Greek mythology tells us how Sisyphus tricked the gods (cheating Death twice). As punishment, he was sentenced to roll a huge rock, which required extreme effort, to the top of a hill every day. Upon reaching the top, the rock would roll back down and Sisyphus would have to begin his labor all over again. While this doesn’t sound like fun, it seems a bit trite compared to Prometheus being chained to a rock, where an eagle would eat his liver, his liver would grow back and it would be eaten again the next day. It sounds trite, that is, until you consider the implications.
The tale of Sisyphus is a signal to us today. Do you relate with the sense of a redundant routine with a complete lack of meaning? Many of us labor throughout the day. Maybe we’re not pushing something heavy up a hill, but our minds might be at work against similarly difficult forces. We struggle all day long, get to the top of our 5pm hill and know when our rock reaches the bottom, we’ll start it all over again.
So, how do we break this senseless routine and survive a boring job?
- Plan a Path Up the Hill
Look at the work ahead of you and plan it out. Here is a simplified approach:
First, list the tasks you need to accomplish.
Second, prioritize these tasks so you complete your most important work before the less critical.
Third, keep track of your progress throughout the day. If you recognize that you’ve pushed your rock to the tree, you know how far you have come and how much work remains to be done.
Last, at the end of the day, celebrate what you have achieved. Look at your list of tasks and celebrate every box you were able to checkmark. Give yourself some grace if you didn’t accomplish everything you hoped. Those remaining items can be moved to your list for the next day (which I recommend you write out before you break from your work day).
- Build Strengths
If you’re pushing a large rock up a hill every day, you’re bound to build some strength. Realize that even redundant work gives opportunities to develop skill and attain knowledge. Be observant of how the work can be done better. Maybe there’s opportunity for better coordination or tools. You could suggest changes to the workflow or modifications to documents you fill out. But ultimately, be aware of how the strengths you’re developing today could be transferred to more satisfying work in the future. (e.g. Sisyphus would probably be a dominant offensive lineman in the NFL today.)
- Enjoy the Walk Back Down
Sisyphus had no choice but to push the rock up the hill every day. One choice he had was deciding how he spent his time each evening walking back down the hill. What are you doing during your personal time? Are your lunches spent at your desk? Are your weekends full of household chores and “necessary” errands? Do you spend time trying to kill the pain leftover from the work week with mindless entertainment? Maybe you can give yourself some purposeful work or seek out things that truly inspire your soul. Spend time with valuable relationships. Use your lunch break to visit a bookstore or meet with a friend. The possibilities are innumerable. Take some time and realize you are not helpless and do have choices you can make.
Albert Camus pondered this myth and asks us to consider Sisyphus happy, which is hard to do without the French philosopher’s perspective on life.
For the mistake is thinking that the quantity of experiences depends on the circumstances of our life when it depends solely on us. Here we have to be over-simple. To two men living the same number of years, the world always provides the same sum of experiences. It is up to us to be conscious of them.
– Albert Camus (hat tip to Jennifer Michael Hecht via On Being)
And Camus’ premise is probably the linchpin to everything in this post. None of these tips are helpful without a belief that we are in charge of making meaning in life. Only then will we be able to trick death and overcome what has commonly been called the daily grind. As we push our rocks upward, the one thing we cannot allow these heavy boulders to crush is our soul.