How to Grind Through The Boring Work

Video version of this article

Let’s face it: a lot of work is boring.

I don’t care how passionate you are about your business, your career, your side hustle—whatever it is you’re doing—a decent chunk of the work you need to do is dead boring.

It’s the work that we put off for days or weeks (or months) on end. It’s the work that leads us to procrastinate. It’s also the work that often gets us to the next level.

So how do you become the person who can grind through this boring work? The person who can execute, with persistence, on what needs to be done—regardless of how exciting it is at the time? That’s what we’ll look at in this article. Here’s the breakdown:

  • There is always boring work to be done
  • How work gets boring: peak & trough dynamics
  • Your ability to grind through boring work is a competitive advantage
  • Boring work changes you (in a good way)
  • The System: A multi-faceted approach to grinding through the boring work
    • Step 1: Get clear, get going
    • Step 2: Identify & remind yourself of the delayed & immediate rewards
    • Step 3: Don’t deviate
  • Tool: Increase the resolution of progress
  • Tool: Focus on the inputs
  • Tool: Robotic action
  • Tool: Cut out distractions

There is always boring work to be done

Anything worth doing requires that you grind through some amount of boring work.

If you’re a writer, then sitting down and planning out what you’re going to write, getting into the zone while writing your first draft—that might be an enjoyable experience. You enter flow states. You’re making progress. You write some good sentences and paragraphs.

But when it comes to editing, you might be bored out of your mind. You put it off, you procrastinate, you have an urge to publish your work even though you know it’s not ready—simply because you want to avoid the boring work of editing.

Or perhaps you’re a student studying for exams. You find some topics interesting, others extremely boring. But you need to study the boring ones too.

Or you’re an entrepreneur, in which case boredom is a good friend of yours. Whether it’s doing cold outreach to potential customers, organizing finances, admin work, or simply being in the trenches while building a new product—there’s a lot of boring work.

This is normal.

Even if you do what you love—what you’re extremely passionate about—it will still often feel like work. The important thing is to recognize this, learn how to do that work, and not change course when you go through a boring phase.

How work gets boring: peak/trough dynamics

When it comes to work—particularly creative work and entrepreneurship—it looks something like a sine wave. You have peaks and troughs of excitement/interest/passion/drive.

When you start a project, you’re often in a state of high motivation. It’s exciting. You’re thinking of all the possibilities. You find it easy to sit down and do the work. In fact, you almost feel compelled to do so. Anyone can work hard when they’re motivated.

That motivation inevitably fades. You enter the trough. You’re in a state of low motivation. It’s not exciting. You’re starting to doubt whether you should continue. You find sitting down and doing the work boring and difficult.

There can be a number of reasons why you fall into this trough.

First, you lose sight of your goal. You forget why you’re pursuing it in the first place, or perhaps you never had a strong enough reason and were just riding off high motivation coming from elsewhere. Your vision of the delayed reward in the future isn’t clear, or you haven’t been focusing on it.

Second, you stop experiencing the immediate rewards from doing the work. One of the most powerful immediate rewards we get from doing work is entering into an enjoyable flow state. Entering flow states is really what we all want. There’s nothing comparable to being in a state of flow while working. But, as the research shows, these states generally happen when we’re doing work that is sufficiently challenging—not too easy, not too hard.

And so as we work on a project, our work might become increasingly difficult which pulls us out of a flow state and produces a feeling of boredom—we have to grind through to figure it out (not in a state of flow). Or we might have to push through a bunch of work that isn’t challenging, but it is boring. We don’t experience flow.

Another reason why we fall into this trough is framing and self-narrative. If you tell yourself the work is boring, it will be so. Don’t get me wrong—some work is genuinely boring. Like today, I have to read through a bunch of documents and sign them. That is boring work. But if I keep telling myself how boring it is and how much I’m dreading that task, then it’s likely that A) it will be even harder for me to sit down and start work on it, and B) I’ll find it even more boring than it needs to be, because of how I’m perceiving it.

What people fail to realize is that you can pull yourself out of this trough AND reduce the severity of it in the future. Instead of an up and down sine wave, you spend more of your time in a state of high motivation and drive—which carries you through the boring work.

You can’t completely remove this trough. But that’s okay, because the trough is also the place where winners are made.

Your ability to grind through boring work is a competitive advantage

Consider two people who start going to the gym with the same goal of wanting to build muscle. Josh and Jake.

