On chillout tasks

8 March, 2017

You get to work and your brain’s not quite on. You’re down, or exhausted, or carrying around a bunch of stress from home. What’s your go-to task?

Cleaning behind the coffee machine. Pulling the latest branch of a project and resetting the environment. Grooming OmniFocus. These are some answers I got after asking around the office. Mine’s running refactorings on JavaScript components.

Most chillout tasks fall into one of these buckets:

The minimum amount of judgment, applied repeatedly.

Fixing small visual defects. Refactoring. Migrating a stylesheet codebase from Stylus to CSS + PostCSS.

These are tasks that can mostly be automated, but still need common sense intervention. A coworker said, “They are very straightforward and progress is easy to see. They keep the system healthy but don’t require any difficult decisions.”


Sorting email. Pruning a to-do list. Dumping the crayons out of the box and replacing them in order.

The tidying task is a way to impose order in the small in the hope it will radiate outward. “It makes me feel like I have my shit together,” a colleague said. Even if your Facebook feed is full of arguing uncles, your to-do list is calm, tidy, patient, ready when you are.


Watching the machine sort itself out.

App Store → Updates → Update All. brew upgrade.

The obviating of defrag was hard for a lot of us. Here, go watch this simulator. There are still options, though, when you need to click a button and watch the machine put itself right. When you’re in bad shape, but haven’t yet resorted to YouTube videos of power washers and zambonis, these are the periodic tasks that require the smallest domino-nudge of will to get going. These are the spectator form of the “tidying” group.

Easy, but not too easy

What’s the secret middle ground of a good-for-a-slow-brain chore? I mean, if you wanted something easy but still technically productive, you could delete files character by character, right? What Matthew Crawford calls in The World Beyond Your Head “a kind of autistic pseudo-action, based on exact repetition.” Rat-pellet-lever territory.

The sweet spot is a task that presents you reduced options but still lets you have agency. Exerting your will in a limited capacity is a way to fake it until you make it, and feel like you can take on the everyday mantle of being you again. Sort this one thing, then move on to the next. Blow out this one row of keys, then another. Triage this bug, and that one, and that one.

I have a one-year-old, so my wife and I are just now getting used to regular sleep again. In the early days, I tried the young man’s all-nighter approach, using coffee and forced enthusiasm to power through. But it’s much gentler on my brain, I’ve found, to eeeease into the morning with helpful but unambiguous work, rather than making mistakes on a thorny problem.

Originally published on Track Changes.