Make Repeated Tasks Enjoyable
Long ago, a friend, facing some necessary tasks, asked me to join her in doing them because, she said, that would make doing them fun. I did, and it was. The idea — to find enjoyment in necessary tasks — gestated for quite a while. I still don’t know why it took me so long to catch on. Perhaps it’s a Calvinist streak I absorbed somewhere, that one isn’t supposed to enjoy necessary tasks but get on with doing them, that only weaklings seek enjoyment — real men (or women) buckle down grimly to accomplish things.
Epicurus would surely approve making necessary tasks enjoyable. He believed that chance encounters of atoms falling through the void, randomly interacting, produced — after much time — us and the world in which we live. In his view, we cease to exist when we die, while the atoms of our body continue to tumble along through time and space.
Because Epicurus believed that life is a one-shot deal, he made enjoying life a high priority. A dissolute lifestyle tends to have highly unpleasant consequences, so it makes sense to seek enjoyment first in the small things of life, which is what we mostly encounter day to day. David Hume suggested that we find “relish in the common occurrences of life, the right enjoyment of which forms the chief part of our happiness.”
Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi studied a mental state he termed “flow” — a focused, absorbing, satisfying involvement in what is happening in the moment — and described his findings in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book is worth reading. In general terms, he found that activities that produce flow provide immediate feedback — as in drawing, the line follows the pencil without pause, in woodcarving, the chip is immediately removed by the knife, in playing an instrument, the notes sound at once, and so on. These activities are also intrinsically satisfying — people experience flow because they do the activities for themselves and not because they are paid or forced to do them (which is why children forced to practice piano do not find the experience produces flow). Activities that result in flow require around 85% of one’s capacity — if an activity is too easy, we get bored; if it’s too difficult, we become anxious. And these activities require/encourage enough focus and concentration that we become immersed in them, stilling the monkey-chatter in our mind and making us lose track of time.
So another way to state the Epicurean position is that one should arrange his or her life to maximize the opportunities for flow to occur. Flow is a mental experience, so introspection combined with an attitude that encourages the enjoyment of small things — to look for joy, and to think about how to find more occasions of joy — is an obvious step.
What finally surfaced in my mind was the idea of deliberately figuring out how to make repeated tasks enjoyable. When I started doing that, I found a surprisingly wide variety of tasks that could be transformed to provide flow. Shaving was my first success.
In high school, I hated shaving. It was awkward, painful, and bloody— I must have used up an entire roll of toilet paper tearing off tiny patches to put on nicks. As soon as I was at college, away from parental pressure, I stopped shaving and had a beard for more than three decades.
But when I decided in a new job that being clean-shaven would be beneficial, my friend’s idea came back to me: I should figure out how to enjoy shaving. Instead of forcing myself to shave each morning, I should figure out a way to shave so that I would look forward to doing it. Rather than pushing myself to do the activity, the activity should draw me to it, thus saving immense amounts of willpower.
That succeeded brilliantly. I found making a true lather (made from shaving soap with a shaving brush and water) was easy—and fast: I needed only 10 seconds to load a brush with lather. And the feel of a warm, soft brush applying a fragrant lather to my face was a pleasure. I found that using a traditional double-edge safety razor did indeed focus my mind and encourage close attention. (I will note that the right equipment helps. Sometimes to transform an activity, you must change the tools — shaving with canned foam and a cartridge razor remains for me a boring, tedious, hateful chore.)
After I retired, I no longer had to shave, but I kept it up because starting each day with a pleasurable ritual has a cumulative positive effect. I look forward each morning to my shave, though I skip Sundays for the pleasure of beginning each Monday morning by shaving a two-day stubble.
What’s essential is the guiding principle: rather than simply plunging in to do a repeated task, stop, take a step back, and spend some thought, time, and effort to make the task enjoyable. Modifying the task may require some combination of a new method, a new way of using current methods, new tools or equipment, or learning new skills. Sometimes what’s needed is nothing more than changing attitude and mindset. Whatever — it’s worth doing if it transforms a task from a chore to a pleasure, and that applies especially to repeated tasks. Still, it also works with one-time tasks, as anyone knows who’s had a pizza party for friends on moving day: getting the job done and enjoying it.
When I decided that, for the sake of my health, I had to lose weight by finding a better diet, I decided on six criteria for a good diet. I did not want a temporary weight-loss diet, even though the sequence “a) adopt a special weight-loss diet; b) lose excess weight; c) return to the normal diet; d) regain weight; e) go to a)” obviously appeals to many. But I wanted a permanent diet. My criteria follow from the diet’s permanence. In outline, they are:
- A good diet is nutritionally complete.
