheless, consider if there aren't some ways that you could apply the chunking strategy.


But let's say that you hit the wall with trying to chunk the task. Can you just work at any part and make progress?

If you can be fairly confident that whatever you do on this task is going to advance you, then just start anywhere. Acknowledge that you don't need to measure your progress, proceed systematically, or anything of the kind. After you nibble for awhile, you know that the task will get smaller.

As you transform your tedium (executive function overwhelm) into mere boredom, you can detach from it. Play good music or something that you enjoy and just keep nibbling away. Don't try right away to back up and get the big picture. Establish your momentum.

Once you have nibbled at it awhile, you will realize that the hardest part was starting. After you can feel that you are making progress, the pieces of the big picture may come into focus with less effort. Now you can see the bigger picture without the overwhelming ambiguity that you experienced at the beginning.

The danger with this strategy is that you may in fact totally lose sight of the big picture. Beware misdirected hyperfocus. After four hours of color-coding the file folders you will use to organize your project, it's time to stop nibbling and look again at the big picture.

Find the Melody Line

Some tasks seem to come automatically. The basic patterns are so well known that once you start, each phrase of the melody leads naturally to the next. This concept of a "kinetic melody" has been applied to motor tasks, but it is also true in many other efforts.

Once I start writing, the paragraphs seem each to be sponsored by the one just before it. I can generally trust that another idea that roughly follows from the previous one will be waiting for me when I get to the place where I need it. It feels like a familiar melody, where you always seem to remember the next note just as it is coming up.

Finding the melody is the hard part. It can sometimes pop up if you just start. Once you find it, keep going until it runs out. Then you can go back and do the evaluating and repairing of what you've done so far. But if you wait for the whole symphony to come into your head, you'll be stuck.

Borrow an Executive Function

Most people find that it is easier to do another person's tedious task than their own. When you are personally worried about consequences, your executive function gets strangled in anxiety. Use someone else's executive function, someone who is not going to be emotionally involved. They don't have to make your decisions, but they can help a lot by asking you the right questions.

Sometimes your "executive function buddy" can just be a "pair of eyes." If they watch you, it helps you watch yourself. I really mean it. Have someone sit in the room and just watch you. (They can bring a book or something, so long as they don't distract you or stop watching.) If you get past the silliness of it, this works some great magic.

Eat Chocolate

Hey, don't ask me why. These are just the things that work for me. But have you noticed that when you amuse yourself, distract yourself, or even just show kindness to yourself, you don't notice the tedium so much? Music can help. Finding something funny about your bosses wardrobe choices may do it. The idea is to distract yourself from the feeling of tedium. Just try to get out of "suffering mode."

Change the Frame

The meaning of a task can make it tedious. Play that it is something else. Right now I am attacking my tedious brain-splashing task by pretending that I am actually just testing the ideas I am writing down here for you. Most of the ideas are working, and the task is yielding a bit. Go ahead and attack your tedious job with the intention of carefully documenting how none of my tips worked. Go now…

Another example in this category is a trick for finishing tasks. Because starting tasks is often easier than the cleanup at the end, change the frame. See if there is a way to make "finishing up" into a new project, which you are just now jumping in to start.

Run the other way

You've got nothing to prove. Just make your life work for you. If you can avoid getting into tedious tasks in the first place, by all means do so. Now that you understand tedium a little better, you are going to get better at recognizing it, and avoiding it.

Buy makeup and clothing that matches the egg on your face

A lot of the things you worry about may not amount to so big a problem in the long run. Even when they do, what is past is past. Apologize where you have to, let go, and move on.

Ok, these tedium management strategies are not as clean and neat as the time management seminars where they convince you that you can find 30 hours in each day. Tedium management is messy stuff. There are no easy answers or systems. Just a handful of tricks that may help you out.

Did I tell you that the egg makes your eyes look very pretty in this light?


Creative Commons License This work by Lew Mills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License