Minimize Boring Tasks with Flow

The Sisyphus Series, Part III

If you have to push a boulder up a hill, when do you want to do it?—And by “when” I mean right after doing what and right before doing what? The modern day Sisyphus might choose to do it after work, before arriving home, exactly when he’s not going to the gym he signed up to be a member of. Or he might want to do it first thing in the morning, to get it out of the way and wake himself up. The principle here is choosing the timing that’s easiest for you.

I choose not to scoop my cats’ litter box in the morning, because I want as little responsibility in the morning as possible; morning isn’t a good time for me. I scoop at night, but not last thing before coming to bed, because I’ve just concluded my ablutions, and ick, gross. I prefer to do it some time (an hour or more) before my pre-bedtime routine, because otherwise getting ready for bed feels tedious enough that I begin to avoid it and stay up too late. So I scoop shortly after dinner, at exactly the same time that my wife feeds the cats. The argument has been made that this is illogical timing, as soon after they eat they will effectively undo my work. But I don’t care. Having poop in the box overnight is tolerable, and doing the chore when I mind it least makes it substantially less avoidance-worthy.

Another example. I coached someone who decided to take a rigorous professional exam that requires months of study. We explored the question of how he wanted to do his studying in terms of when and where it would fit best into the flow of his day. He found that studying while he ate lunch at work gave him natural start and end times, and the study material became more interesting than he had expected because it was now sandwiched between and in comparison with his job duties, which were less than enthralling.

To choose the timing that works well for you, let’s again (as we did in Part II) call on your imagination. Picture yourself ending one activity—leaving the bar where you hang out with friends on Friday nights, for instance—and then picture what you will probably do next—sleep it off at home, for instance—and then try inserting your task in between them—practicing for your driving test, for instance—and see how it feels to imagine that flow of events. If it doesn’t feel good, try out a different opportunity in your day: getting out of class with your friend who has a car, for instance—insert practicing for driving test—going to your retail therapy appointment with Dr. T.J. Maxx. And now check to see how this new flow feels.

Look for flows that score high on both the Easy and Settled Stomach scales, and low on the Concerning and Agitating scales. To do the scoring, consult your gut, your heart, and your intellect. Look for consensus; i.e. if any one part of you—gut, heart, brain—objects, move on and imagine a new flow.

Sometimes an easy flow is all we need to be able to get something done. Grocery shopping is a typical example of this; most people I talk to don’t despise their local supermarket, they just find going there inconvenient much of the time. Well, when—in between what two activities—is food shopping more on your way? That’s what easy flow is about: slotting a dull chore where it is least in your way and getting it out of the way as effortlessly as possible.


Overpower Boring Tasks with Tools

The Sisyphus Series, Part II

OK, you’re Sisyphus. You’ve got this enormous rock to get up the hill. You can push it yourself, or you can drive it up in your Ford F350 truck. Like crows, humans can use tools! Don’t have a truck? Use a scaffold and a jackhammer. If you’re stuck with low-tech, do what English villagers did to break up ancient megaliths to get stones to build their houses: heat the boulder with fire, then throw cold water on it, causing it to shatter. This is what is now known as “chunking” a daunting task.

Sometimes people feel some resistance to employing tools, perhaps out of a sense that I can do it myself. Pride in ability and work is an admirable human quality. It is not mandatory, nor is it advisable in all situations. I want to take pride in abilities I value and in work I care about. A boring chore that I wish were finished before I even start it, though? Who cares?

I mentioned in Part I that scooping the cat box is one of my daily Sisyphean chores. We actually have a cat tub—higher walls, better containment. The litter I use has a nasty tendency to stick to the sides of the tub, and scraping it takes both persistence and strength. Not once after struggling with heavy, wet litter did I feel any impulse to spike the scooper and prance while flexing my muscles. I just wanted the ordeal to be easier. I bought a cheap mallet to knock the litter loose by banging the outer walls.

The effect of good tools is increased power, smart strength, a form of leverage. With the application of technology, even as simple as a rubber mallet, my power increases and my required effort therefore decreases. The job becomes easier. I grow in stature relative to the chore.

Try this. Pick one of your boring tasks. Now in your imagination picture yourself in the act of doing it. What would augment your powers in tackling this job? What would make it easier for you? If you find yourself thinking rationally about this and no ideas are coming, then close your eyes and return to your imaginative picturing.

