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.


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. 


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.


What Is a Preposition? Let’s Go Inside and See

Prepositions—e.g. “over,” “under,” “before,” “after,” “in,” “on,” “of,” and dozens more in English—are words that denote relationship between things; things including people and places;—you know, nouns. When handling prepositions it’s especially important to remember that actual people, places, and things (including ideas and other non-material yet no less real things) are what we mean when we refer to “nouns.” When thinking about prepositions if we bring to mind the real things, places, and people that are in relationship, we can accomplish two things: (1) understand the meaning of the preposition we’re using, and (2) rediscover the living pulse of language.

But before we get into the woo woo stuff, let’s solidify what prepositions are and how they work. (For your reference, here is a handy list of prepositions.) It was first explained to me that prepositions are “Anything you can do with a mountain”1: you can go over a mountain, tunnel under a mountain, hammer your way through a mountain (if you’re John Henry), and so on. Over at the website Grammar Revolution, you can see a similar graphical representation of prepositions using an apple and a worm. So far these mountain and apple examples are showing relationships of space: if you’re under a mountain you’re either a skilled spelunker or you’re screwed (like Jonah, when he found himself buried under a mountain), but in either case the mountain is spatially above you and you are spatially below the mountain. But it’s also possible to use prepositions to show relationships of time, as in the question, “I wonder what was here before this mountain rose up from the earth?”

Indeed, the apple and the mountain might be prepositionally related in various ways. The apple could be of the mountain (or of a tree that is of the mountain). The mountain existed long before the apple (and yet, should a meteor suddenly flatten the mountain, it’s possible that the apple might continue to persist after the mountain is gone). The apple might be rolling down the mountain. The apple might be thrown at the mountain. The apple might be formerly of the mountain, have rolled down the mountain, been picked up by a girl who lives in a cave of the mountain, been rejected because it is wormy, and at this very moment be poised to be thrown at the mountain in disgust.

Most of the prepositions in the previous paragraph show relationships of space, and a couple show relationships of time. The preposition “of” (and some others, depending on context) shows a different kind of relationship: a familial or genetic one. Think of the prepositional phrase that concludes the first paragraph of this post: “the living pulse of language.” There is a necessary connotation of oneness: the pulse and the language that the pulse is of participate the same existence; the pulse being spoken of is orphaned without the language that it is of.2 In the phrase “the Queen of England,” the Queen does not belong to England as a possession so much as she is inseparably related to the land of that country; she can only be the Queen of England and of no other land, just as she can only be the daughter of her mother and the mother of her children. What’s important here is the nature of the relationship per se, not whether the relationship between the Queen and England is more like the relationship between a daughter and a mother or more like that between a mother and a child. The essence of the preposition is in the relationship that exists between the two related things.

In this respect, the preposition “between” might be the queen of prepositions. For the relational meaning of any preposition is neither the one thing being brought into relationship nor the other; that is, the meaning of “of” belongs neither to the Queen nor to England, but is something else in itself. But what? How can we best grasp the meanings of prepositions? This might sound like a daft question not worth asking, but many English teachers have surely begun to notice a marked deterioration in the use of prepositions by their students in recent years, including my favorite pet peeve, the oxymoronic “based off of.”3

One of the most effective ways to choose the right preposition is to gesture with your hands. Try it. Use your hands to place one thing in another. No, really, don’t just imagine it in your mind; physically use your hands to do it. Prepositions are physical. When you walk alongside a fence, for instance, you are walking a long sidealong the side ofalong beside that fence. Gesture “alongside” with your hands. Gesture “this is for you” with your hands.

Physicalizing prepositions can help us understand them deeply. You can use your hands to gesture “between.” You can also stand in a doorway for a full minute—neither on one side nor on the other side—but right between. Try it with the outside door of your house or apartment building or dorm. Stand in the doorway between inside and outside. What is that experience of between-ness like? The doorway is analogous to the preposition: it establishes a certain relationship between the space on one side and the space on the other. There could be a quite different relationship between those two spaces; there could be a wall between them; there could be a partial wall that ends, and where the wall ends the two spaces that were separated then come together and become the same space.

Using our hands doesn’t work as well for prepositions of time. The only gesture we can make to show “before” is a spatial one, as in the lyric from the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:

Wasn’t that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

That’s a spatial “before.” But to experience the sense of time in “before” as well as in “after,” we must employ memory. Without resorting to photographic records, compare the way a place appears before and after. Before and after what? you may ask. Try thinking about “before” as before after, and “after” as after before, in pure relationship to each other. You might recall a room that was painted, or a field that recently was snow-covered but now is beginning to bud with early spring. Contemplate the experience of the place changing from before to after; the relationship between the before and after appearance of the place. Try to hover temporally in between the two different appearances of the place, which, like photographs, are static. The in-between time relationships of the prepositions “before” and “after” themselves are not static: “before” moves from later to earlier, while “after” moves from earlier to later.

If you sit meditatively with prepositions, they begin to pulse with living meanings, meanings that inspire the kind of understanding that comes from lived experience.

Here are some mind-bending prepositional gedankenexperiments to take with you. For most interesting results, contemplate one for two uninterrupted minutes per day for several days, before moving on to try another. Focus matters here.

  • Pick a preposition, any preposition, and contemplate its meaning in and of itself.
  • I’m not sure why, but a whole class of mine once got freaked out by this preposition in particular; so consider yourself warned. Contemplate the meaning of the preposition “in.” (Is it scary? Really?)
  • There’s a spatial sense of being with a friend (as opposed to being apart), but when you reassure your friend that you are with him or her, what more than bare proximity do you mean?
  • Contemplate the relational meaning of the preposition “because.”
  • When you say you are thinking of a number from one to ten, what does it mean to think of something?

  1. Dr. Scott McPartland 

  2. In preemptive retort to grammar tyrants who will brook no prepositions at the ends of sentences, I quote Winston Churchill: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” 

  3. Think about it: based and off of are contradictories. 


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

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