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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.


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.

Get Started on To-Dos Without Anxiety

It’s all in the cards

Using a to-do list can be immensely helpful. But maybe, just maybe, your to-do list might start to overwhelm you. If you find yourself struggling to scale a mountain of to-dos, starting to panic that you’ll never be able to reach the top or work your way to the bottom, and contemplating just hurling yourself off the mountainside back into bed for the rest of the day—then try this.

It’s a card game. For fun, I call it Priorities Deathmatch, or sometimes Project Thunderdome. If you don’t like those names, you can call it anything you prefer.

You will need blank cards or the equivalent; index cards, stickies, even cut-up pieces of paper.

  1. Write one to-do on each card, for all the ones you want to consider right now (i.e. if you have ten to-dos you’re considering doing, you should end up with ten cards). When you’re done writing all the cards, you may optionally shuffle them.
  2. Stack the to-do cards in front of you, face down.
  3. Pick two cards off the top and turn them over. Here are two to-dos. Choose one that strikes the best balance between (a) being important to do now, and (b) your feeling prepared and willing to do now. You must choose only one of the two. (You can see why I alternately call it Priorities Deathmatch and Project Thunderdome: two tasks enter, one task leaves).
  4. Put the losing to-do in a discard pile, and take the next card off the top of the original stack. Repeat step 3: choose one of the two to-dos.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until there is only one to-do left standing. Now, do your to-do. If you complete it, great! Do whatever you want with the card—toss it, frame it, give it to your dog to chew… If you don’t complete the task, write a new card for whatever remains to be done, and stick it back in your to-do deck.

When you want to tackle another to-do, play the game again (reusing the undone to-do cards), end up with one, and do it.

Why the game works

This game is based on sound psychological and neurocognitive principles.

Two is a choice, all is chaos

How many to-dos are in a long to-do list? All of them. Can you do all of them at once? No. And often that’s the feeling that comes with looking at the whole list: I can’t do all of these!

Looking at only two to-dos at a time is a straightforward choice between two things. That’s what a choice is supposed to feel like:

This one, or that one?

Simple. Not overwhelming.

Executive functioning is fundamental

The process of choosing between two items based on the specific criteria of importance and doability is essentially a complex discrimination task. You are differentiating which to-do is more important and which is less important (however greatly or slightly); which to-do is more urgent, which less (i.e. time-sensitivity); which to-do is easier and which is harder; which you feel better prepared for and which less prepared for; which more inclined to perform at this moment and which less inclined to perform. You are unitizing (seeing a whole rather than the parts) by determining that one to-do strikes the balance between importance and doability better than the other one. You are also thinking calmly about your feelings, which is a powerful way of regulating emotion without suppressing it.

In short, you are engaged in executive functioning, and lighting up your prefrontal cortex. When your prefontal cortex activates, your amygdala (which starts the fight-flight-or-freeze response) calms down. Executive functioning reduces anxiety.

One step at a time

Even simpler and easier is having only one task to do at a time. The human mind can only concentrate on one thing at a time, so give yourself one thing only to concentrate on and do.

The to-do card game is a simple way to replace a daunting mountain with a single cute mole hill—that you can easily whack!

Free Writing

Want your papers to be thoughtful? Think on paper.

Do you sometimes know what you want to write but have trouble writing it? Are you ever given an assignment and have no earthly idea how you want to approach it?

“Freewriting” is probably the best way to throw the doors wide open between your intelligence and the blank page. It’s equivalent to, and as necessary as, warming up before beginning a strenuous physical activity. It’s certainly the easiest, consistently fruitful kind of writing there is.

Here’s How: Either on a sheet of paper or at your keyboard (always use whichever is more effortless and productive for you), write for 5–10 minutes straight without stopping. Write whatever comes into your mind, write freely. Freedom always must be protected. We all have an inner editor, whose mission is to seek and destroy bad writing; and a good and necessary mission it is, but not yet! There will be plenty of time for editing and polishing after your ideas have made it safely onto the page and been re-vised—that is, re-seen by you, not in your head but on paper. The following simple rules will prevent your inner editor from oppressing the free flow of your thoughts:

  1. Write for the full amount of time you have set yourself (usually 5–10 minutes), and keep the pen/fingers moving: no stopping, except to shake out and stretch a sore writing hand.
  2. No going back; no editing! “No editing” means no stopping to think, no deliberating, no second-guessing, no hovering over how something sounds, and certainly no rejecting (i.e. crossing out or stifling) anything. In freewriting, the concept of stopping to think is an oxymoron. Just keep the pen/fingers moving.
  3. When you’re finished, no changing what you wrote; no editing; leave what you wrote alone! The next step is not altering or deleting, but looking over and collecting any interesting thoughts that have come out.
  4. Your freewrites are your private property. No one should see, nor ask about, nor think about, nor look in the general direction of your freewrite unless you want to show it.

That’s it. That’s the whole principle: write down whatever thoughts are in the front of your mind without hinderance or let.

First normal obstacle: when sitting down to do a freewrite, people often feel like there is nothing in their minds. If you find yourself feeling this, remind yourself of the truth: that it’s only a feeling, and it’s an illusion.1 Often the feeling is, Omigod, I’m supposed to be clever, which is why I sat down to write in the first place, but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be clever about—or I do, but my mind suddenly feels like a vast, silent, deserted stadium… and BAM: a mind filled with the profound emptiness known as “writer’s block.”

Brain Storm

Most of the time, though, the real problem is that there is so much in and on your mind that finding the starting point is like finding a tiny little arrow in a big maze. This is another illusion. In fact, there are countless possible starting points. Just like there is no one right interpretation of an idea, there is no one best entry point to your intelligence.

Some possibilities: Are you hungry? Full? Full of anticipation about this project? Full of anxiety about this project? Plain old grouchy? Just dying for a chocolate muffin?… ANYTHING goes. This is free writing.

You might well wonder, what does writing about craving a chocolate muffin have to do with your political science term paper? The answer is, obviously, that one has nothing whatever to do with the other. But if a chocolate muffin is on your mind, then political science isn’t on your mind at that moment—at least not in the front row. Our brains do have fronts: the pre-frontal lobe; and studies consistently show that we can only think about one thing at a time, and only even keep fewer than ten things in short-term memory.2 Writing about the muffin unloads it from you thoughts. Just like unloading crates off a ship, you often have to move trivial items first in order to get to the valuable cargo.

The Benefits: Freewriting simultaneously clears and lubes the discursive mind. The goal of freewriting is—not so much to write what you think, but to present all of your thinking to you, uncut and uncensored. Its great achievement is delivering your own individual genius onto the page. Is it a messy process? Yes. But then panning for gold requires sifting the weightier precious element through mud in a flowing stream.3

Freewriting is the foundation of a bevy of powerful pre-writing techniques (to be shared in future posts) that make writing easy, thoughtful, and original.

Whenever you sit down to start an assignment, try freewriting first. The few minutes you spend writing on no subject in particular will make writing about your intended subject more effortless.


  1. My wife and I have a lot of fun with the notion of an empty mind whenever a young (middle school) friend of ours asks us: “What are you thinking?”—We both instantly make brainless, mannequin-like faces, freeze, and go silent. 

  2. NPR article on the one-thing-at-a-time nature of attention: “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again”. ScienceDaily.com article on the structure of working memory: “Brain Has Three Layers of Working Memory, Study Shows” 

  3. How to pan for gold (with pictures!) 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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