Are menial tasks the secret to great achievement?
Martha Judelson cleans corporate housing.
Every day she drives to a vast, bland plot of land 8 miles from Bob Hope airport near Burbank, California. The land houses a complex of 215 small apartments full of analysts, consultants, insurance investigators, and other white collar travellers in need of a temporary home away from home. The décor bridges the gap between cozy and soulless, every unit is identical, and identically manicured before each new resident moves in. Martha does the manicuring.
When she began, her boss handed her a list of 82 tasks to complete for each apartment. Push the coat hangers to the left side of the sliding closet. Make sure the shower head isn’t set to “massage” mode. Set the TV to input 2. An excruciatingly long list of seemingly unnecessary tedium. On Martha’s first day, they even made her watch a 3 hour video of another employee performing the tasks. She does the same 82 two things all day every day. Monday through Friday, 410 tasks in 8 hours every day.
To some, this must seem like the worst job in the world. Not to Martha. In fact, she feels invigorated at the end of each day.
How is this possible? The answer has to do with a special part of the brain called the dorsolateral striatum and how humans program themselves to accomplish menial tasks.
Why menial tasks are good for thinking
Don’t underestimate the power of menial tasks. They can be the secret trump card to help you tackle one of the trickiest, most important, most elusive tasks in your day: thinking.
Have you ever had a Eureka moment in the shower? Have you ever been washing dishes when suddenly a (figurative) lightbulb turns on and you suddenly know how to solve some difficult problem at work that has been nagging at you all week?
That’s not coincidental. This is where the dorsolateral striatum comes in.
The dorsolateral striatum along with a little help from the cerebellum (muscle memory) and the basal ganglia (habit forming) is responsible for something called procedural memory. As we perform a task repeatedly, it requires less direct concentration from our prefrontal cortex (the big thinking and self regulation center), and eventually it becomes entirely procedural memory to the point where we may not even be able to recall what we are doing.
Have you ever started to drive home from work, and suddenly you’re home and you don’t remember a single thing about the traffic? Martha can’t recite that list of 82 tasks she performs, but when she’s cleaning an apartment, she performs them all and in the same order every time.
And importantly, launching into this active state of procedural memory can actually stimulate and boost the higher levels of thinking and creative reasoning. Or more simply put, the rote processes that distract our hands focus our minds.
It works for more than showering and dishwashing. Many reactive tasks you do in a day can eventually work their way into that habitual thoughtless state, leaving the rest of your brain to focus on other matters.
Any New Yorker can observe just how complicated and intense a thought process we can bake into that dorsolateral striatum. Just watch an NYC cab driver navigating through a bustling, unpredictable city, avoiding killing pedestrians, cyclists, and other cabbies, all while chatting with his fellow cabbies via Bluetooth. Chew on that for a second: your cabbie is confidently, narrowly, and mindlessly avoiding property damage, negligent homicide, and certain death for himself and his passengers. If he can do that, there just might be a few routines in your life you can menialize.
How long until tasks become automatic?
Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. For Martha, it took her about five weeks before she didn’t need to refer to her list of 82 tasks. There’s a common – though somewhat outdated – theory that 21 days is the magic number to form a habit, but the reality is that it depends on the complexity and number of tasks. That NYC cab driver wasn’t dodging joggers and gunning across lanes for tolls only 21 days after he received his driver’s license, but, on the flip side, it doesn’t take 21 days to hardwire dishwashing into the brain.
How do I make tasks menial?
There’s a good chance you’re already doing this to some degree. Household chores, cleaning, your morning routine – these are probably the clearest examples. It’s entirely possible that you no longer make a single mindful decision between the moment you wake up and the moment you get to work.
Identify your menial periods. Take a look at your routines. Some are deceptively non-menial, like answering email, for instance. Though simple, easy, and trivial, this typically requires your full attention and concentration. It’s not hard thinking, but it does require the analytical part of your brain, that prefrontal cortex, that you use for decision making and planning. While emailing often feels mindless, it isn’t reactive or rote.
Generally, tasks that involve human interaction and communication aren’t menial. Tasks that require repetition, motor skills, and reactive processing can be.
Additionally menial tasks are more quantitative than qualitative. They can be categorized as done/not-done rather than done-well/not-done-well. “Sew ten sweaters” can become menial. “Design ten sweaters” cannot, the designing of a sweater contains elements of quality which will require creative thought processes and constructive reasoning.
Okay, I know which of my tasks are menial. Now what?
By recognizing and even planning for performing rote routines, you can harness those times for thinking.
Now you need to decide how you want to think. Yes, how to think is important. While the tasks are mindless, the time you spend doing them is some of the most mindful time you have in your day. You could daydream about dating a movie star, saving the world from otherworldly villains, and becoming president of everything forever; or you could do some actual hardcore productive thinking, the kind of thinking that leads to getting things done. Your brain is free and focused, so focus it on something important:
- making major decisions
- planning upcoming projects
- organizing your thoughts
- deciding how to get started on a new project
- exploring creative solutions to problems you need to solve
Of course, there’s no harm in daydreaming. Feel free to pop in your ear buds while washing dishes; go ahead and get lost in the sweet sounds of your favourite music, but recognize that you now have the option to put this menial time to use, to do some real productive brainwork. And it is worth making the conscious decision to do so.
So, is all this… multitasking?
Multitasking is generally a bad idea. By trying to accomplish too much at once, you diffuse the quality of the tasks you perform. And by constantly interrupting your own concentration, it will take you longer to do many tasks at once than it would by focusing on tasks one-at-a-time.
But by doing menial tasks and using your brain for the important, creative, constructive work, you are literally using two different parts of your brain to accomplish two separate sets of problems at once. This kind of brain usage is symbiotic. This is multitasking in its best form.
So what does this have to do with Martha and her cleaning job? Martha didn’t spend four years in college preparing for a corporate cleaning career. She studied to be a fashion designer. When she took the job, she had no idea that it would help her fashion career.
But it did. A few months into the job, Martha began to think about her design work while cleaning. At first, that’s all it was, thought. But before long she was rushing home every day to turn a day’s worth of brainstorming and creative processing into action and work, her real work, all that good stuff lodged in the “not urgent/important” section of her Eisenhower grid.
This was the stuff she never had “time” for at her previous job as a receptionist because her work day required all her concentration dealing with hotel guests, so she never made room for those necessary creative thought processes.
Are menial tasks the secret to great achievement? Perhaps not the one and only secret. But don’t avoid mindless routines. Recognize them. And use them wisely.
Did you ever have a brilliant idea while performing a menial task? Share the moment with us in the comments below!