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.


Protect Your Precious Resources with Reserves

How often do you find yourself facing an overwhelming combination of things you have to take care of—assignments at school, responsibilities at work, maintenance of children and other family—when you already feel spent? This could also manifest as a pile of bills to be paid out of a checking account that’s run dry; or a regular schedule with too many commitments and not enough time in the day to keep them all. When situations like these develop, it’s easy to feel tremendous pressure and anxiety. If they happen over and over again in one or more areas of your life, a typical and perfectly understandable response is to feel trapped on an unstoppable roller coaster that’s failed every safety inspection for the last ten years.

Step back and notice a pattern—an ecological pattern—in all of the above-mentioned anxiety-producing situations: in every one of them there is an overcommitment, and consequently an overconsumption, of resources. The resources are all yours: your energy, your time, your money, and (lest we forget) your attention. Often there are no quick fixes in an ecological crisis, but there are ways to slow the roller coaster, bring it to a stop, and reverse course back to ecological health. What is ecological health? The reverse of desperation: abundance; enough; reserves.

If all this is all too familiar to you, you’ve had ample experience of being overextended and exhausted. But you’ve almost certainly also had the experience of having enough of some things. What are you confident about? Most of the time when you feel confident about your ability to do something, reserves are involved. If you feel (not imagine, but feel) confident that you will pass a test, you probably have reserves of knowledge in that area. If you feel confident that you’ll be able to take a shower tomorrow morning, you probably have reserves of water to draw on. Superheroes are confident because they have reserves of power and agility, not to mention chic costumes. If you’re confident you can pay all your bills, you know where the money’s coming from.

Stop and think. In what areas of your life do you have reserves?

Think of something you make sure you always have enough of. It could be an intangible and inexhaustible wellspring, like respect for your parents or love for your children, or it might be something material that could run out but which you actively prevent from running out. How many ways to you have to check your e-mail or watch your favorite show or play video games? If one device breaks, are you sunk, or do you have reserves? What things to you actively keep in good supply?

When this concept of reserves was first introduced to me, I had a hell of time wrapping my mind around it. I was asked: “What would it feel like, Mark, to have reserves of time?” Now, for me, being early to an appointment usually means arriving before the second-hand on my watch has reached the apex of the dial. I really couldn’t imagine what reserves of time would feel like. I was in my kitchen at that moment, and I happened to glance up at my cereal shelf.

I eat plenty of cereal—no, not Fruity Pebbles; I like Cheerios (no generic replacements, please!) and Weetabix Crispy Flakes. Cheerios I can get at any supermarket. But Weetabix Crispy Flakes are a specialty item. Finally I found a supermarket, one that I regularly pass but which is a forty-five minute drive from home, that always has them. Not wanting to run out and have to drive nearly an hour to get more, I keep an abundant supply. At that moment when I looked up at my cereal shelf, I had about a dozen boxes. I have reserves of Weetabix Crispy Flakes.

It dawned on me that having as much extra time as I had extra cereal would feel very secure and comfortable.

Feeling that way became my goal. It’s a much easier goal to work toward and to achieve than striving not to be constantly in a rush, and beating myself up when I know, the moment I leave my house, that I’m already late and there’s nothing I can do to change that.

I now think about my time totally differently than I used to. I schedule things more carefully and responsibly. I no longer get too hungry, because I have time to eat in between appointments. I have plenty to do, but I no longer run myself ragged. Instead of constantly running to catch up, I am able to move from one activity to the next with full commitment and attention, which is not only better for me but better for my clients and students and family and friends.

Begin by appreciating what resources you have—how you keep them, how you replenish them, how you protect them. You can use the Successful Experiences exercise described in this post to take stock of your reserves, and reinforce the knowledge that this is something you do all the time, and can do in other contexts. Pay attention to your reserves, and you can develop reserves of attention, which you can then apply to restoring your own ecological balance.


ADHD Resources

What Is ADHD, Anyway?

First, some of the many positive symptoms common to ADHD:

  • Smart
  • Creative
  • Enthusiastic
  • Ethical
  • Loyal
  • Empathetic
  • Funny
  • Innovative
  • Spontaneous
  • Observant
  • Kind
  • Caring

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD is characterized by difficulty in:

  • directing one’s attention
  • controlling one’s impulses
  • regulating one’s level of activity

Whereas in children hyperactivity looks like excessive fidgeting, running in circles, and climbing walls, in teens and especially adults it is more likely to manifest as mental restlessness.

More Information on ADHD

ADHD Self-Assessment Links

READ THIS FIRST: Self-Assessment vs. Proper Diagnosis

The below assessment tools cannot be used to diagnose ADHD.

A proper diagnosis of ADHD can only be made by qualified health practitioners, and ought to be made at the end of a very thorough procedure, including a detailed life history, as well as descriptions of observed behavior from third parties (parents, teachers, coworkers…). My own diagnosis was given by a doctor of clinical psychology after four one-hour-long sessions. I then chose to supplement that diagnosis with cognitive neuropsychological testing, which took an additional total of six hours. Both doctors were specifically recommended to me by other doctors who had earned my trust.

The purpose of self-assessment tools such as those that follow is to help people determine whether or not they might be exhibiting symptoms associated with ADHD. If you take one or more self-assessment tests, and those tests indicate a strong possibility of ADHD, the next step in obtaining a diagnosis would be to seek a qualified health care provider—one who specializes in ADHD for your age range.

I recommend, before choosing a licensed diagnostician, that you ask what steps they go through to arrive at a diagnosis. If the steps they recommend amount to little more than questionnaires similar to those below, thank them, say you want to think it over, and then continue your search. If you’re going to have someone examine your brain—the command center of your entire body—you should make sure you find the most qualified, most knowledgable, most careful health professional to do it.


Support for ADHD


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