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Bored? Alienate the Worker

The Sisyphus Series, Part IV

Of the three Sisyphean principles, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive. You’re thinking, I have to roll a boulder up a hill every friggin’ day, I hate this already, and you want me to feel more alienated? I get it. You’re feeling disconnected enough from your boring task. All I’m saying is, if you feel alienated from a chore anyway, why not try going with it ? We’re talking about something you do not want to be in the act of doing, no matter how much you want to have it done. A Sisyphean task is precisely one in which you have absolutely no interest. What happens if you do it without any interest on purpose?

That Sisyphus must roll the boulder up the hill repeatedly, without any variation or nuance or artistry, implies robotism. Most of the time you want to feel your full humanity and passion for life. By all means, when you are doing things you’re interested in, invest yourself! When it’s boulder-pushing time, though, you might be happier if you choose temporarily to di vest your full-blooded selfhood and robotically go through the motions with zero personal stake in the labor.

For our first example we return to the continuing saga of me and the cat box. I do not nor do I have any desire to appreciate, savor, or devote any part of myself other than brute muscle to the activity of removing animal waste. I derive no felt sense of satisfaction or accomplishment from it, yet do it I must. In our last episode I discussed how I fit scooping the cat box into my day as innocuously as possible; I do it sometime after dinner, at the same time my wife feeds the cats. This timing also helps me alienate myself from the task. The monkey-see-monkey-do act of simply following her in tending to the cats relieves me of the need to self-start an act I possess not one ounce of initiative for. I reduce the starting of the chore to a stimulus-response: she gets up, I get up. I don’t have to plan nor spare a single thought about scooping the box. To be as efficient as possible I’ve developed a scooping routine: tear off new disposal bag, bang box with mallet, scoop into old bag that lines plastic container, pull old bag out of container, tie it and trash it, put new bag into container, done. I follow this routine zombie-like every single night. I embrace my alienation from the work. I want to feel myself in the act of performing this task as little as possible.

Using a trigger to make starting the task automatic and repeating the same routine are two good alienation techniques. Now, when the task itself is cyclical—like washing a dish, then another, then another, then another, and so on, until you’d rather bungie jump into a live volcano rather than wash another dish—what you need is deconstruction. Take the cycle apart and group like steps together. In a complete cycle each dish gets soaped, rinsed, dried, and put away. Believe it or not when we perform the full cycle for each dish in turn, every transition from one physical activity to the next (e.g. from soaping to rinsing) though seemingly benign, requires attentional effort. Multiply several transitions per dish times the number of dishes, and—well, some of us feel overwhelmed just looking at a full sink. With ADHD, and especially when we’re bored with an activity, attention is our most precious resource. So let’s conserve it. Instead of soaping and rinsing each dish in turn, try soaping all the dishes, then rinsing all the dishes, then drying all the dishes, then putting all plates away, then all bowls away, then all cups away, then all silverware away. Performing the same physical action repeatedly helps your body get into a groove and is more likely to numb your mind and leave your attention alone. Mindless repetition is more efficient and leads to good, old fashioned, assembly-line alienation.

For a good alienated worker, there are two quite different kinds of tasks: dumb and smart. Washing dishes and scooping cat litter are dumb tasks; they can be done with virtually no thought and with minimal concentration. During dumb work, like pushing boulders up hills, alienation is relatively simple. Once you give your mind permission to disengage from what your body is doing, your mind is free to do what it wants. Some people listen to podcasts while doing busy work, others sing. One client of mine folds laundry while watching TV. Another cleans his room while talking on the phone.

For a smart task, like reading a book, thought and concentration are needed, and the mind is not free to gambol and cavort as it prefers. Alienating from smart tasks calls for stronger methods, because you’re trying to free your mind from work that requires your mind’s presence. It sounds paradoxical, but it can be done with some simple sleight of hand. The alienation goal is the same: perform a job that you are disinterested in disinterestedly. With smart work, though, you have to purchase your disinterest in the process by being interested in something else. Don’t worry, it’s something you probably really are interested in: crossing the finish line. If you really don’t want to read the book, but you really want to have read the book, then get interested in the future in which you have read it. Become product-oriented. Make your mental activity as robotically productive as possible, and eschew personal investment in the process. In fact, despise the process, if that helps. It often does. Just like swearing when you stub your toe, dissing out loud work you hate (when it is safe to do so) can provide effective pain relief.