Josh does some quick research online, finds a 12-week workout plan with basic lifts focused on progressive overload, and gets started.

Jake does the same.

Three weeks in, the boredom starts to hit both of them. Josh realizes that boredom is part of the process, and that it’s okay to be bored, and that simply because he’s bored it doesn’t mean he’s not making progress. Boredom is not an indicator of lack of progress, if anything, it’s an indicator of progress.

Jake feels a strong urge to escape boredom and find a “new approach” to working out. He does more research, finds a different plan, and “restarts.”

Who’s going to build more muscle in the long run? Josh. Simply because he can handle the boredom better. He can do the work, even when it loses its lustre.

This ability and willingness to embrace and tolerate boredom is an extreme competitive advantage. You see it time and time again in various domains.

The writer who can sit down, day after day, and write for 3-4 hours—for years. How many aspiring writers do that for two weeks, get bored, and then try something else?

Anything exceptional requires consistent effort over time. If you always pursue what’s immediately interesting and enjoyable to you, then you’ll forever be starting and abandoning projects. You crave the surge of excitement that comes from starting something, and you find it easy to get stuck into the work, but as soon as it starts getting boring and you have to grind—something new pops up and you jump over to it instead.

When you avoid the boring work, you forgo the rewards that come from long-term commitment and compounding.

Compounding is, quite often, boring.

Investing in an index fund every year for 20 years is not exciting, it’s boring. But the compounding effects of it are life-changing.

Working on your business for years on end is quite often boring. But the compounding effects of it can be life-changing.

You shouldn’t chase boredom. I think there’s something to be said about pursuing work that interests you and you’re intensely curious about. Especially because it helps you overcome the activation threshold that holds so many of us back from being productive,. Paul Graham says this in his article How to Do Great Work.

But you must tolerate boredom, because even the most interesting project will require you to do so.

The more you can tolerate and work through the boring phases, the further you separate yourself from those who can’t—or choose not to.

Boring work changes you (in a good way)

“Your work, works on you, more than you, work on it.” —Alex Hormozi

It’s not just about the material outcome that boring work leads to. It’s not just about the product you launch, the book you write, the race you complete…

It’s also about how you transform as a person through doing that work. The character that you build by negating your impulses and delaying gratification. The mental strength you acquire. The self-discipline you build.

This carries with you throughout life. It’s evidence that you can do hard things. It’s something you can fall back on as a reminder when you feel like quitting.

I distinctly remember a few times early on in business when I had to grind hard on projects. A lot of it was boring work, but it paid off extremely well. Those experiences are deeply embedded in my psyche. They help me still to this day to quell self-doubt, because I can easily point to them and say to myself, “You are capable of this, because you’ve done it before. You can grind through this boring work and make it through to the other side.”

If you’re going to romanticize something, then romanticize the process—not the outcome. View the boring work as beautiful, because that’s what it is. It’s the work of a professional, not an amateur.

The System: A Multi-Faceted Approach to Grinding Through The Important Boring Work

Step 1: Get clear, get going

We want to start by getting clear on what we’re doing and why we’re doing the boring work in the first place. If we’re not sure why we’re doing it, then it’s hard to tolerate it, because we’ll always be asking, “What’s the point?” — I mean, even when you do have extremely strong motivation and reason for doing what you do, you still find yourself asking that question sometimes when things get boring and painful.

When I talk about getting clear—gaining clarity—I do not mean some perfect plan or perfect idea of what it is you want to do. If you’ve read my article on “purpose” then you’ll be aware of a concept I call The Purpose Fallacy. I think for most people, trying to seek that perfect purpose and clarity is a big mistake.

What I’m talking about is getting clear on a direction, and moving in that direction. It doesn’t need to feel perfect. It doesn’t need to feel like your god-given mission even. It just needs to provide some positive benefit. Enough to pull you through the boring work.

Let’s use one of my goals at the moment as an example. Last year I noticed myself starting to overthink and doubt what I was doing. I knew that if I let it continue, then I’d think myself into a cycle of inaction. So I reoriented and reminded myself of the goal I had, which was to publish 100 YouTube videos. I told myself that after I’d hit that milestone, then (and only then) I could make a decision about what to do next.

I got clear on this goal again. I reminded myself of why it was important. How it would benefit me both externally and internally. And I got moving again.

