Learning & Development

The Therapeutic Effect of Small Tasks

Many readers are probably guilty of using one chore as an excuse to avoid another—cleaning the kitchen instead of doing one’s taxes; organizing one’s office instead of getting started on tedious reports; or online shopping for “necessities” instead of updating the slide deck for an upcoming presentation.


OK, that last one is a bit of a stretch when it comes to the word “chore,” but hopefully the examples highlight a familiar phenomenon. Often, when people are stressed out about responsibilities, obligations, and to-do lists, working on small tasks that are simple, relatively stress-free, and technically productive can be very therapeutic.

Some Action Better Than No Action

Part of this therapeutic effect may be due to avoiding guilt for feeling lazy—for example, when an important task is put off to take a nap or reading a book instead of household cleaning. Another factor may be that these low-stress chores give people a sense of control because they’re able to reliably and predictably complete them with relative ease.

“Unlike other distracting activities—such as playing computer games or watching trashy TV—puttering also has the advantage of being proactive and useful, increasing our ‘perceived control,’” says David Robson in an article for BBC Worklife. “When we feel anxious, a sense of helplessness can heighten the physiological stress response, increasing levels of hormones such as cortisol. Over the long term, the sense of helplessness can even harm the function of the immune system.”

Ideally, Robson suggests, we should deal directly with these troubling situations. In fact, research indicates that we can actually gain a sense of control by tackling tasks that have little impact on whatever is bothering us.   

Many people half-jokingly bemoan their habit of reorganizing their closets to avoid grading papers or reviewing contracts. But, while household chores and other busywork don’t necessarily contribute to progress toward the more substantial and significant tasks on the to-do list, they may serve as a useful de-stressing activity to help provide a mental respite before returning to the more difficult work. And if one’s living room gets tidied up in the process, even better.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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