- A good diet includes a wide variety of foods from which to choose.
- A good diet is tasty, so you enjoy your meals.
- A good diet’s meals are filling and do not leave you feeling hungry.
- A good diet does not focus solely on calories.
- A good diet does not require the purchase of proprietary products.
The focus of the diet should not be calories because a food’s calorie content provides zero information about its nutritional value: 100 calories of refined sugar (no nutritional value) and 100 calories of blackberries or lentils (loads of nutritional value) are identical so far as calories are concerned.
You can see that criterion 3 explicitly includes “enjoy.” “Tasty” comes in part from the choice of food and in part from how the food is prepared. Thus satisfying this criterion requires that I prep and cook the food in a way that makes it tasty. And since that is something I must do, I spent some time and thought on how to make doing it enjoyable. I discovered that I could find pleasure in, or derive pleasure from, each step in getting a meal on the table if I deliberately looked for enjoyment in doing them — just modifying mindset and attitude made a big difference. I find I now enjoy:
- thinking up recipes that use the foods (vegetables, grains, beans, fruit, nuts, herbs, spices) I like and that fill out the checkboxes in Dr. Greger’s Daily Dozen (see below) — and checking every box each day is a pleasurable game.
- shopping for groceries (selecting produce — giving it my attention, holding it for a moment to weigh it in my hand and inspect it, changing my menu ideas based on what looks especially good, etc.)
- prepping the food for cooking (peeling, slicing, dicing, mincing, etc., being mindful of — paying attention to — what I’m doing and why so that my focus and attention result in flow)
- cooking the food (again with focused attention on what’s happening in the pan and on what I’m doing and why)
- eating the food (focused attention on taste and texture and on what I might do differently next time)
- cleaning up afterward (easily done since I clean as I cook, so at the end, I might have just a bowl and spoon to wash — and I find pleasure in leaving the kitchen just as I found it: clean and shipshape)
Doing all that with the right mindset and the right spirit produces pleasure and satisfaction. Of course, since I must keep the kitchen shipshape, I looked for a way to enjoy that. For example, I wash dishes as soon as they become dirty. Not everything is covered by clean-as-you-go, which mostly takes care of prep bowls, knives, the prep board, measuring cups and spoons, and so on. I still must clean dishes dirtied by eating.
I don’t have a dishwasher (and don’t much like them), so I made a game. If I spot a dirty dish, pan, utensil, whatever, in the kitchen, I immediately wash it and put it in the drainer to dry, awarding myself a point for not letting it get away but capturing it at once. Whenever I pass through the kitchen, I scan for any dirty item I can pounce on and wash. As a result, I usually spend about 30–45 seconds at a time washing dishes, though after a meal, it may sometimes amount to 3 or 4 minutes. That’s a short enough time that I can focus on what I’m doing without letting my mind wander, and being focused and present in the moment is a good part of flow.
When you cook, you spend a certain amount time waiting — a few minutes for greens to wilt in a hot pan or onions to soften as you sweat them over low heat. Rather than stand and stare at the pan (which can be boring), I take pleasure in using the time to clean up around my work area — wiping off countertops, rinsing and drying my knife and returning it to the rack, cleaning off the prep board and putting it away. This keeps the kitchen close to clean during the entire cooking process, and any small remnants of disorder are easily put right at the end.
Or I do things that don’t take much time, like dumping ice cubes from the tray into the ice-cube bin and refilling the trays, or removing dry dishes and flatware from the drainer and putting them away. Time passes much more quickly and enjoyably if you’re engaged in doing something than if you’re simply waiting.
Regarding exercise, it’s worth noting that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons guidelines for starting an exercise program include at the beginning, “Your goal is to establish an exercise routine you enjoy. Make sure your first activity sessions are fun and not tiring.” [emphasis added] (It seems that others were ahead of me on this idea — notably Epicurus, of course.) After trying various exercises, I found Nordic walking was the answer for me. It may not work for you, but I do recommend you spend some time exploring a range of exercises and seek those that provide enjoyment when you do them, not just when you stop — ideally, find exercises that are more fun to do than to skip.
The rule generalized: Find enjoyment in figuring out how to make tasks enjoyable. Once you’ve mastered that, you’re home free.
Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen is shown below, with each checkbox representing one serving. More information can be found in his book How Not to Die. For how I applied this checklist, see this story.