We love to get excited about our special projects, whether they are of a personal or a professional nature. We may think of how great it will be to get a college or graduate degree, marry our best friend, have our first child, remodel the kitchen ourselves or to join a gym and get back in shape. Or we may be thrilled to start our own business, secure a large grant or launch an important research project. For many of us, there can come a time with any of these ventures when we ask ourselves, “What were we thinking?”

Perhaps we were not thinking so much about the endless studying, the marital disconnects, the sleepless nights with a crying baby, the frustration of scraping wallpaper or the dread of exercising before or after work. And we may not have thought enough of the extra hours it takes to run a business, the effort involved in writing a grant or the monotony of collecting and analyzing research data.

What did you expect?

Sometimes we underestimate how challenging certain pursuits can be. We can be taken by surprise, not realizing that any meaningful endeavor, even if it is one that we voluntarily choose, believe in and love, is likely to include a good measure of drudgery. We may not be prepared for the degree of monotony, repetitive routines, boredom and frustration that can be part of the process. We may expect that making the right choice will safe us from the dreaded drudgery.

But the drudgery may appear. It may feel boring, dull, bland and empty. There may be no feelings of joy, pleasure, fun or excitement. We may feel that we’re going through the motions, repeating the same monotonous tasks without a sense of meaning or purpose. The boredom and frustration can lead to feelings of hopelessness and self-doubt. The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that we envisioned may seem like a sad joke. We may want to give up.

Many who have accomplished things of significance will tell you that they are quite familiar with the many faces of drudgery. They will tell you that they have been there and probably expect to be there again. But they have learned how to best regard it and work with it to come out on the other side.

First, we can try to expect drudgery and not be shocked by it. A long journey, no matter how wonderful the destination, is likely to have some darkness along the way. We can try to let go of the fear of the dry spells. We can try to relax in the middle of them and accept them as a normal part of the process. We can try to allow them, trust them and roll with them instead of fighting them.

The value of drudgery

To take it one step further, we might even try to find value in the phases of drudgery. Maybe practicing monotonous steps over and over, even if without passion or pleasure, is a valuable way to master a skill or technique. Think of a professional dancer, rehearsing the same steps time after time.

Perhaps there’s value in the blandness of drudgery as it provides a needed contrast which allows moments of excitement and joy to be experienced. There can be no foreground without a background to distinguish it. The dull moments allow the bright ones to shine through.

Finally, maybe periods of drudgery offer us an opportunity to practice how to persevere, how to stick with something that we know is important even if we’re not feeling it at the moment. Knowing that we have the ability to persevere through truly tough times not only builds our self-confidence but gives us hope for challenging times ahead.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Kymme/ morguefile.com