success

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 Executive Functioning STOP Sign

What is executive functioning? Picture, if you will, an executive. Now notice some things about this picture. Most images of executives are lofty in a number of ways: working on the top floor, formally dressed (even on “dress-down Fridays”), with clean (not labor-soiled) hands; workers are under the executive; the population at large is held at a distance from the executive’s door, and can only get in for a consultation by making an appointment well in advance, not on the spur of the moment. These are not necessarily distinctions of importance: after all, an executive is of little value without workers. The distinction I’m pointing out is one of separation.

People with ADHD tend to have a whole lot of trouble with one executive in particular—their own inner executive. One leading theory is that the primary deficit in “Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” is predominantly one of executive functioning (“EF” for short). One of the most highly respected ADHD researchers, Dr. Russell Barkley, offers this list:

  • Inhibition—self-restraint: having a response, yet deciding to hold it back
  • Foresight—projecting experience into the future: imaginatively seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and moving at a future time
  • Hindsight—reflecting on past sensory and movement experiences and learning from them
  • Self-awareness—being conscious of what one is thinking, feeling, wanting, doing
  • Sense of time—feeling time passing; correlating self-movement with time passing
  • Working (short-term) memory—recalling multiple pieces of verbal and nonverbal information (i.e. speech and images) for work; e.g. hearing a ten-digit phone number and later dialing it accurately
  • Planning—hierarchically ordering actions
  • Problem solving—revising, reframing, conceiving multiple scenarios…in effect, self-directed playing
  • Self-motivation—harnessing one’s will, which is the motive force that drives one’s actions (unharnessed will, for example, can manifest as hyperactivity)
  • Emotional self-regulation—feeling strong emotions and letting them pass without becoming overwhelmed by them; self-evoking emotion in the service of one’s goals

The number one essential characteristic of executive functioning, from a usefulness point of view, is that it works with representations of the experiences with which it is concerned. That is, executive functions don’t handle down-in-the-trenches work directly; rather, they handle reports and projections of that work. Executives don’t respond to stimuli. They get a report that a stimulus has been received. They analyze the report. They make a decision. They call in their administrative assistant and instruct the assistant to respond to the stimulus, or delegate the response to a worker. Executive functioning isn’t the hands-on work itself; it considers what work has already occurred in the past, determines what work will be done in the future, plans the work, monitors the work, thinks about and assesses the work, solves problems that arise in the midst of the work, and weathers the ups and downs of the work by keeping the big picture and long-term goals in mind.

Consider the common ADHD symptom hyperfocus, the on-task equivalent of the word banana(nananana—easy to spell, but who knows when to stop?). In a state of hyperfocus, an ADDer can work on a task for—well, let’s just say well past bedtime. To use myself as an example, when I was doing the research on EF that in part resulted in this post, I got interested in the subject, and just kept going. I periodically noted the time, as hour after hour inexorably wheeled by, but I did not feel that the day—and then the night—was getting progressively later (time insensitivity). Instead, I felt a continuous, unchanging sense of being in the moment of doing what I was doing.

Most of the symptoms of ADHD have this in common: being in their own moment of doing whatever the ADDer is doing—daydreaming and not noticing that they’re daydreaming, tapping and humming without noticing they’re tapping and humming, blurting out “Egad, what happened to your face?” to the scarred woman in the elevator without noticing.… In the midst of doing there is no noticing, and thus no self-regulation of the doing.

Something else to notice about the executive: the CEO is responsible for the well being and success of the corporation, in this case the body of the self.1 If we ADDers are to empower our inner CEOs, we have to perform those executive functions. And the only way to perform executive functions is to STOP working.

Don’t worry (or don’t rejoice)—I’m not proposing going on strike from all work. I just mean we have to put up stop signs at important intersections, and actually come to a full stop before proceeding along our route.

(My cousin Sidney tells my favorite stop-sign story. Sid pulls up to a stop sign and sees there’s a cop around the corner, so he slows waaaaaaaay down, till he’s moving like a three-toed sloth, one M.P.W. (mile per week). Sid looks to the right. Sid looks to the left. He eases like a gentleman in a Cadillac through the intersection. Immediately—siren, lights. The cop pulls him over. Sid protests, “Officer, sir, what did I do wrong? I stopped at the stop sign.” The officer flips open his summons book and replies: “Sir, your wheels never stopped turning.”)

David Giwerc, MCC and Founder and President of the ADD Coach Academy, calls this kind of stopping “The Power of the Pause: The Difference Between Reacting Impulsively and Responding Rationally.” Even in the marathon of hyperfocus, ADDers have moments of self-awareness. The main difference between such self-aware moments in an ADDer and a neuro-typical is that for the ADDer these moments don’t automatically result in recoiling and saying, “What the heck am I doing?” Instead, we tend to blow right through those moments of awareness. Even if we slow waaaaaaaay down, our wheels never stop turning. We can take our summons one of two ways: either as a call to appear before the judgment of our external circumstances, which usually results in a hefty fine—a penalty of sleep or productivity or time with loved ones…whatever our hyperfocusing typically costs us;—or we can take the summons as a call to our own inner judgment. Stop and ask some executive questions: What has happened when I’ve done this before? Tomorrow, what will I wish I had decided to do right now? How much time is passing for other people close to me while I’m engaged in this activity? What goal did I originally set out to accomplish when I started doing this? Problem solve. Plan. What does your heart feel is the course of action most in alignment with your intentions and values?

These are not light questions, and the answers you give to them are consequential. Before getting into them, though, I recommend taking them into your office—the biggest, cushiest, highest-up, picture-windowed corner office you can imagine. Take a few moments. Breathe. Relax. Take as much time as you need to arrive at a decision in your head that feels right in your gut.


  1. “Corporate,” from the Latin corporatus, means “formed into a body.” 

How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.


P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?


  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 

How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.

Have Confidence!

Back to school. “Have confidence!” people tell you. Have confidence? Really? How? By snapping your fingers? Well, here’s one quick and easy, tried and true method.

Make a list of successful experiences you’ve had in the past. Size doesn’t matter: baking brownies, riding a bike without falling, making a toast at your sister’s wedding that’s so good everyone cries with joy, and getting into college are all successful experiences. Make this list LONG—once you get a couple down, you’ll keep thinking of more. Recall a few new successful experiences every day; just notice and acknowledge them.

This simple exercise can help you feel up to any reasonable challenge and make your days flow with greater ease. If you do it in earnest, it works like magic. Really.

May you have too many successful experiences to count this semester!
 

Perspective

“Success isn’t permanent, and failure isn’t fatal.”

— Mike Ditka

 

 

If you’re willing to fail…

“If you’re willing to fail interestingly, you tend to succeed interestingly.”
— Edward Albee

 

 

 

Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday

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