Back when I was teaching college courses on mythology, I had a student—I’ll refer to him by the name Prior—who absolutely hated what happened to be my favorite book in the course. To me, teaching this book year after year was a highlight, but to Prior every page was a Sisyphean boulder. He was earning an A so far, and didn’t want to jeopardize that, but he found reading this book intolerable. Finally he came to me and asked what he needed to be able to understand and talk about from the text in order to maintain his A.1 I supplied him with A-level study questions. He proceeded to plow through the book, holding his nose, and mechanically applied his comprehension in order to grasp the required concepts and demonstrate them to his teacher’s (my) satisfaction in a paper that barely restrained his disgust. He got an A.

Prior asked the magic question that helped him to get through his chore without one shred of his own interest: What do I need to end up with? His eyes found the finish line and kept it in sight throughout his reading. Even in a chore that requires your active intelligence, knowing what you have to end up with enables you to focus on the part of the task that actually does interest you, being done.

Caveat emptor: Focusing on product rather than process is the most essential technique in alienating workers from their work. It’s how craftsmen were turned into disaffected assembly line cogs in the industrial era. Similarly, focusing on product rather than process in education, notably through high-stakes testing policies, reduces learning to academic input-output processing. Over-applied, alienation is very, very BAD for us. When doing work we love and when learning with genuine interest, we don’t want to feel and naturally don’t feel alienated from the process; instead we’re wholeheartedly engaged, fully present, enjoying, growing, appreciating, living our experience.

I’m only proposing using alienation surgically, when necessary. When our interest in process = 0% (or very near) and interest in finished product = 100%, alienating ourselves from the work can be an act of self-mercy, even self-protection. It helps us endure negative experiences with less pain. In truth, assembly-line-type alienation is essentially a form of dissociation, which is how our nervous system protects us from suffering when fight and flight aren’t possible. For most activities I emphatically do not recommend dissociation! But on those occasions when we can neither fight off nor run away from a deadly boring task without betraying our best interests, just a spoonful of alienation helps the medicine go down.

The object in this series has been all along to cut Sisyphean boulders down to size, from daunting to doable. Tools reduce needed effort. Flow minimizes time commitment. Carefully applied, consciously chosen alienation rejects boredom without sacrificing productivity. You can get done what you have to do with less suffering and more ease, freeing yourself to savor the challenge of life activities that interest you.


  1. Students, take note! Don’t be afraid to confront your professors with this question. 

 

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.

 

The Best Revision Tool Ever

I’ve come across and taught many revision procedures in my time, but this one towers above all the rest. It was first articulated by Peter Elbow, and I received it from Jamie Hutchinson. I give the lineage of this technique because it possesses that timeless quality of a teaching that operates on multiple levels simultaneously and regardless of specific context—similar to the practice of using “I” statements—and because, when employed properly, it opens up writing like only truth can. I have used this process successfully in several areas outside academic writing: creative writing, understanding and evaluating art, directing plays, and coaching clients.

This tool originated as a “Peer Response” procedure (generally in groups of 3–4 students) which I will summarize forthwith. If you practice it regularly and get it into your blood, you can become able to use it all on your own, as I often do.

Peer Response Process

Rules: “The writer is always right. The reader is always right.” Nevertheless, the writer is in charge of the proceedings. Thus, the following is all addressed to you, the author.

Read your piece aloud. Always aloud. Never distribute your writing for silent reading.

There is almost always a powerful impulse for everyone in the group to plunge themselves into uncommunicative isolation by reading the piece individually in silence. For those responding to your writing, taking in your language (words) through the sense of sight is a significantly different cognitive experience from taking in language through the sense of hearing. The sense of sight tends to objectify, divide and classify what it perceives, whereas the sense of hearing tends to be experienced inside our heads. For your purposes, you want sympathetic, understanding responses. Let divide-and-classify come after your writing is published. Without the hearing, the quality of your authorial voice will be easily overlooked and misread. Similarly, hearing yourself speak your own words is a substantially different experience from reading them silently.

Read your piece aloud at least twice. Never once. Always two times—or more.

Another temptation is to read the piece aloud once through, and then let the critiquing begin. This doesn’t work, because the sentences and paragraphs your listeners hear after they’re already familiar with what’s coming are completely different from the sentences and paragraphs they hear for the very first time. Similarly, for you, reading a piece aloud for the first time is almost always about performance and nerves, and little if anything in your own writing is actually heard by you; but the second time around is often quite fruitful; you begin to hear nuances you hadn’t noticed before. So, read your piece aloud at least twice. At any point in the stages that follow, anyone in your group may request additional readings of the whole or any part of the piece, and you may at any time spontaneously decide to read aloud again; the more readings, the merrier.

The first reading is just for the listeners to get an overall sense of what the piece is about. The second and subsequent readings are for them to pay attention to details of language, images, ideas, feelings, intentions. (Also, after the first reading, your listeners may take notes.) After the second reading, lead your group through the following steps.

