Run of the (Tread) Mill – Finding Magic in the Mundane

Most of life and leadership is not about flash and excitement.  Success more often comes from doing things regularly and predictably, day after day.  Those important but unglamorous tasks can seem about as exciting as running on a treadmill.  Yet it doesn’t have to be that way.  Here are six ways to find the magic in the mundane to make it easier to keep moving forward.

Run of the (Tread) Mill - In Praise of the Mundane

The “Dread” Mill

It’s the exercise machine that everyone loves to hate:  the Treadmill.  Here in Minnesota, if we want to keep up with our cardio fitness goals over the winter, it’s an important tool, but few are the people who will say they love using one.  Usually, it’s the opposite.  Some have taken to calling it the “Dread-Mill” or sometimes just, “The ‘Mill.”  It’s no wonder, considering its shady past.

The treadmill got its start as a form of punishment for British prisoners at the end of the 18th century.  Long hours of toil were meant to help an inmate “learn” from their crimes.  Up to 24 prisoners would be made to step up a wide wheel for seven to ten hours at a time.  Most machines featured partitions between prisoners so they could not even socialize at their labor.  And it really was a mill:  the wheel was often connected to machinery that would grid corn or pump water.

But after decades of use, reformers found that treadmills didn’t seem to contribute to criminal atonement, and could be outright dangerous.  By 1885, British criminals were dying at the rate of one a week on them.  At the end of the century, parliament passed an act calling for an end to their use, but that wasn’t the end of the story. 

From Torture Device to Training Tool

In the 1960s, a man named William Staub devised what he called the PaceMaster 600, and the treadmill began its comeback, this time as an exercise machine.  Fast-forward a few decades, and there I was on my Thursday run, relegated to the treadmill, as I watched gusts of snow batter the gym windows outside. 

The critical question on my mind as I hit the “end workout” button was obviously, “what headline should I give this workout when it posts to the social fitness app I use?” 

This treadmill run had been routine, in a flat-black, just-get-it-done kind of way.  Six steady miles in 50 minutes, that’s all.  Yet it didn’t feel like punishment, privation, or purgatory.  It felt like constructive time well-spent, and I was already looking forward to the next one whenever the elements forced me inside again.

It had been a run on the ‘mill, but it wasn’t necessarily “Run-of-the-Mill.”  During my walking cool-down, it occurred to me that, like running on the treadmill, the best things for us are very often the things that seem mundane and unexciting.   For the fitness post, I went with “Not (exactly) Run-of-the-Mill”  Here’s what I didn’t have space there to explain.

A run on the 'mill doesn't have to be run-of-the-mill. Click To Tweet

The Spectacularly Mundane

Consistent repetition is often the thing that leads to something more impressive.

Fitness – One or two trips to the gym won’t achieve much of anything; boringly consistent, progressive effort over time yields the greatest gains.  Even at the elite level, 80% of endurance workouts are just long, steady, low-intensity efforts.

Food – The super-size fries may be just the comfort food we crave at the end of a hard day, though we know that the path to health lies with the boring broccoli at the back of the refrigerator.

Finances – The idea of having the next tech product in our pocket, or latest model import in our garage can get our hearts pumping; but paying down debt or funding that IRA is the unspectacular path to a financially secure future.

Investment – Chasing hot tips and the lure of a quick payoff may be exciting in the moment, but is one of the best ways to lose money in the market.  A boring “buy and hold” strategy is the best approach for most of us.  That’s what worked for Warren Buffett, and he’s one of the richest men in the world. 

Leadership –  Making big promises, and demanding obedience like Private Pyle’s Drill Sergeant may appear the thing for great leaders to do, especially when admitting fault, sharing credit, and being open to the inputs of others can seem tiresome and puts a drain on our egos.

Relationships – First dates and weddings may be full of spark and hope, but keeping the magic alive means doing things for each other that don’t necessarily have much appeal, like picking up our socks, and taking out the trash.

Hammer on the AT - Magic in the MundaneJourneys – My friend, who goes by the trail name “Hammer,” walked the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine.  It was a spectacular achievement, but to do it, he had to take one steady, methodical step at a time.   A great many of them, I’m sure he’d tell you, were in the mud.

It would be easy to go on, but you get the idea.  The thing is, when it comes to important but routine tasks, the lack of sparkle doesn’t mean we have to see them as some kind of punishment.  British prisoners had no choice about climbing onto the treadmill, but there are lots of ways we can find some magic in the mundane tasks that make us eager for more.

The Magic of the Mundane

To turn a dependably dull task into a labor of love, try some of these ideas.

Mix it up.  Many tasks we can combine with other things to make them more interesting.  Catch up on podcasts, or binge-watch something fun.  The advent of smart phones and headphones frees our hands to get things done even while we distract or educate ourselves.  I have a friend who listens to favorite E-books, but only when she’s working out – it makes for another good reason to get to work. 

Find some friends.  There’s not only safety in numbers, but also fun, and a little bit of accountability.  Like joining a running group or a yoga class, doing those things with others who are doing them makes it more enjoyable for everyone. 

Make Tracks.  Visual representations of our work can be very powerful stimulants to keep going.  I use a spreadsheet to enter and graph all my workouts.  Knowing that if I skip a workout I’ll have to look at, and live with a yawning gap in the chart can be enough to get me out the door.  Whether it’s a writing project, an investment program, or a plan to pay off debt, finding a way to display daily progress can become a strong incentive to keep going.

Change perspective.  Mentally it’s also easier to tackle mundane tasks if we reframe how we look at them.  If we just see them as something we Have to do it can become drudgery.   Change that approach to something that we Get to do, and it becomes a privilege, an opportunity, a way to move forward.  We climb back on the treadmill by choice because it will help us get where we want to go.

Alter the perspective from 'have to do' to 'get to do' and everything changes. Click To Tweet

Build the house.  Another way to reframe is to think of each action as a building block.  Like building a house, each brick may seem humble and undramatic on its own, but put enough of them together and we find ourselves architects of something extraordinary.  Whether it’s the weekly one-on-one with each teammate, or the post-project After Action Review, every brick matters.  No bricks, no building.

Run of the (Tread) Mill - In Praise of the Mundane Vacuum Air GuitarFocus on the impact.  When the task itself is not very rewarding, re-think it from an impact standpoint.  Around the house, one of my jobs is to do the vacuuming each week.  There are about a million things I’d rather do than lug that vacuum cleaner up and down the stairs.  But if I focus on how my wife will smile when she comes home to find the floor freshly scrubbed, it becomes a lot easier to plug that thing in and get to work.  

Magic in the Mundane – The Takeaway

When it comes to the important things we hope to achieve or maintain, it’s the unspectacular, even relentlessly routine things we do that help us move forward.  LIke the treadmill of old, we can see those tasks as a form of punishment if we want to.  But when we do, it becomes harder to mount the contraption and hit the “Start” button day after day.

With a little creativity and some mental re-framing, we can find fun in the task, and see the good that the repetition is doing for us and those around us. 

This run will help me stay healthy.  My vacuuming will make her smile.  Being honest right now will build trust.  Six more months and I’ll be debt-free. 

Any single effort may appear to be nothing special – even run-of-the-mill.  But the reality is that there is reason to celebrate every single one.  There’s magic in the mundane.

With the right approach, the treadmill is not an instrument of punishment.  It’s one of possibility.

I’ll see you at the gym.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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