Embracing Sisyphus

When I leave for vacation or a work trip I often leave a backstopping memo for the team that will cover for me while I am gone. I have a guilty secret: to that list I always add some awful task that I have been hammering away at, or avoiding, for months and that refuses to get done. I think of these as my Sisyphus tasks, and every time I go away I hope that magically one will get done – by someone else – in my absence. Sadly, the tasks are always still there when I return. It’s the nature of Sisyphus tasks.

Sisyphus tasks aren’t simply things you don’t want to do, or that are boring or unpleasant. They are problems without solutions, or work without end points, or tasks that have somehow gone down a rabbit hole and have become hopelessly convoluted and confused.

Want to know some of mine, over the past few years?

  • Organizing files. Not the paper kind – I gave up on those ages ago – but organizing information and making sure I can find it when I need it, or my boss needs it. The problem is that there is always new information, and so just when I think I am organized something else comes along, or someone new needs something very old and my system’s holes are exposed and I start the long slog again.
  • A training manual that shall not be named. Years ago I was assigned – maybe even volunteered – to put together a manual. I worked at it diligently, but it always needed another review, or a different section. It was one of those rabbit hole problems, where the more effort was put into it the worse it got. It took so long it finally wasn’t needed anymore.
  • Navigating benefits and salary. I don’t like talking about money, and I have a visceral reaction to the basic idea that one’s value can be pegged to dollars. That makes it hard for me to approach compensation packages (across countries, cultures, economies, and staff positions) with the necessary emotional remove, but I have to think and talk about compensation regularly to do my job well.

My Sisyphus tasks are not your Sisyphus tasks, even if we have the same job description, because we all are good at and dislike different parts of our jobs. But we all have things that just keep rolling back at us. Here are some things I’ve found that help:

  • Admit you don’t know how to fix something and ask for help. Help can come from above or below or beside you. Handing off your worst task while you go on vacation is a bad idea, but consciously asking for help when you can’t fix something by yourself is a great idea.
  • Schedule regular time to deal with the issue, and don’t think about it much between then. Sisyphus tasks can be terribly stressful, and compartmentalizing the work around them can help insulate you from the stress. Put an appointment on your calendar to work on your Sisyphus task once a week (or whatever) and stick to it.
  • Laugh about it. There is something ridiculous about doing the same thing again and again and not getting anywhere. Read a little absurdist literature (Camus wrote a wonderful piece on Sisyphus, quoted below) and realize that there will always be rocks to be rolled, and our job is to find a kind of joy in the rolling.

“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

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