The (un)bearable endlessness of things

July 11, 2021 By

When I was a child there used to be a house further down our road that was always in the process of being painted. It seemed to go in stages, and as soon as the last part got finished something that had already been completed needed looking after again.

I think of that house and its Sisyphean painting schedule often. I have just done a big clear out of my house, finishing up with a satisfying trip to the recycling centre. You can suddenly move in my shed again, items cluttering up cupboards and bedrooms and under-the-stairs storage are gone, my daughter’s bedroom is finally the way she wants it, and I am thinking now that we are maybe done for a while.

And then it strikes me that I’ve definitely been here before, and that no, we’re probably not.

We all to some extent have this urge to be done. To catch up. To say “I just need to…. and then I can…” And while big clear outs are in some ways more quantifiable than a lot of our day-to-day tasks, I find that the urge still applies to those. This week I had it in my head that I would do the clear outs, tidy the rest of the house, clean it and then, when everything was – I don’t know, ready? Finished? I could really focus on my work and the house would just stay that way.

Only I am looking around me and because we have just had breakfast there are now cups and plates and juice cartons and coffee pots, and the dishwasher needs emptying and there are still pizza boxes in the front room from last night and during the clear out I found an old rusty table that I am going to paint so now there are paintbrushes and sheets in one corner of the room. And I know that the books, Minecraft swords, poppits and hair bands that were all brought upstairs will all soon make their way back down again. And the bathrooms will be used, the floors will get crumbs on them, the doors handprints, and the laundry basket will, yet again, overflow.

We will never be done.

But the things is, we don’t have to be. We’re not meant to be.

Life doesn’t work that way, nature doesn’t work that way. It ebbs and flows. You might complete a harvest, but you’ll still have to keep on weeding. And it’s important to recognise the difference between the two. Between big milestones (that might still come around again, a one-off harvest is of limited use), smaller ones and the ongoing work that just is. That’s not meant to be finished.

If I was clearing out the shed and rearranging bedrooms every two weeks, it might be time to look at some underlying issues and make some changes. The houseowners from my childhood might have benefitted from taking some other actions to preserve their house rather than applying never-ending layers of paint. But the day-to-day stuff? Those are windmills that you’re not meant to be fighting.

I have had a lot of conversations this week about work, working hours and workload. Because this mentality translates to our work too. It’s one thing to burn the midnight oil and put in extra hours if you have a big project to finish, a crucial and meaningful deadline, a flagship product to launch. But that cannot become the norm and you cannot apply it to the day-to-day nature of your work. Because those crazy, adrenaline-fuelled get-it-across-the-line phases? They were never meant to be normalised and redefined as what work is. It’s a recipe for burnout and, as research continues to show, it actually makes us less productive.

So take a deep breath, a step back and look at what’s around you. You’re here to live your life, to apply yourself to what’s meaningful to you, to look after yourself and others. Set yourself goals, celebrate milestones, get things across the line, keep moving forward – but don’t think that your purpose is to get to a point where it’s all done, or that the fact that you never clear your to-do list in work means you’re failing. See the big picture, focus on what you want the big milestones to look like. What values you want to project, what you want your legacy to be. Because that’s what it’s about.