When you are doing a task, assume you are going to do it forever
When I was in my early teenage, I was a voracious reader, I would devour anything with words on it. My favorites were Science Fiction authors like Jules Verne and HG Wells. But that wasn't it, my father had quite a big collection of books on military topics; books that were assigned to officers when they had to pass their promotion exams. Books no one would read for entertainment, but for me, when I had no other book available, I would would even read them, a 14 year old, reading about the Falklands war and the biggest naval movement after the WWII.
But here is the thing: when I liked a book, I wouldn't just read it once, I would read it again and again. In fact I have read the whole Harry Potter series at least 7 times. The complete Sherlock Holmes volume at least 3 times. Even though I knew the story I would still read them again and again, till the process of reading them became a joy in itself.
As I turned older, cellphones came, internet took my attention and my reading dropped. It started small but I started to notice that my ability to concentrate on a topic dwindled. This was not an isolated phenomenon, with the onslaught of information we had a lot more variety and hence our ability to hold attention withered.
After thinking about this topic for a while, reading numerous books, here are my thoughts on why my mind wants to run away after every ten seconds:
There is something about this task that is challenging, that needs a moment to think and solve, that you don't readily know. Once your mind gets to that stage, it is too much for it to handle and in order to keep you happily engaged it shoots towards a distraction. When we go for a distraction we are actually degrading the present activity because we are declaring it as inferior to the one that we crave. Do it enough times and it becomes an unconscious habit that you don't even know you are doing
For example, I have to write an important email, I am writing the email and at one point there is something that I don't quite understand, this needs me to shift my concentration towards a specific problem that I don't know the answer to. As soon as my mind arrives at that door, it wants to run away and look at kittens on the internet. Because cognitively demanding tasks are hard, in fact they are so hard the Cal Newport says that the ability to focus will be the most valuable ability in our economy.
“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.” Cal Newport, Deepwork
Now imagine doing something really mundane and boring, and imagine for just a moment that you have to do it forever, till eternity. Once you imagine that your mind will have no choice but to accept this task as the only thing. Because you have obliterated the concept of future and past, there is no choice available to your mind other than to accept this and then try to seek maximum pleasure from this activity, No matter how mundane it might be.
If this rings a bell in your head then that's right, this is the exact scenario for Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a cruel Greek king who was punished to push a large rock up on a steep hill, only to find it rolling back on nearing the top. Camus had a unique take on Sisyphus while pushing the rock, he imagined him smiling while tirelessly pushing it up, only to find it rolling back.
That is the true moral of the story of Sisyphus, it is only a punishment if you think its a punishment. If you are focused on what you would rather be doing, the present moment will always be inferior, it will always be insufficient. The true joy of learning happens when we seek pleasure from the mundane, when we become so patient we can see a plant grow from a seed and seek joy in that.
Here's the thing, We all have to do boring and mundane tasks all the time, I don't care if you are Elon Musk or Bill Gates, there are things we have to do that that don't excite us, the secret of productivity lies not in minimizing them, but actually trying to maximize the pleasure that you can derive from those tasks. Once you do that its effects spread like dominoes throughout your life.
So next time you have to do something mundane like doing the dishes, imagine for a moment: How would you do it if you had to do it till eternity? Forever stuck in a loop ? You will see a wave of relief wash over you, you will start to notice the smallest details in the dishes, the water bubbles popping on your skin. The slow wave of water as it passes over your skin turning it warm and cold. Because even though time always keeps flowing, once our mind is able to break its confines we will see it and then everything becomes new. Like a passerby seeing the flowing river, if you can look hard enough, its never the same.
So when I read a book 7 times, it was not just one book, it was 7 different books that I read. Each time they had a different effect on me, because even though the words were same,
I was different.