Zen and the Art of Grunt Work

Yesterday, I wrote about my preference to work in sprints – short bursts of intense work broken up by physical movement. In general this is the way I prefer to work, particularly the work I do for a living.

But my wife and kids were out of town for the day and I took advantage of a bright afternoon to catch up on some projects around the house I have been putting off for too long.

The swingset was a gift from friends. Their children are a little older than ours and they knew we were in the market for a backyard play set, so they gave it to us. So, in early summer, my wife’s cousin and I took it apart and reassembled it in the back yard in driving rain. It’s a very nice set, but was clearly showing signs of age and weather. It’s been on my to-do list to sand it down and repaint for months. And, despite busy summer schedules, I had – in three or four sessions spread over weeks and weeks – managed to get it sanded. But it has sat for more than a month semi-naked in the yard.

Today, I decided to do something about it. I went to Home Depot, got the equipment and, perhaps as a way of avoiding other work I had to do or perhaps to put off writing for a while, I got to it. I loaded up some podcasts and began painting.

Over the next four hours, I added coats of heavy paint, stroke by stroke at a regular, almost meditative pace. What struck me was how little boredom I experienced. Part of that was due to the fact that I was, ironically, listening to a Freakonomics podcast episode about boredom. But I think the biggest part of it was that I was seeing immediate results of my efforts. The new paint was brighter than the old stain. It was easy to see where I had missed spots, easy to recognize all I had done.

It was, in short, the exact opposite of writing. When I write I am trying to get my fingers to catch up to a thought in my head. Success is measured in aggregate. Even when a project is done, it can be hard to feel done – there are always holes and more thoughts that can be crammed in. But when it comes to grunt work – like painting a swing set or mowing a lawn – there are definitive ends and achievements. Doing well at a task like that doesn’t require a ton of concentration, but it does require a tortoise like constancy in order to complete.

Writing is a sprint. Painting a swingset is a marathon.

And though my right hand is cramped from holding the brush and my jeans are flecked with paint, I look into the back yard as the late evening light fades and am oddly proud of the work I put in today. It’s the same feeling I get when I pass through a book store and see a cover I helped create or when I look at financial projections and see the difference my work has made to the agency.

Whether writing or painting, a sprint or a marathon, the work is the thing. I find peace in the process. In work, I find pride.

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