Is making 100 YouTube videos my life’s mission? No. Is it the best possible thing I could be working on right now? Probably not—but I don’t know what that is, so in the absence of clarity it’s a damn good option.

You need to get clear on something. You need to have a goal. And you need to get started.

Your goal needs to be quantifiable and have a clear end point—otherwise step 3 will be hard to stick to.

Step 2: Identify & write out the delayed & immediate rewards—then remind yourself of them.

A useful tool for persisting through boredom is to hone in on the rewards you gain from doing the work: both the immediate rewards and delayed rewards.

In most cases, we think about the delayed rewards we’ll eventually get through doing the work. The money we’ll make after we complete the project and launch it. The recognition we’ll gain from publishing our essay. The weight we’ll lose by exercising and eating healthy.

But we can also hone in on the immediate, intrinsic rewards.

The state of flow we might enter while working on the project. The feeling of accomplishment we gain after a 45 min focused work block. And so on.

When you’re finding it hard to persist, then you can dial up one or both of these.

For example, with my goal to get to 100 videos, I might be hyperaware of the delayed reward: I know I’ll feel extremely accomplished. Extrinsically, I’ll probably make some money and get other rewards – status, a bigger audience, etc.

But what if I’m still finding it hard to persist? Well, I can hone in on the immediate, intrinsic rewards. I can remind myself of the rewarding feeling I get when I’m writing a video script, and that that feeling is much better than the feeling I get when I avoid working on my 100 video goal. If I meditate on that, I’ll be more likely to persist.

This also works the other way too. I might be so focused on the immediate, intrinsic rewards and I start to face resistance. I get bored again. I start questioning why I’m doing what I’m doing. In which case I can come back to the delayed rewards that I identified beforehand—the why behind what I’m doing.

You want to practically remind yourself off the payoff you gain by pushing through the boring work. How you do this is up to you, but I would suggest physically writing out these payoffs with pen and paper and having it on your desk while you’re working. If you really want to embed them in your mind, then write them out daily. This is not something I do, but it’s something I would do if I felt the need. I do write my goals out in a physical journal each morning—a similar practice which keeps me on task each day.

Step 3: Don’t deviate

The third and final step is to suppress and ignore the desire to deviate, because it will come up.

When you’re in the midst of a project and you’re finding it boring, you’ll find that you have a bunch of exciting ideas and goals that you could pursue instead. The like that we tell ourselves in this situation is that the other ideas and goals are better, and that we should jump ship to pursue them.

Sometimes this is genuinely the case. I talk about this in my video on Signal-driven decision making. But almost always, it’s a distraction and you’ll just end up repeating the cycle (you’ll jump to the new thing and then find another new thing—but you’ll never finish anything).

To become someone who grinds through the boring work, you must become someone who doesn’t deviate from the path until they’ve hit completion. You must train yourself to finish things.

In step 1, you got clear on your goal. You know what it is. You know where you’re at in relation to achieving it. Continue on. Remind yourself off the payoff. When you’re tempted to deviate, remember that doing so will likely weaken you, and the character you want to build comes from staying the course.

Remind yourself that your ability to stay the course and endure through the boring work is a competitive advantage in a world where people hop from idea to idea, project to project, forgoing the benefits that come from commitment and compounding.

Tool: Increase the resolution of progress

One reason why it’s hard to push through the boring work is that it can feel hopeless. You’ve set a goal, but the achievement of that goal seems so far off in the distance. The work you need to do today doesn’t seem to get you any closer, even if theoretically it is.

The problem is, you’re playing the game at a low resolution. You’re viewing progress on the macro-scale. Perhaps you’ve set a goal to gain 10 pounds of muscle. You’re 3 weeks in and you’re bored and struggling. Well, that’s because it takes a long time to gain 10 pounds of muscle, and if that’s the only frame with which you view your goal, then it’s easy to get discouraged. That’s a low resolution frame.

You need to increase the resolution by breaking that goal down. This is not a novel concept, it’s simply breaking the goal down into smaller pieces. Your overarching goal is to gain 10 pounds of muscle, but there are markers of progress you can embrace and celebrate today to keep you interested and reduce boredom.

It might be that you break a PR on your bench press. It might be that you’ve consistently hit your macro targets for a full week.

