Stay on Task!

How we are motivated to do boring tasks

I want to further explore an element that I recently talked about, that is the phenomenon that if a task is boring and uninteresting and the extrinsic motivation – a reward – is inadequate, then intrinsic motivation grows. We feel more motivated to do the task.


This is counter-intuitive. We usually believe that if something is boring then the only way to get someone to do it is to offer a reward (or a punishment). The punishment side of this phenomenon is that we actually get more of the behaviour we want with a lesser rather than a greater punishment – also counter-intuitive.

The obvious implication of this phenomenon is that we will get maximum intrinsic motivation on a boring task when there is neither reward nor punishment offered!

The research behind this is based on the idea of cognitive dissonance, which is explained as follows: I am doing a boring task, the reward is inadequate so there is dissonance – why am I doing the task? To reduce dissonance, we either stop the task or we increase our liking for the task. If we cannot stop it, then our motivation must go up – which is widely observed.

So, what we are doing when we offer a reward is prevent the task from being abandoned whilst at the same time reducing the motivation to do the task, and hence reducing any learning associated with it.

What an outstanding teacher does is prevent task abandonment without offering any reward so that intrinsic motivation to do the task rises and greater learning takes place.

The outstanding teacher does this through the practice of encounter which causes the student to go out of their way not to disappoint or let down their teacher. In this case, not to abandon a boring task.

Who would have thought?

John Corrigan is an expert in helping individuals to bring their whole of mind to their daily life and increase their effectiveness and the effectiveness of those around them. This expertise scales from the individual to the team to the organisation. At the core of this work is the practice of encounter.

John Corrigan