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  • Anna Weltner

What Mary Poppins taught my ADHD brain about tackling boring tasks

Boring tasks are a fact of life, even if you love your job. Anna Weltner shares what Mary Poppins can teach us about bringing joy to work's dullest corners.

An umbrella floating in the sky, beside a bird.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Let me tell you a secret: I don't do anything boring. It's not that I refuse to. I would if I could, but I physically can't. As a person with ADHD, I have what's called an "interest-based nervous system." For me to find motivation, it's never been enough for me to know that a task is important. It must also interest me.

You're now thinking, "Cool, Anna. And you lead an independent adult life how, exactly? You got a magical nanny?"

Funny you should ask. I set out to write a piece about what I, a person with ADHD, can teach others about making dull tasks more enjoyable. I wanted to share my coping mechanisms and strategies for energizing boring chores; tricks I use to make adult "life admin" doable and resist the chaos that otherwise ensues from leaving them undone. But with every bullet point of "advice” I wrote, something weird happened. A perfect quote or scene from a 1964 Julie Andrews musical, one I have not seen since childhood, came to mind.

Mary Poppins. That’s where I got all my coping strategies.

I am just as surprised as you are to discover that most of my wisdom on this subject can be traced to this unexpected source text. But it seems the time has come to embrace the outsize influence of the Poppins way on my work life, and give credit where it is due. So, very well. This is now a piece about how Mary Poppins taught my ADHD brain how to bring joy into work's dullest corners.

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The Poppins way

"In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and—snap!—the job's a game."

—Mary Poppins, Mary Poppins

Chimneys in an English skyline waiting for Mary Poppins.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

The posh, repressed Banks family is looking for a new nanny for their two kids, Jane and Michael, but no one in Edwardian London seems to be up to the job. The children write their own adorable advertisement for the kind of cheery, fun nanny they would like, but fun-hating workaholic Mr. Banks tears it up and throws it in the fireplace. A wind lifts the pieces and carries them wistfully across the London skyline. The next morning, Mary floats down into the Banks’s world. This is how it starts.

Mary is different. She values order, politeness, and discipline, but also play, curiosity, and wonder. These latter three qualities allow her to move through the world in an open-minded and compassionate way. To walk the streets with Mary is to move through a richer and more vibrant city; a place where friends can be found in many forms, and a chalk drawing can be a portal to a temporary alternate universe.

Yet the Poppins way is not to live a fantasy life devoid of responsibilities and hard truths, but simply to animate the everyday with fleeting moments of wonder. Mary’s first act as the new nanny is to turn a dreaded chore into a game called “Tidy Up the Nursery.” The Poppins way is not to shirk life’s responsibilities (which would probably be my go-to move), or to diligently suffer through them (as exemplified by the Banks family’s workaholic patriarch) but to make them delightful.

To the ADHD mind, the beauty of this third option cannot be understated. For us, all work must be interesting or we won’t do it. One way to make a task interesting is to neglect it long enough that some awful consequence starts to loom heavy on the horizon: "I need to pay the electricity bill, or I won't have lights in my house." In context of this exciting new threat, the boring task suddenly becomes very interesting. But there’s just one problem, which is that relying on persistent existential stress as a motivator is no way to live. Unanswered emails weigh on your mind. Dirty dishes stink up your dreams.

The Poppins way is to make the task fun, while you still have a job, and friends, and there is still electricity and running water at your house. If your brain works like mine, you must insist on making onerous duties delightful before they have a chance to haunt you. Fun is non-negotiable. It’s your last defense against chaos.

I know not everyone is wired like me. Some of you can do boring things simply because they are "important" or "necessary." But ADHD or not, I find the idea of anyone having to suffer through even one boring activity on a regular basis to be, well, unacceptable! Don't you?

A woman dressed in the style of Mary Poppins stands in a front garden.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Boring tasks vs. boring work

Before I get started, I'd like to clarify the difference between boring, unenjoyable work and a boring task. It's true that finding a job "doing what you love" can vastly improve your level of happiness, peace, and satisfaction at work, as demonstrated in this piece by human potential researcher Marcus Buckingham. (We're reading Buckingham's Love + Work at the MeaningSphere Book Club this month, so he's on our minds lately. Join us for a virtual discussion on on February 29!)

But in itself, this is not a cure for boring tasks. Even in your most ideal job, there will almost certainly be things to do'd just really...rather not. I'm focusing on those small pet peeves for a moment; the little picture, if you will. Whether your work is a source of passion, fulfillment, and delight or just a source of income, those dull, annoying parts will always be there. Thus, taking the time to turn your onerous chores and minor inconveniences into small pleasures is a worthwhile practice, and even an act of self-love.

The five Pops

So, here are five helpful pieces of Poppins wisdom anyone can use. I’ll call them Pops.

Pop # 1: “Well begun is half done,” even if you don’t do the hardest part first

Growing up, parents and teachers often instructed me that the way to tackle my schoolwork was to start with my weakest and most hated subject, and save the most beloved, "easier" one for last. What a miserable idea. The logic of "doing the hardest first," and saving the easy wins for later, is very prevalent in the workplace as well. If that's working for you, wonderful! You can skip ahead.

For myself, and anyone else still reading, this advice only guarantees suffering: we become so discouraged by the hard part that we don't even get to the nice, rewarding part. If this is you, an enjoyable "quick win" could be a great way to start your project, or your day. Getting started is often the hardest part, so why make yourself miserable? Once you’ve started, you’ll have the momentum to carry you to the harder task. As Mary says, “Well begun is half done.”

