This morning, I got up with my wife at 5 am. She was heading off to a clinical rotation as part of nursing school; I was heading off to the couch.
My task was to label and stuff copies of Spoonesaurus Magazine, the spooncarving magazine I publish with my partner Matt White (the guy who makes my knives). I had two big boxes of printed magazines, two cases of manila envelopes, and an enormous spaghetti pile of printed label stickers I had printed the night before. I pulled then end of the string of labels over, peeled one, stuck it on an envelope, grabbed a magazine and slid it inside, pulled the cover on the sticky flap and smoothed it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
My earliest job was washing eggs at a local farm. Then it was harvesting strawflowers in bunches to be dried. Later on I helped transplant flowers and harvest squash and mustard at a different farm. Then when I met my wife, we farmed together growing vegetables and helping start a yogurt business, both situations rife with repetitive tasks. My current work at the Christmas tree farm is a minefield of them. Even the spoons and blanks I make repetitive in their way. So I am no stranger to the nuances of how this goes.
When you first start a repetitive task, your mind is fresh. Your body doesn't hurt and you are thinking a lot about what you are doing. That lasts for 15-30 minutes. Then you get into a pleasant hum of routine where your mind starts to wander, and sometimes (but not always) you make important creative leaps. That lasts for another indeterminate length of time, depending on how uncomfortable the task is, your state of mind, the quality of the day or your company.
Then you hit the wall. As anyone who's ever done much running can relate with, you reach that place where your mind resists continuing doing what you're doing. Sometimes it's because it hurts (transplanting long rows of crops comes to mind) and sometimes it's just because you feel done.
But you push past the wall, and coast from then until the end. In this respect, it is helpful if the task doesn't require much alertness (driving a car or operating machinery or power tools, for instance, are not situations where you'd want to push through the wall; stop and take a break). I finished labeling and stuffing all the magazines in about an hour and a half, and I was grateful to be done.
We often demonize repetitive tasks, go to great lengths to avoid them, but I think they offer something valuable, particularly in situations where you are deciding for yourself how long you do them, when to stop and take a break or do something else. First of all, we are fooling ourselves if we think that life doesn't require repetitive tasks. If we aren't doing them, someone else is on our behalf. Leaning in to the repetitive tasks in your life is a way of being grateful for all of the work of that sort that others do for us, whether we realize it or not. Leaning in is also good for my mind. I don't meditate, but I am convinced that all the repetitive tasks in my life serve the same purpose. I wouldn't want them to predominate my day (and I know intimately what that's like), but I am glad that I have a hefty dose of them, and I start to feel unmoored when I don't have something like that required of me.
The other benefit repetitive tasks (at least real, physical ones, not so much digital tasks) provide is a sense of accomplishment you get from looking back at a greenhouse full of seedlings, or a truck full of harvested produce, or, in my current case, a couch full of magazines ready to be mailed. There is something about the sameness of it that lends to this satisfaction, making it more poignant, perversely, than a more linear task like building something. It is the deep animal part of our brain, I think, pleased to be stockpiling something, anything, against the coming winter.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.