I recently listening to an episode of This American Life where they spoke to people who were working in roles where they had to face the same challenges every day. These people had to push the same boulder up the same hill each day, let it roll back a little through the night and get right back to it the next morning. They interviewed a team of people who were working on containing the wildfires in California and were literally cleaning miles of fire hoses and then rolling them into coils. And that’s it. I got to thinking about this idea of repetitive tasks which yield little to no real satisfaction in the short-term and was surprised at how anxious it made me.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered great joy in tiny, mundane tasks. Crossing things off my to-do list, sweeping, doing dishes and even cooking. Things which have a clear finish line and little wins I can celebrate. It makes sense though, doesn’t it? The almost instant gratification that is released as soon as you’re done mopping your living room or looking at that empty sink. It’s like my desire to see immediate results is so strong that I’ll stoop to any level to find them, even the bottom of a pile of laundry. Completing small tasks gives us a sense of accomplishment, of purpose and most of all — control.
I don’t know if this is something that applies to anyone but clearly, control makes me feel good. Being in control of the results I see after completing a chore but also being in control of my environment and the way I live. During quarantine, this level of control has hit unprecedented highs with me being in charge of every single second of my day — often with little in the way of my pre-determined bedtime, meal times or experience of sitting in my home. Gaining control over the things outside of ourselves is difficult which is why I feel so many of us turn to things closer to home to find stability.
For some people, this might manifest in the desire to control a partner or people at work while for others it could show up in a type of OCD where you are so particular about how you want everything done (very guilty). Exerting a level of control over the people and things around you seems to me like some kind of coping mechanism to deal with the things that one cannot control such as a pandemic, dissatisfaction at work or unhappiness in relationships. We turn to the most minute, mundane tasks and put so much importance on those that it sometimes feels like this cycle of control, action and satisfaction might very well be that boulder on the hill.