The Busywork Curve: A Lesson On Mindfulness From My Washing Machine

This article was originally published at

The other day, one of our readers — Carole — wrote in with a question about mindfulness:

Is there any research to show that people who drive a car with a manual transmission are better drivers because they have to pay more attention and are constantly in tune with what they’re doing?

My answer: “I have no idea.”

But it started me down this path of thinking about all the things I do each day, how well I do them, and what contributes to that success (or failure). I rarely drive — and when I do, it’s an auto these days — so I can’t answer Carole’s question about cars, even anecdotally.

But I can answer, tangentially, about my washing machine or, rather, how I’ve become a badass laundry ninja and the psychology that explains how I became a badass laundry ninja (heretofore referred to as BLN) and how you — yes, even you! — can become one, too.

Or at least become great at the things you wish you didn’t have to be great at. Or didn’t have to do at all. But you do.

My Zen Path To Laundry Enlightenment

I am phenomenal at doing laundry. My clothes come out of the wash looking better than the day I bought them. They’re folded, hung, and organized neatly. When I look at the product of my labor, I shed a tear at the beauty. I love doing laundry.

It wasn’t always this way. In fact, I once hated it, saw it as a chore to be crossed off as quickly and carelessly as possible. Who has time for laundry when there is so much else to be done? Then, I bought a sweater that cost $100. It was one of my first attempts to dress like a grownup.

Less than a month into our relationship, I spilled ketchup right on my chest and in a blaze of mindless laundry list-checking, I ruined that sweater. Tossed it in the wash with the spin cycle and then in the dryer. It came out with a set stain and sized for a toddler.

I replaced that sweater and when I stained the next one, I learned the right way fix it. I was amazed at what I’d accomplished — it looked brand new. I was hooked. From then on, I became fixated on doing the laundry right. The more I got into it and the better I got at it, the more I enjoyed it.

A task I once hated, I now love. And the results, insignificant as they may seem (who else cares about my laundry, right?) speak for themselves. I’m happier. And well-dressed, to boot. How could this be?

You Love What You Pay Attention To

Everyone has busywork that must be tended to each day. It’s all that stuff that has to get done so you can continue to live your life and do your thing. If you look at this busywork from the wrong perspective, you begin to see it as an enemy: something you have to defeat — and defeat quickly — to get back to living the way you want.

But the right way to look at it, in my opinion, is to see it as a trusted friend. A friend you’ve invited into your life because they help you live the way you want to. And, as any friendship goes, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.

When you have busywork to do, you should focus on it. You should do it well rather than rush through it. The logic works like this:

  1. If you focus on your busywork, you give your mind less space to think of what you’d rather be doing.
  2. As your focus deepens, you start to produce better results.
  3. The better your results are, the more you enjoy the task itself.
  4. And the better you do your busywork, the better the rest of your life becomes.

Today, when I do the laundry, I don’t hurry. I take my time and move carefully, checking my work for errors. I don’t listen to music and I don’t try to multi-task.

Years ago, I watched a documentary about buddhist monks working as chefs1. As one of them preps vegetables before a meal, his advice to the interviewer is, “When you chop the carrots, chop the carrots. Nothing else matters.”

I doubt that monk/chef thinks of chopping carrots as his most important work of the day when he’s not doing it, but he can see how the focus he applies to his task leads him to a great meal and a great life. When he’s chopping those carrots, it’s the only thing on his mind. And he seems pretty happy. That’s how I feel about my laundry.

If you do it right, it’s how you can feel about cleaning your garage, doing your taxes, filing reports, or whatever busywork it is you’re doing while you think of more fun or important things. Try thinking of it like this instead.

1. The documentary is called How To Cook Your Life, and it’s excellent.
Thanks to Carole for inspiring this article; to Tammy Strobel, Courtney Carver, and Joshua Becker for priming my brain for mindfulness; and to James Clear for inspiring me to try my hand at a little illustration for this piece.

Tyler Tervooren founded, where he shares research and insights about mastering your psychology by taking smarter risks. For more, join his Smart Riskologist Newsletter.

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