Increasing your resolution, and not ignoring the small improvements, helps you build momentum and push through the boring work. The more boring it is, the more you should increase this resolution and find ways to play the game in a more interesting way.

Tool: Focus on the inputs

Focusing on the inputs is another way to increase the resolution of progress, but it’s specifically focused on what you can control.

You might not be able to control whether you hit a new PR on your bench press, or whether your new YouTube video you’ve spent lots of time on gets the views you want it to get, but you can control the inputs: going to the gym and completing 3 sets of bench press. Writing the script for your next video.

Focusing on the inputs doesn’t necessarily make the boring work exciting, but it does pull you out of the land of fear and doubt. It helps you suppress the overthinking brain that wonders why you’re not making progress and whether you should quit and do something else.

Focusing on the inputs means that you cultivate a love of effort, not just outcome.

To use this tool, ask:

What are the inputs that matter?

This is the first question.

In pursuit of your goal, what is the work that brings you closer to achievement? If you don’t know what that is, then you haven’t broken down your goal enough.

This work can be consistent daily effort, like writing or making cold calls. Or it can be a sequence of specific tasks.

Identify the inputs, and don’t deceive yourself. Some inputs are effective but uncomfortable (like cold calling). The temptation is to find other inputs that satisfy your desire to feel busy but let you avoid the discomfort required to effectively move forward.

Am I ruthlessly focused on those inputs?

Success isn’t a mathematical equation, but it’s useful to think of it as one if it helps you do better work. This is the point of living an input-focused life: that you do the things that increase your chance of success, and even if you fail it’s been worthwhile anyway.

If you want to write a book, then every other strategy and tactic is downstream of one input: writing the actual words. Write for two hours every day—which most people will not do—and you increase your chance of success significantly. And you feel accomplished every day.

That last point is important. The person who only focuses on the end goal while ignoring the inputs not only fails to achieve their goal, they don’t get to experience joy and satisfaction in the process. Their daily work is not a metric for them. Every day that they haven’t achieved their big goal is a day they haven’t succeeded.

For the input-focused person, every day is a success—assuming they’ve done the inputs. It’s a more enjoyable way to live.

How do you know if you’re ruthlessly focused on the inputs?

Track the inputs. I use apple notes. The inputs that matter most to me right now are reading and writing time. 60-90 mins each, every day.

Tool: Robotic Action

What holds us back from doing the boring work is not that the work is boring. We can do boring things. It’s that we create a bunch of excuses and reasons to not do the boring thing. We put it off, we tell ourselves a story about why we shouldn’t do it, and so on.

Robotic action is about doing the physical movements. It’s about sitting down and writing words, even if you’re bored out of your mind working on the 2nd draft of your book. Literally making your fingers move on the keyboard. Nothing more, nothing less.

It’s about editing the video even after you’ve spent hours on it.

It’s about doing more research, reading through dense scientific papers to find that insight you’re after.

Engaging in this robotic, mechanical action means:

  • You don’t analyze what you’re doing or overthink it.
  • You don’t create a bunch of preconditions before you start doing the work. You just do it.
  • You’re not emotional about it. You just take action.
  • You work mechanically. You’re not “thinking” about what you’re doing. You’re just doing it. You’re not anxious about the outcome of the work. You’re just staying on task.

And you might be thinking, “Well Sam, that sounds depressing. I don’t want to work like that!”

Is it depressing? Because to me, it’s more depressing to use coping mechanisms like “I’m not feeling it today so I’m going to avoid what I know I should do.” That weakens your core, it weakens your identity and you know it. It never feels good to avoid what’s important.

To think that your entire life needs to be one constant flow of pure joy and happiness is naive. Sometimes you just have to be robotic and get done what needs to be done. It doesn’t need to be depressing, it’s just reality.

And the funny thing is, when you engage in robotic action, what usually happens is that you feel satisfaction soon after starting. Not always. Sometimes it’s a grind from start to finish. But often you get 10-15 mins into the boring work you needed to do and it’s all good.

Tool: Cut out distractions

Some useful tools for cutting out distractions:

  • SelfControl. Good app for Mac. ColdTurkey is a Windows equivalent.
  • ScreenTime. Get your partner or a friend to enter a screentime password, then block the ability to download apps or visit certain websites. This is basically foolproof, because you need to ask for the password each time you want to do something you’re not supposed to do.
  • Greyscale on iPhone

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