Here’s an example of discovering tool power via imagination, from one of my clients. She dreaded having to clean snow off her car. She complained that snow removal paraphernalia for cars are pathetic, and invariably she ended up covered in snow, with some always falling into one or both of her shoes. I asked her to fantasize how she ideally would want to clear her car of snow. Her first image was a giant hair dryer. Her second was a leaf blower she had seen a neighbor using one day. She didn’t like the noise (or the price) of a leaf blower, but she loved the image of being able to blow the snow away from herself instead of sweeping it downward onto her clothes and shoes. This was a key stage in our exploration: noticing what she liked. We put two things together: the usual sweeping of snow off the car, plus moving the snow away from her. She wondered if a push-broom that she had would serve the purpose. After the next blizzard, she gleefully reported using her push-broom to shove two-foot columns of snow away from her and off her car, and being done faster than ever. Her dread of the chore vanished. She even enjoyed a feeling similar to mastery, like she was showing the snow who was boss.

If you allow yourself to imagine freely, and trust your gut feelings about what you like and dislike, you might be surprised at what you can envision. Dare to diminish drudgery!

The tool power principle extends beyond manual labor. If you have a paper to write, a thorny problem to solve, a political situation at work to navigate… think about what resources are available to you. Who can help or advise? What templates or techniques do others use? Expand your resources, expand your power.


Make Boring Tasks Easy

The Sisyphus Series, Part I

I have the shittiest job in the house. I scoop my cats’ litter box. A couple of years ago I successfully traded the after-dinner clean-up for scooping the cat box plus a second round draft pick. I scoop every day. I don’t like doing it; I find it tedious and uninteresting. This is a challenge for me, an ADDer. My brain’s “reward center”—you know, the part of my brain that hands me a pink dopamine-stuffed walrus every time I shoot water into a clown’s mouth and burst a balloon, providing me the motivation to pick up the water pistol and compete against seven-year-olds—functions less than optimally; which is to say (to follow the absurd metaphor) that my brain is understocked with pink dopamine-stuffed walruses. I therefore have trouble feeling rewarded, and my motivation is apt to drop, unless I experience genuine interest in the activity. Scooping poop does not float my boat. Quickly I felt no sense of the value to me of having gotten out of washing the dishes. My motivation drained, and the chore became Sisyphean. Sisyphus, you may recall, pushed the same boulder up the same hill every day, for at night while he slept the gods caused the boulder to roll back down to the hill’s foot. Perhaps more than most, ADDers recognize Sisyphus’ fate as a divine curse.

The problem with a Sisyphean task is that it feels goalless. What satisfaction is to be had by rolling the boulder up the hill? Is there ice cream at the top? No. Can I brag that I did it? OK, I’ll take that. But then I have to do it again, and again, and again…. It’s difficult to get myself to do a chore I don’t feel is rewarding, unless I force myself. I don’t know about you, but when I force myself to do something I don’t want to do, I, the laborer, end up resenting myself, the boss. I chronically come to my forced task late, making me want to take disciplinary action against myself. Occasionally I’ll go on strike, and hire imaginary thugs to break the strike…. It gets ugly fast, and I look like an immature moron.

Most of the time my solution to this problem is to circumnavigate it. To the extent I can, I steer my life so as to maximize opportunities to do things I want to do, while respectfully declining things I don’t enjoy. I realize, however, that many do not enjoy the privilege of dodging undesirable tasks, and I myself still have to do things I don’t like, like change the cat box every day.

What can help us accomplish tasks that do not reward our effort with any feeling of accomplishment? Consider this. If you had to pick one, which boring task would you choose to take on: (a) one that required significant effort, was out of your way, and demanded constant attention, or (b) one that required a bit of effort, was on your way, and demanded periodic attention? This series is about how to turn boring overwhelming task (a) into boring doable task (b). For litter-box-changers everywhere, I offer the following principles:

  • Tool Power
  • Flow
  • Alienation of the Worker

Tools increase your power, making tasks puny, thereby reducing required effort. Flow lets you dispose of chores when it is most convenient for you. Alienation of the worker (that is, yourself) enables you to get through painfully tedious jobs competently with the equivalent of attentional Novocain, so you experience much less pain and tedium.

Each of these principles will be explored in practical terms in the next three posts.


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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