So nice to see you. It’s me, Ephrat Livni, Quartz writer and resident bore. I’m a dull stuff enthusiast, an adorer of boring activities—poring over legal opinions and abstract philosophical texts, cleaning out closets, training for marathons. But it’s a cultivated skill, as I’m naturally resistant to pretty much everything but drinking coffee and, maybe, shopping.
I learned to love doing hard things by sitting, literally, in meditation, as a Zen student. Sitting and observing your thoughts sucks. Really. It is no fun at first, but it does teach you to, well, sit. And that, it turns out, is the key to productivity—even for activities that demand we stand.
In our distracted and acquisitive culture, we’re encouraged to believe that the perfect app, system, guru, or morning routine will make us more effective. Yet Zen masters—and great writers, athletes, artists, musicians, and business people—all say there’s no magic bullet.
There’s just beginning and doing, as media magnate Barry Diller recently told Fast Company, when asked about how to help creative types excel. “Put them to work … It’s process. It’s one [foot] in front of the other.”
In other words, sitzfleisch. There’s a German word (of course) for the discipline of sitting one’s ass down in a chair to do what must be done, as Anne Quito’s treatise on the history of the office chair reveals: sitzfleisch. It translates literally, to “chair glue.” Or, as Anne puts it: “the ability to sit through something boring or complex for a considerable amount of time.”
How to get it. To cultivate sitzfleisch—or anything that requires discipline, like say, running (which might be called lauffleisch, or run glue)—you just do. Forget your feels. Ignore your boredom. Muscle through. Like Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
You don’t have to love every moment, but you do have to focus and keep going. In the case of a creative challenge like writing, the work may always be a bit painful, as Maya Angelou told the Paris Review: “More often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know.”
One thing at a time. Multi-tasking is the worst. It’s stressful, ineffective, and technically impossible, as Quartz’s Corinne Purtill explains. Your brain can’t handle more than one task at a time, which means when you try to do two or more things, you’re just burning cognitive energy reserves.
Instead, focus on a single task and then take a break. If you’re reading an article in a magazine, ignore your phone—notifications be damned! And if you’re talking to a friend on the phone, don’t also shop online.
Baby steps. Start something and do it until you finish. Obviously, you can’t write a novel—or renovate your kitchen or learn to surf—in a single afternoon. But you can segment your time so that you get one thing done in each portion, and do that one thing right, with total devotion.
“The best way for an organization to fuel higher productivity and more innovative thinking is to strongly encourage finite periods of absorbed focus, as well as shorter periods of real renewal,” says The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working author Tony Schwartz in the Harvard Business Review.
For this reason, your usual correspondent Jenni Avins is obsessed with setting timers. For housework, she uses podcasts instead, and claims her bathroom was never cleaner than the weekend she discovered Making Oprah.
Don’t wait for the muse. As Charlotte’s Web author EB White told the Paris Review in 1969, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
That goes for pretty much whatever you need to do, whether work, sports, or chores. The time is now and the way is by doing. Don’t wait for the weather to be 72 degrees Fahrenheit with no humidity to go for a jog.
Ignore your feelings (sometimes). It doesn’t always feel good to go running or drag yourself to a workout class. It really doesn’t matter, though. Emotions rarely reveal whether we’re doing something well or something useful. A deeper understanding of the nature of feelings shows they’re unreliable, constantly fluctuating, and, frankly, should be ignored sometimes.
As such, productive people don’t let their feelings dictate their actions. They flip the script and let action dictate emotion, doing dull stuff which feels fun when it’s done—and sometimes, even once you start doing it.
Don’t let the goal block your view of the work. Immerse yourself in the work and the moment. You may have big goals, like winning a Nobel Prize for literature, but focus on what’s in front of you, like writing the next sentence. Don’t get distracted by the big picture. Dig in to the small one, lose thoughts of later, and you may be rewarded with the coveted flow state: the sense of total immersion when there’s no separation between you and what you’re doing.
And then, you’ve already won. Whether you ultimately aim to be a business leader, a literary star, a competitive athlete, a good parent, or to penetrate the nature of reality and attain illumination, the underlying process is the same—sitting, sweating the small stuff minute-by-minute, and not letting the end-goal block your view of what must be done. Be present, take baby steps, and focus on now, rather than what you might someday be if you succeed.
Quite likely, you too will come to love dull stuff, and end up having fun in the process.
Have a great weekend!
The Emmys are Monday, and the three-way tossup for Best Drama between Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Americans‘ final season offers lots of inspiration for weekend binge-watching. Quartz entertainment reporter Adam Epstein makes an emphatic case for diving into The Americans‘ six seasons: “At its peak it was simultaneously the best spy show and the best family drama on tv,” he writes. Notably, it premiered in 2013, when Donald Trump was still a reality TV star and Russian meddling in US affairs seemed retro. As the final season aired five years later, it became apparent that truth is at least as strange as fiction.