Saturday, November 19, 2016

Managing the Mundane

Have you ever had to slog through a repetitive task that seemed to never end, struggling to keep mind and body engaged, wondering if any of it was worthwhile? Seen on a gravestone never, "Here lies a good worker."

A good part of my career is composed of managing simple, mundane, ordinary, invisible, routine tasks. I can bore an executive silly in seconds, simply by talking about my day. They know the work is important, but spare the details, please. 

There are hordes of workers like these that keep a complex, industrialized society running smoothly. They keep the lights on, the doors locked, the wastebaskets empty, and the notices flowing. Unfortunately, the few times these workers do become visible is when something goes wrong. 

Is there a way to find meaning and purpose in mundane tasks? Why, yes there is. Since 1975 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been studying a state of being where the entire body and mind is engaged in a task, and published a work called "Flow" to describe this state of mind. In this work, he describes an assembly line worker who repeats the same activity many times in a day. (Pick up sprocket A and insert it in to Widget B at point C). How can such a worker find significance and meaning in his work? One way is to become increasingly skilled in his task, setting up personal challenges and steadily improving his technique.

I have used this flow technique to bring a spark of joy to any task. I have experienced flow when painting, sorting, and data crunching. I've been honing my carrot peeling technique for a decade now. Flow does indeed allow time to fly by. My best paintings were completed quickly, seamlessly, and seemingly effortlessly while in a state of flow.

More recently as part of my personal transformation, I have introduced exercise as a new discipline. But discipline, "knuckling down", gritting it through, and boot-camp style isn't the way to inspire me to jump out of bed in the morning. Deep down, I have to believe there's some fun in what I choose to do. To my great relief, I found out I don't have to do burpees to be fit. I can fling myself around like a fool in Zumba if I want.

It also helps if I set medium and long term goals to train for, like the Tough Mudder that my niece invited me to in August 2015, and the Grande Cache Death Race I'm planning for now.

These days when I see an extra set of stairs I have to run up, I see an opportunity to get stronger. If I need to carry an extra five pounds of equipment, it's building my upper body strength. Every week those five pounds get lighter. I'll walk the five blocks, thank you very much. It's helping me get to where I want to be.

Energized, strong, able. 
Having fun.

Keeping the gears of an invisible service running smoothly.