Task Magic: The Power of a Made Bed

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…the “exigency” of the alarm clock,

its power to influence my behavior,

is bestowed on it by me precisely

in the act of getting up.

- Steven Crowell


y four favorite words are “You were right, Mom.” I don’t hear them often, but when I do they fill me with juvenile glee for I am a petty, petty person. But, oddly, I have an extremely hard time saying that phrase to myself when my internal maternal figure is correct about an important aspect of my life. And one of the hardest truths for me to accept is this: there is enchantment to be had in doing the chores of life.

She calls it task magic.

I know my inner mom is right about this because I have experienced it uncountable times. And while I realize that she is urging me to remember the construct of task magic so that I can routinely harvest that lovely feeling of satisfaction at chore’s end – for some reason I just don’t trust her enough to keep current on my chore chart. As a result, a task that would take me fifteen minutes to do and bring me an emotional lift commonly gets put off for days, leaving me in the interim feeling idiotically lazy. In truth, I often spend more energy avoiding tasks than it would take to simply do them. Not impressive behavior at all.

I know this never happens to you, but if it happens to a friend of yours and you’d like to learn more about it, feel free to look over my shoulder as I work to discover why task procrastination is so hard for me to avoid.

So, Jan, this article’s for you.

It’s real

Task magic is real. It is created when a soupçon of positive biochemistry squirts through our brain as a reward for doing something that orders our life. I would imagine that we humans selected for this tendency because tidiness probably meant safety way back in the day. An orderly life would mean fewer places for poisonous snakes to hide, less chance of getting food poisoning and better odds of finding your weapon at a moment’s notice. It’s gratifying to know that our brains continue to reward us for ordering our environment.

Humans also have an affirming biochemical reaction to aesthetics because Mother Nature has taught us to appreciate beauty. The Golden Ratio, that mathematical equation underlying much natural beauty such as the branching of trees and the spiral of a seashell, is one example of the artistic skill of the biological world. Humans come to associate beauty with good health, meaning we are happier and calmer when surrounded by loveliness. Tasks that improve our aesthetic environment, therefore, will precipitate that happy juice our brains love so much.

Then there’s delayed-release task magic. We get to enjoy a dose of that when our efforts from the past pay off today. The shade tree you planted years ago and under which you now sit to read the paper, the checks in your mailbox from last week’s statements, or a coveted campsite you reserved months earlier are all examples of this. If you disengage from the world, you stop planting the seeds of Task Magic DR. If this continues too long, there will be days and days without the particular kind of joy we get when we experience tangible benefits of our earlier labors. A well-balanced life, therefore, will have regular bulb-planting activities scheduled.

Tasks are generally well within our wheelhouse, meaning that we are masterful in their implementation. (No one could have been raised by WWII-generation parents without learning the mastery of a bed made with hospital corners to coin-bouncing standards.) As a result, doing chores allows us to experience small instants of potency during our day that can offer us a moment-long break from the ongoing challenges of our chaotic lives.

Tasks usually involve movement and we are beings who are designed to move. There is an abundance of biochemistry that rewards movement, from heady endorphins to the subtler GABA. A steady brain diet of these internally released chemicals leaves us with a prevailing positive mood.

There is also the statistical joy of chores…that wonderful sense of crossing things off a list. With each line through an item, our burden gets lessened, at least temporarily. And we may even get to the point when our current list is over halfway done. We then get to coast to the finish line of Get Shit Done Day and buy a round of drinks for everyone.

Task magic is a curry of indigenous drugs that spices up what would otherwise be the bland administration of our daily lives. Let’s hear it for happy brain juicing!

Why doing chores is hard

Clearly our brain is well designed to teach us self-discipline around chores with its reliable offering of task magic. So why are we unwilling at times to accept the offer?

It is tempting to self-vilify when we let administrative tasks slide. But, as I discussed in the article on procrastination, it is wiser to be curious about what is standing between you and the obviously mature choice to get on with your chores. Following are some examples of obstacles that can legitimately interfere with our imbibing task magic.

Foremost is this: the vast majority of our life’s chores do not stay done. The food that needs to be prepared, the windows that need to be washed and the bills that need to get paid are just a fraction of the extensive and noncumulative duties that keep our lives running smoothly. That truth creates a Sisyphean situation that we tend to, quite legitimately, resent. Now, few of us can garner the aplomb that Camus attributed to Sisyphus in this quote: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But all of us can understand that there is great dignity to be had in resolve. If we reframe the futility of noncumulative chores as an accrual of a dignified existence, we can see peeling yet another potato as a noble endeavor. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that chores vivify our existence.