(Notes:

  • Steps 1–3 are to be performed by all the listeners of the writer’s group.
  • Repeated responses are valuable and not to be withheld—i.e. “I was going to say what she said” is not a valid response. If a listener heard what she heard, that listener should repeat it! It’s crucially important for you, the writer, to hear it more than once if the same response arose in more than one person.
  • Precision is required: your listeners must use the language given below. Why? Because it’s magical and it works. Think of it as a magic spell: say “Abraca-DOH!-bra” and nothing happens.)

Step 1. Positive Pointing: “I noticed/liked…”

Each member of your group, in turn, quotes—verbatim—words and/or phrases from your piece to you: specific language from the writing that particularly struck or impressed or simply stayed with them. The reasons for their quoting back what they do are irrelevant and distracting; stay focused here: you need to hear what parts of your language resonated in them, regardless of why.

Most important: verbatim quotes. Listeners often want to paraphrase: “I liked the part about…” Paraphrases use their language, not yours, and this is about your language, not theirs. You need to know that your words were heard, and which words and phrases in your writing have sticking power—for good or ill. Again, the listeners’ reasons are irrelevant and will mostly introduce impurities into the process. (Reasons for listeners’ responses will become important once you begin asking your own questions—see step four, below.)

2. Center of Gravity: “I hear this saying…”

This is when your listeners “say back” to you what they hear as “the source of energy, the focal point, the seedbed, the generative center of the piece” (Elbow and Belanoff, Sharing and Responding). Surprise, surprise, often this is not your intended main idea, but a segment, image, or anecdote where your writing feels more impassioned, more personally charged—i.e. what’s really on your mind and in your heart concerning the subject—whether or not you were aware of it while writing.

The utility of emphasizing center of gravity over thesis is powerful: It is easy (especially when under pressure to write something for a good grade) to jump to a hasty, underdeveloped thesis with no center of gravity, whereas a substantial center of gravity—precisely because it is heavy with meaning for the author—has zero tolerance for a weak thesis.

The easiest clue for where your listeners (and you) should look for the center of gravity is the language they quoted in step one: those passages drew them in because those passages have the force of gravity.

3. Active Listening: “I’d like to hear more about…” and “Have you considered… ?”

(Author, please insist that all suggestions in this step begin with either the words “I’d like to hear more about…” or “Have you considered… ?” Those phrases keep the authority of the writing firmly with you without diluting it.)

This is your listeners’ opportunity to share two powerful things with you:

  1. “I’d like to hear more about…”: Having articulated what rumblings and nascent ideas and images they hear emerging in step two, your listeners now suggest, based on their genuine interest (genuine not feigned interest is critical!), what you could develop further—what they felt they wanted or needed that is already rumbling in the piece and might be given full voice.
  2. “Have you considered…”: Alternative choices—suggestions of changes—that could strengthen what the piece is trying to say.

If your listeners become too insistent, gently remind them that this piece is your creation, your baby, and you’re responsible for its growth and wellbeing.

4. Author’s Questions

Finally it’s your turn! Ask your group any questions you want about your piece and how to revise it. If you think of a yes-or-no question, first turn it around so the answer will be fuller than a simple “yes” or “no”: for example, instead of “Was my paper clear?” (“No.” Awkward silence.), ask “What parts were clearest?” and possibly add “Where could I be clearer?”

Here is a list of suggested author’s questions from Jamie Hutchinson:

  • What do you hear lurking in this piece (what’s just beneath the surface)?
  • What does it make you feel? Where [in your body] and why?
  • What do you want to hear more about?
  • What kinds of connections do you hear in it? What connections do I still need to make?
  • What don’t you understand? What seems unclear?
  • What holds this piece together?
  • Who does my audience appear to be? Friends? Teachers? Strangers?
  • What’s your favorite part? Least favorite part? Why?
  • What seems unnecessary to the piece?
  • Where do you lose interest as you listen to it?
  • What would you remember about it tomorrow?
  • Where could I use more detail, more examples?
  • What theme(s) do you hear in the piece?
  • Which sections need more development?
  • What tone of voice do you hear in it?

Further Questions to Consider

Again, from Jamie, questions for you, the writer to ponder:

  • What kind of response do you want from your reader?
  • What feels “risky” to you about writing this piece?
  • What do you most care about in what you’ve written?
  • What would you like someone to get out of reading this piece?
  • Where does your voice feel strongest to you in this piece?
  • How will you know when this piece is finished?
  • What was the color of the sky when you…?

As with all deep processes, this one deepens with practice. Enjoy!

 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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