More chores, please

  IStock_000009558748XSmall man.wash.dishes

Did you have chores growing up? My main chore, which I shared with my elder sister, was doing the dishes every day.  We did this through most of my junior high and high school years. 

This chore involved putting food in the fridge, rinsing the plates and loading the dishwasher (we were a household that believed the purpose of the dishwasher was to sanitize the dishes, not to clean off food), washing pots and pans by hand, wiping down the table and counters, scrubbing the sink using Dutch Cleanser, and sweeping and washing the floor. Mopping was cheating; true washing of the floor, according to my mom, involved scrubbing on one's hands and knees. Luckily this part was not a daily requirement. 

My sister and I never washed dishes together. That seemed inefficient and led to arguments and recriminations about who was doing the easier parts. We negotiated who would be on tap, varying by day or week and once, ambitiously, by month.  As young children our allowances had been tied to our chore lists, but after my parents got divorced, the financial reward part kind of disappeared.  Chores constituted an accepted responsibility of family life, or alternately a kind of a tax on being a kid. But they didn't seem to be an unreasonable burden. 

I kind of hated doing chores but I also kind of liked the routine. I also liked doing things right. I sought the most measurably efficient ways of doing both chores and the pursuits I volunteered for: delivering newspapers on my paper route (clocking myself and experimenting with different ways of walking through the apartment complex); practicing the piano (dividing my 2-hour daily target into 30-minute segments that I timed with the oven timer and recorded in a spiral notebook); and preparing for debate tournaments (cutting and pasting pieces of evidence onto 3 x 5 index cards while listening to foreign language records I checked out from the library that theoretically might enable me to learn Spanish, German or whatever else in a completely passive manner).     

I didn’t consciously think much about chores for the next three decades until my father visited our Massachusetts house a couple of years ago. One afternoon I asked him, “do you want to see a movie or just go out to eat?” 

My dad said, “We have to finish our chores first.” 

He was referring to the various gardening, landscaping and basement insulation projects that he had undertaken – my dad grew up on a farm, so while he is somewhat of an absent-minded professor, he is also an expert gardener and quite handy around the house. (He is therefore the ideal person to visit a restored 1840 house with acreage during high summer.) 

I thought, “oh.” 

But after I joined him in said chores, which he apparently hadn’t planned on doing all on his own, I felt really great and no longer felt a need to see a movie or otherwise entertain us. 

Chores are satisfying because there is satisfaction in a job well done, and that satisfaction comes whether or not you actually feel like you’re going to enjoy the task. Chores are non-discretionary. You just do them because you’re supposed to. Chores are brilliant that way – your feelings don’t matter.

It seems self-evident that if you wait until you feel like doing something before you do it, you are not going to accomplish much. But this is ten times as true if you are trying to do something entrepreneurial or artistic – or if you’re trying to get out of your current routine (or job) and find something better. When no one imposes external structure on you, you have to find ways to create it – structure, not fun or fulfillment. 

Recently, I have been doing a lot of coaching related to business development. I just did a daylong workshop for new coaches at the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara (where did my coach training) as well as a business-development project for a corporate client. As it turns out, much of building a service business comes down to doing chores. You set out specific tasks each week, tasks that may be routine and not especially fulfilling – like reaching out to your contacts, or managing your database – and you just do them. 

It works for business development, it works for fitness (ask any personal trainer), and it works for creativity. I've been working on a novel for a couple of years, and my greatest period of progress was last May and June, when I made it daily chore to write for 45 minutes, and jotted down my start-time, end-time and daily word count in an excel spreadsheet. If I considered this blog more of a chore than something dependent on inspiration or the feedback I get (whether positive or negative), I’d do a lot more blogging, and I’m pretty sure I would like the result. 

Could turning some desired goal into a set of chores actually inspire you?  Is one of the missing elements of your life or career something as unglamorous . . . as a chore? 

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