As long as we’re wandering through ancient times, let’s consider the next obstacle Herculean. There are just always a thousand chores to do. No matter how many you do, the tyrannical To-Do list will always fill back up to an even thousand. Since we all have task-saturated lives, we must develop the skill of task triage. If we cannot, we will feel pressure from every job, no matter how distal it may be to our level of contentment. Because there is different press to the need to renew our passport, recaulk the shower in the guest bath and turn off the sprinklers, a big part of our relationship to chorehood is learning how to procrastinate effectively. If you think about it existentially (is there any other way to think?), what you wrestle with every day is how to spend yourself. As a near-death experience will highlight, few of us pay much attention to this truth. Can we get better at spending ourselves wisely by starting with a more thoughtful process for and attention to the act of charting our chores for the day? If not, we are at risk for developing chore phobia – that very unproductive position of feeling so overwhelmed by the very idea of chores that we cannot engage our self-discipline at all.

A related obstacle occurs when we accustom ourselves to a high level of chorehood and then fail to realize that sometimes our depletion is legitimate. When our get up and go is gone by noon, it makes sense to review how much of our day has already been spent on chores.

Which brings us to will power depletion. My dad was prone to repeating this saying: A task begun is half done. Depending on its degree of difficulty, every chore has a certain threshold energy – the amount of will power needed to get the chore started. Once our will power has initiated the chore, it’s usually fairly straightforward to work to completion. Some chores – new ones or difficult ones – will have a higher proportion of energy required to initiate them. When facing a chore, then, we are looking at the hurdle of its initiation. If you want the results but cannot initiate the task, you are out of will power. Your inner hurdler has bonked. There is little you can do about this until the well of initiation energy fills back up.

And, next up, will to power. If your days consist entirely of or even predominantly of noncumulative chores, you are trying to run your whole life off the little starter motor of will power. This is unsustainable. You have to spend at least some part of every day on the yellow brick road toward mastery – for, unless you do, your life will be indistinguishable from that of a slave. Your life will not be your own. There will be no peak experiences, no thrill of sustained effort toward something meaningful to you, and no flow of profound concentration. Without the long-term dreams that are created by our will to power, we will be unable to create our unique essence. Absent the pursuit of our dreams providing us with a reason to get up in the morning, our chore-clogged life will be met with the legitimate internal question: “Why bother?” Another word for the state precipitated by this obstacle is depression.

There are other intoxicants that are more beguiling than the endogenous chemicals of task magic. A martini can present your brain with a lovely sense of relaxation similar to what we feel after the stalls are mucked, and it can do so without your having to lift a pitchfork. If it’s true that alcohol is easier and more reliable (as are all intoxications such as eating, reading, daydreaming or video games), how do we counteract this understandable reasoning? It’s the secondary biochemistry that is the kicker. When we muck the stalls, we get the immediate task magic. We also get the residual serenity of having engaged in a “doing” behavior. This is a more subtle biochemistry and must be intentionally harvested. You have to stand in the stall door, lean on your pitchfork and breathe in the satisfaction of completion. And, like breathing, it can be repeated as necessary. A wise woman fills her lungs again and again with the serenity of doing, a marvelous happy juice unavailable from intoxicants.

Another of my dad’s favorite sayings was: A job worth doing is a job worth doing well. This truism reflects the pressure of perfectionism that increases the threshold energy needed to initiate a task. I experience this every time I get ready to water my garden. I know that I can never water anywhere near as well as a thorough rain. I also know that I am at risk of over-watering some plants if I really soak things. So I understand that this is never a job I can do well. But do it I must. It always takes me an extra push to get to the task.

Fate will sometimes derail task magic. If we are approaching a task that has been ruined too many times by something beyond our control, we will be that much less willing to initiate it. If you are halfway through hanging your laundry on the clothesline and it starts to rain – again – you may find it a little harder next time to get around to doing laundry. Or you may struggle to get on with paying the bills when you frequently run out of money before you run out of bills. You can’t fight fate, but you can fight the tendency to abdicate. Resilient people are those who remain hopeful that next time things will go better for them.

Finally, there are chores that are harder to face because they have multiple initiation thresholds. Sometimes this is due to the fact that there are several chores that have to be accomplished before the main chore. It is harder to make a cherry pie for the neighborhood potluck when you have to go pick the cherries and also clean up the kitchen before you can start the baking. There are also chores that require plugging through a multi-day commitment. Getting your taxes done can take several monotonous days of data crunching. With each step of the chore and with each break in the action, new initiation energy outlay will be required to activate the next step. Unfortunately, there is little task magic to be had with half-done taxes.