Pop # 2: “The job's a game”

Remember “Let’s play Tidy Up the Nursery?” Mary was well ahead of the tech world in her application of game principles to everyday tasks, and her understanding of how making a job into a game has the potential not only to motivate people, but to delight them.

"Gamification," a term coined in the early 2000s, is present everywhere now, from social media to online gambling to fitness apps. It's why your local coffee shop has a punchcard, and it's how the language-learning app Duolingo makes daily Italian practice addictive.

You can easily turn tasks into a low-tech game by introducing a competitive element, a rewards system, or a time-based challenge. Here's an example of the latter: If I am really dreading some minor chore (say, putting my availability in a spreadsheet, or packing up some pieces of equipment I have spread out over the floor) I'll set a timer on my phone, or put on a piece of music, and tell myself the object of the game to finish the task before the timer, or before the end of the song.

A weather vane on a rooftop.
Image credit: Pixabay on Pexels

Pop # 3: Don’t fend for yourself (like Mr. Banks)

In Mary Poppins, cockney chimney sweep Bert (a cringe Dick Van Dyke) expresses pity for the children’s wealthy banker father, much to Jane’s surprise.

“Who looks after your father?” Bert asks. “Tell me that. When something terrible happens, what does he do? Fends for himself, he does. Who does he tell about it? No one! Don't blab his troubles at home. He just pushes on at his job, uncomplaining and alone and silent.”

Embedded in this moment is a belief that money isn’t everything, but also a deep conviction that we work better together; that everyone needs support. In your own work, this could mean having someone to talk to who makes the time go by faster, or having a trusted collaborator who compliments your strengths. But I’ve found that even working silently in the presence of others is beneficial to my sense of motivation (hence, the appeal of writing in cafes and libraries).

You may have heard of "body-doubling," a technique some ADHD folks swear by. The idea is that working in the presence of another focused person boosts your own ability to focus. This idea also the premise of Cave Day, a site that offers facilitated, virtual "deep work" sessions. While I am personally too cheap to pay someone to watch me write, I intuitively understand why the idea appeals to so many.

But even if you don't opt to work alongside someone (in the physical or virtual sense), the buddy system can still be helpful in the form of an accountability partner—someone who agrees to check in with you and keep you on track.

Pop # 4: A spoonful of...something

Another helpful practice is to pair a boring work activity with a nice one. There's another Poppins reference here that escapes me at the moment. It's something like, "Only a small measure of sucrose aids the ingestion of bitterer, yet curative and thus necessary, substances," but don't quote me.

So you pair a dull activity with one you love, until the two are fused in your brain. When you find the right combo, you'll actually start looking forward to it. An hour spent organizing your desk is now a chance to listen to a guilty-pleasure audiobook. The invoicing you used to put off is rebranded as a solo coffee-and-cake date. That tedious Zoom recording you said you'd watch by Monday becomes a strange soap opera when consumed on the couch at double playback speed with a steaming cup of hot cocoa. What starts out as a way to help the medicine go down might turn into an enjoyable ritual in its own right.

Pop # 5: “There’s the whole world at your feet,” so don’t be afraid to change your environment

Many of us now work remotely. Currently, a whopping 16% of American companies are fully remote according to Forbes, with more operating on a hybrid model, and apparently everyone (well, 98%, according to the same Forbes piece) wants to be remote, at least part of the time. While this setup can mean more flexibility for workers, it can also mean isolation from others and a lack of structure—two things that can make work really drag.

If you're remote, try using this flexibility to your advantage by changing your environment as you change tasks. This might give your brain the stimulation it so craves. Changing your environment could mean getting up and going for a walk and coming back refreshed, or taking your work to the library, coffee shop, or a friend's place. While a boss might reward you for sitting in the same spot for eight hours, your creativity, energy, and motivation will be elusive.

If your roaming capabilities are limited, changing your environment could mean grabbing a five-minute fresh air break, moving to the sofa from the desk, turning on an energizing (or calming) playlist, opening a window, or turning off "the big light" and turning on some ambient lighting instead. It could be reading a book that transports you mentally. It could mean changing your clothes, as far as I'm concerned.

The River Thames and Big Ben at dusk.
Image credit: Shutterstock

And if all else fails, just change your attitude

Just kidding. On its own, “change your attitude” is a useless bit of advice. It's like if your doctor recommended having fewer chronic migraines, or your therapist asked if you'd tried feeling less depressed—it's not actionable if they don't say how to get there. In its most toxic form, "change your attitude" is deployed to shift the blame for systemic problems onto individuals and their interior states. That’s not what we’re interested in.

Instead, consider what the five Pops have in common. They’re not about getting you out of doing annoying tasks. They’re about changing something about how you approach a task by looking for opportunities for play, camaraderie, and discovery. They’re about making work, work for you.

So on that note, I'll share what I do when all else fails to motivate me. I don't know if this one's a Pop, necessarily, but it's the last magic trick I have in my own carpetbag: I connect the task to something I love. That’s it. I picture a positive outcome to the task, once finished, in which someone is enjoying some benefit from my actions. Who, or what, am I really doing it for? Myself, a partner, a coworker, a client, a viewer, a reader? The greater good? My cat? It really depends on the task.

Where, I ask myself, does this piece of work connect to something I care deeply about—whether it's as fundamental as earning money to keep my household afloat, as humble as keeping my word, or as noble as improving access to the arts or fighting deforestation?

Will someone's life be just a tiny bit better because this stupid task got done?

Even if it's just mine?

And then I get started, spit spot.


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