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How to enjoy the dullest tasks

States of mind

I’ve mentioned before in posts like Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow how even as seemingly unappealing a job as doing the dishes can be not only easier, but in fact enjoyable under the right circumstances. Here are some specific ways to enjoy drudgery:

1. Get into flow. Flow is a highly focused state when we are working hard to do something exceptionally well, using all of our attention. Getting into a flow state requires knowing what you’re doing, having minimal interruption, having a specific (and challenging) goal in mind, and having some way to judge how well you’re doing. World-class violinists, writers, programmers, physicists, tennis players, and highly accomplished people with all kinds of other specialties get into it often, but it can be done as well with very humble tasks. How quickly can the dishes be washed, or how perfectly, or with how little wasted water, or how quietly? See Some Steps for Getting into a State of Flow for more information on this.

 2. If the task doesn’t require much attention, use the opportunity to focus your attention on something you really like. This was what I did today, listening intently on headphones to songs for which I wanted to learn the words. I was literally disappointed when I ran out of dishes to wash and had to stop. Some other activities I’ve done that have made dishwashing really enjoyable have been talking with a visiting friend, singing, helping with my son’s homework, talking on the phone (using a headset phone), and even watching movies on a laptop set up behind the sink.

3. Simultaneously do something else useful. Our brains are designed to pay attention to only one thing at a time, but if the chore in question doesn’t require much attention, it’s sometimes possible to get something else done as you’re cleaning dishes or dusting. An example of multitasking while doing the laundry comes up in my post How to Multitask, and When Not To.

3. Use the time to think. If your life tends toward the hectic, with few opportunities to reflect, allowing your mind to wander onto whatever subjects most interest you as you vacuum or clean dishes can provide a welcome respite. To do this, it’s necessary to give up on any kind of resentment about doing the dishes and to point your mind in useful directions if it gets caught up in unimportant details.

4. Meditate. Meditation means narrowing our attention to a very specific thought or experience. Focusing intently on just the sensory details of washing the dishes–the feel of the water, the splashing sounds, and so on–can provide a means of meditating that can aid relaxation, alertness, and serenity, and the same can be achieved with vacuuming or any other household chore that doesn’t require any significant amount of thought to accomplish. The trick with this is to get used to focusing the mind back on only the sensory details whenever it wanders onto another subject. As with flow, this isn’t a useful strategy in high-interruption situations.

Photo by Nicholas Smale



  1. Oliver Dale  •  Mar 24, 2010 @10:47 am

    Good insight, Luc. Once I’ve started the drudgery, completion isn’t usually an issue. What do you have for getting up the steam to start??

  2. Luc  •  Mar 24, 2010 @11:24 am

    Great question! I have a few tricks up my sleeve for that: I’ll write them up to post later this week or early next.

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