Productivity and mental clarity

What I missed totally — the Sisyphus burden

The year was 2010. And, I was visiting my quaint hometown back in India. My dad had not retired from his work at that time. It is funny how you miss the simplest things of life. Growing up, it was a joy to accompany my dad to his work. I would sit in a small corner while he worked. It was boring but it was a good kind of boring. I wanted to be bored again before he retired. So, I accompanied him to his place of work.

As I sat there, basking in the glory of being bored, I noticed something peculiar. Across the dusty street, there is a string of small stores selling a wide array of stuff. All these storefronts lead right up to the street so any dirt or sand from the street can freely flow into the store. This is pretty normal. Or it used to be.

What was peculiar to me was that — I see a young man sweeping the storefront. It is a normal occurrence and everyone does sweep their storefronts but it seemed such a futile effort. Why bother clearing up the dust when a small hint of a breeze will bring it right back?

Photo by THIS IS ZUN from Pexels

Earlier in my career, I prided on being very capable of cutting through any clutter. It is still a very valuable skill. If you want to move the decision-making process forward, you need to be able to see the problem statement lying at the core and go after it. Execution rallies around such clarity. So, to see a wasted effort like sweeping the floor in the middle of a dust storm did not make any sense to me.

What I missed — however, is that — there is a hidden value in doing tedious tasks. I underestimated the power of tedium in unleashing creativity. Some exciting parts of work are hidden by the golden veil of the mundane. And, this has to be experienced. If you are always after the bottom line, you miss a lot of the details. The boring details force you to slow down, spend time appreciating nuance. Building expertise and intuition comes from this practice. You cannot rush this process.

In his fantastic book, “Mastery” — Robert Greene talks about a phase in our development where we will be up against tedium. This is the phase where we buckle down and train the mind to enjoy the boredom. He captures it very well in the following description

Although we might enter these situations with excitement about what we can learn or do with our new skills, we quickly realize how much hard work there is ahead of us. The great danger is that we give in to feelings of boredom, impatience, fear, and confusion. We stop observing and learning. The process comes to a halt.

There is also some scientific evidence on why letting your mind enjoy the boring parts of the day or doing simply boring things is pretty useful. Especially, for kids — when their brains are in such an active development phase, teaching them to enjoy boredom instead of throwing tantrums or sticking their faces into the iPad for some stimulation.

Another thing that I have observed something that’s also practical is this — after a hard day’s work, doing ‘boring’ chores such as doing the dishes, folding laundry, yard work, sweeping the floor are great ways to ‘decompress’. I let my mind just sink into those tasks and it is refreshing. It is not just that I have to do the tasks, but I get to do those tasks — this change in mindset is universally helpful.

So, it turns out that as redundant and Sisyphean the task of sweeping a dusty floor in the middle of a dusty road is — it might serve a purpose in opening some creative gates in your mind. Though in Greek mythology, Sisyphus rolling that rock back up was a futile task, we don’t have to be burdened by that notion. Next time you are in a boring situation or chore, you can lean into it and enjoy that process. And, if you do end up with some creativity, attaining Mastery, or gaining some mental clarity — you know who to thank!

For the last few months, I have been listening to the fascinating book “I am a strange loop” by Douglas Hofstadter. The book has been slow to listen to because the concepts have been a bit dense but still fascinating. One of the concepts introduced was Godel’s number representation. Part of this intersects with Craig Axford’s post on meaning. And that intersection being Kurt Godel. I will have to read his detailed and interesting post slowly and carefully to do justice but do give it a read!

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