Three years ago, I noticed a disturbing pattern on my to-do list. Although I dealt with urgent and relatively easy items in a timely manner, other unpleasant tasks hung around the bottom of my list for months. Staring back at me. Stalwart. Maybe even mocking me.
These items all had two things in common:
- None of them had a hard deadline.
- All of them were very, very unpleasant.
These unpleasant tasks were doing more than clogging up the bottom of my to-do lists. They were creating a humming baseline of anxiety in my daily life.
For example, I would be passing a slightly swerving semi-truck on the interstate and once again realize that I’ve never written a will that would protect my children in the event of my gruesome semi-truck death. Or I would watch my 2-year-old pass another amazing milestone and remember, grimacing, that her baby book is dusty and blank while “clobber baby book” is helplessly languishing at the very bottom of my to-do list.
These tasks never fit into my packed schedule as a mom of two and a business owner, and I would always rather do something else—anything, really—than confront them.
Introducing National Unpleasant Task Day
I could really only think of one way to get them done: invent a fake holiday.
It falls on the first Sunday in June, and it’s called National Unpleasant Task Day.
National Unpleasant Task Day, or NUT Day, is a specific day of silencing self-nagging—a day of grinning and bearing it. It is a day of scheduling a physical after seven years of not seeing the doctor. A day of ridding the gutters of tiny baby trees growing in their thick muck of decaying leaves. A day of finally, unapologetically asking for a raise.
National Unpleasant Task Day is in many ways the opposite of other holidays. It’s anti-social. There are no parties or gifts or representative foods. You don’t spend time preparing for the day; instead, it’s a day of action and accomplishment. Yet despite the expected degree of discomfort, the holiday creates a surprisingly euphoric feeling that grows with every completed task. Unlike holidays that leave you feeling stuffed and emotionally hungover, NUT Day creates pleasure out of pain.
It gets sh-t done.
And there’s no cleanup afterward.
My first National Unpleasant Task Day was an unmitigated success: I requested estimates for painting my house, something that sorely needed to be done, but something I had been avoiding for months. It took literally five minutes, and it was gone from my to-do list.
I organized my estimated tax slips and envelopes so that they would be ready to mail each quarter. Again, it took literally five minutes, and it was gone from my to-do list.
I “fired” a client that didn’t pay enough and whom my business had outgrown. It was unpleasant, but it also took less than five minutes.
Why NUT Day is so successful
My biggest takeaway from National Unpleasant Task Day was that most unpleasant tasks don’t take much time or effort to initiate before the ball is rolling (making a phone call, writing an email, tracking down information). After the initial ball-rolling push, most tasks complete themselves on forward inertia. Even larger tasks (like the dusty baby book) become much less unpleasant once you find a slightly longer chunk of time to get things started. Finishing the baby book is much easier than starting the baby book.
My other takeaway was that completing unpleasant tasks in a large bunch (let’s call it a bouquet of unpleasant tasks) is extremely exciting, motivating and esteem-boosting. Completing one unpleasant task gives you the energy to start the next, and so on. By the end of the day, I was brainstorming for more before the clock ran out. I didn’t feel like I had been toiling all day. I felt like I could take over the world. What started as an ironic “holiday” really felt like a celebration.
Finally, much of the magic of NUT Day is that it creates a hard deadline for tasks that would otherwise fester forever. Making a will (or other long-term planning tasks) can literally be put off for decades without a fake deadline in place.
Participate in National Unpleasant Task Day
I was on such a high about the first National Unpleasant Task Day that I was shouting about it from the rooftops. Or rather, I was telling my friends and colleagues about it in person and on social media. When the next June rolled around, my network wanted in on the celebration.
I asked a few of my friends over email what they did for National Unpleasant Task Day last year. Their answers capture the spirit of the holiday as well as the odd euphoria that comes with erasing chronic worries from the corners of your mind:
- “I finally, after eight months, rolled over my IRA from my old job to a new, private account.”
- “I cleaned my damn oven! And for some reason I loved every second of it!”
- “I went through my closet and drawers and took out clothes I don’t wear anymore. I put those clothes in bags, and in the step I am proudest of, I put those bags in my car.”
- “I untangled all of the power cords under my work desk. And then I felt free.”
- “I sent 100 work emails. Literally 100 emails.”
- “I got a vasectomy. It wasn’t that bad!”
I loved how some people chose just one or two tasks that improved their lives, while others completed a longer list. And some people had minor surgery.
For the next annual National Unpleasant Task Day, which falls on June 4, I am strangely excited. I have the day blocked off and my list ready at my side. There are a lot of really, really unpleasant tasks on there (Find a better cell phone plan! Unsubscribe from junk mail lists!).
I can’t wait. Want to join me?
This article was updated June 2023. Photo by Okrasiuk/Shutterstock
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon and Reductress.