Tips and tricks

So what’s the difference between figuring out the legitimate obstacles blocking our daily dose of task magic and seeking excuses for not tackling our chore chart? That’s a good question. In my mind, when we sincerely investigate why we are struggling in life and our attitude is a kind one, we should get to a genuine “of course” state that will counteract the historical shame we have been feeling about our struggles. In other words, when we have ourselves better placed in our existential context, we should be able to respect our ongoing challenges. But once that gentle “of course” has released us from the additional burden of shame, we need to face the necessary burden of chores. Here are a few tips that can help us do that. (There are also some ideas about avoiding excessive procrastination here.)

My mom used to put on a stack of 78s and we would all get to work. I now have many days of music on my tiny iPod, enough to fuel a month’s worth of chores. Music helps with chores because, as I said, chores usually involve movement and music makes us want to move. So, a great way to get a task done is to get on your feet, swayin’ to the music…la, la, la.

My mom also used to make up elaborate chore charts. Unfortunately, they were so elaborate they became too much of a chore for her to maintain! But the idea was a good one. There are several ways to routinize tasks. You can make every Monday water-the-houseplants day, you can start every day with the pomp and circumstance of a To-Do-List ceremony or you can pile things up for a rousing Get Shit Done Day once a week. What makes or breaks your strategy is how well it fits your personality. And you also have to watch how you make up the list of things that need to get done. If you fail to triage well, you will not be able to trust your routines to keep your life running smoothly. If too many things make it onto the list, you will lose momentum. If too few, your life will start to fray around the edges. BTW, there is no sin in writing things on your list that are newly finished just for the joy of crossing them off! The internet is full of creative ways to make to-do lists fun, from nifty schedule books and gorgeous colored pens to crowd sourcing support for an onerous task.

Talk to yourself deliberately. Use the voice of expectation and the voice of support to address the chore challenges facing you. If you can feel equally challenged and provisioned, you will up your chances of getting your shit done every day.

As I mentioned in the section above, it is very important to remember to harvest both the task magic and the secondary biochemistry of serenity. It is wise, not self-indulgent, to come around repeatedly to observe the completed task. Breathe in the scent of your air-dried laundry, revel in the beauty of your clean refrigerator and remind yourself to be proud of your consistent gym attendance.

I’m not above tricking myself into doing chores. If the housecleaning has been ignored too long, I’ll invite someone over for dinner. (It invariably makes me crabby, but the house gets cleaned.) If I delay returning emails, I take my computer to a coffee shop and put my seat bones in the chair. And this trick always works with me…I just tell myself to put the laundry into the washing machine and not worry about what comes next. Apparently I don’t mind hanging the laundry, but I really resist making the commitment to doing laundry. Weird, huh?

Another trick that works quite well for my type of mind is making a One Item List. When I feel a lack of motivation that has continued for a few days, I ask myself to put just one thing on my list each day with the reminder that, at week’s end, I’ll have seven things accomplished. This strategy feels very calming to me since I’m prone to Task Phobia. Having grown up in a DIY family, I routinely overburden myself with jobs that are at the edge of my ability, patience and budget. A free-standing, One Item List protects me from having to acknowledge all the jobs that are out there waiting for me to gather sufficient resources to face them.

I also give myself rewards when I step toward a chore. When I take the time to make a To Do list, I feel that I’ve earned an orange-cranberry scone.

I’m getting better at besting two of the obstacles…the multi-step and multi-day dilemmas. I can now, sometimes, agree to just put the first step of a task in place, like getting the watering can and plant food out of the cupboard in the garage and putting them on the kitchen counter. And I can now, sometimes, enjoy the accumulation of partial completion when I remind myself that it is an enlightened stance. I still prefer the full-on rampage of a Get Shit Done Day, but slow and steady is increasingly appealing as I practice it more.

Where I tend to get stuck when it comes to getting on with chores is in lethargy. Given the choice, I’d rather sit and read than do just about anything. A morning ritual that involves coffee and newspapers creates a problematic energy requirement for me – creating the necessity to both get myself up and to give up something that I love doing (reading) for doing chores. The take away here is don’t sit down if there is a chore that needs to be done with some urgency. Stay on your feet and away from the reading materials, Jan.

Conclusion

If we consistently avoid chores, we are making the confession to ourselves that we are not up to the task of being an ordered human. Since few of us would intentionally choose to be disordered, we ought to work to eliminate obstacles before we succumb to the idea that we are incapable of doing otherwise.

This is a struggle for me as I am easily seduced away from chores. But my goal is to get my brain more and more under my command. It behaves itself best when it knows I’m on its side and when it knows what’s coming at it. So, I work on petulance, procrastination and my resistance to task magic. Maybe someday I’ll be able to relax my vigilance and trust that I will get all gold stars on my chore chart. But until then, to paraphrase Don Quixote: Fate may confuse the outcome, but the effort remains sublime.

Here’s to Get Shit Done Day!

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.