Grunt Work as Spiritual Practice
How to use stupid work to your advantage.
Grunt work has a bad reputation.
It is "low-leverage", "rarely worth doing", and should be "eliminated, automated or delegated", according to the productivity gurus of the world.
For the most part, I agree. I've spent years automating stupid-work in my own life, and I am actively engaged in the battle against the never-ending barrage of grunt work that, like a fire hydrant blasting O2 into the face of a thirsty dog, overwhelms most knowledge workers who are trying to get anything important done.
But I've recently found a new perspective. Or, perhaps, a new perspective has found me. I now believe that a certain amount of grunt work can be a refreshing, soulful, and yes, even spiritual practice.
As I understand spiritual practices, they are designed to give its practitioners a rejuvenating break from their daily, earthly, actual lives. By pausing life for a moment of silence, chanting, woodcutting or whatever your spiritual practice of choice is, you transcend the ordinary and focus on something else than whatever you're actually doing with your life. In short, you give yourself a break.
So, too, can you use grunt work as a break from your highly demanding professional life.
Your Real Job as a knowledge worker in a high-complexity role or domain, is to think clearly and make good decisions consistently. That is difficult and demanding indeed, and most of us are not able to do so at the highest level 24/7. Enter grunt work.
Grunt work, when scheduled intentionally, can give us a pause from the important, high-leverage work of thinking and decision making. It can act as a mechanism for professional rest and rejuvenation, much like a long oooohhhmmm for a praying Buddhist.
Built into many spiritual practices is a promise of reaching something transcendental. The spiritual practice will, supposedly, move you closer to something or somewhere better and calmer than your regular life, be it Heaven, nirvana, or just to the bottom of that difficult yoga stretch.
So too with grunt work. “Just do it now, and you will feel free”, it promises with a deceptive voice. A clear, undistracted mind is just a few emails and five todos away, goes the siren song of grunt work. Perhaps so. But you soon realise that the end destination is illusory, always just out of reach. Inbox Zero and Nirvana are similar in this regard. As soon as you believe you may have arrived there for a fleeting moment, you will be sent back to where you came from, doomed to eternally try again to reach that blissful state.
So do not fool yourself into believing you can make the grunt work go away once and for all, leaving you in peace with an eternally empty inbox or todo list. Instead, embrace the grunt. Use it as a well deserved pause from your difficult and demanding job. Use it to give yourself some well-deserved dopamine hits as you tick off those Asana tasks and archive your Mount Kilimanjaro of old emails.
Just make sure you don't overengage with the grunt.
It will tempt you to completely disregard your important work, the stuff that matters.
For just like other spiritual practices, it can go too far and become all-consuming. For as lovely as nirvana and perpetual Inbox Zero both appear, one must always remember that they are fleeting illusions.
Life is best lived grounded here on Earth, with the occasional visits to the spiritual hintherlands. The opposite rarely works. So too, is your professional life best lived in the realm of important tasks and deep thinking, with occasional visits to Gruntistan. The opposite rarely works.