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The Life Changing Magic Of…Doing Everyday Tasks Well

The title of this post might look familiar. That’s because it’s a shameless spin-off of the title of the popular book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up:The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. This book has my mother, my best friend, and many other acquaintances of mine deeply under its spell.

To be fully honest here, I haven’t read the book. The reason I use its title is because I think this idea I’ve been toying with lately follows similar principles as the book, and because it’s a nice title. Who doesn’t want some life changing magic?

I was reading an article the other day about internet addiction by Andrew Sullivan. You can read the article here. In it, he talks about his addiction to online media and how it made him physically and psychologically ill. He talks about how disconnecting from constant media bombardment basically saved his life, and how it might benefit others as well. In the second half of his essay, Sullivan wrote (emphasis mine),

“Yes, online and automated life is more efficient, it makes more economic sense, it ends monotony and “wasted” time in the achievement of practical goals. But it denies us the deep satisfaction and pride of workmanship that comes with accomplishing daily tasks well, a denial perhaps felt most acutely by those for whom such tasks are also a livelihood — and an identity.”

This statement really got me thinking. Some of my favorite daily moments are exactly this: doing something simple very well. Think about the last time you fixed something yourself, or made something useful for yourself or your family. That sweet, sweet sense of satisfaction. The full feeling of being able to provide. The pride in doing something yourself, with your own hands.

In the past, people generally had to do more tasks themselves. Everyday tasks were not automated (or ignored). If your clothes ripped, you sewed them up. You didn’t throw them away and buy new. If you wanted bread, you kneaded and baked it. If something in your home broke, you probably tried to fix it before calling in a handyman. Let me here interject that I do not mean to fetishize the past. I just mean to examine what automation and outsourcing has taken away from us: the everyday opportunities to become skilled at useful tasks.

I most recently felt this sense of satisfaction at learning and executing a new skill when Anna and I finished our ceiling project. When we were done with the final coat of paint, we grabbed a couple of beers and sat on the floor to admire our handiwork. The ceiling was beautiful, and we had made it ourselves from start to finish.

But this feeling of satisfaction and pride doesn’t just come from large projects like our ceiling. I find it in the small moments, too. When I bake bread for myself and my friends. When I wiped down my counter with a dishcloth I had knit myself. When I mended my favorite running pants that had developed a hole. When I picked tomatoes to eat off the plant I cared for myself. When I wrap a gift particularly nicely. When Anna made a roux for the first time and we made delicious chicken pot pies.

Doing small tasks well is deeply satisfying. Of course, the first time you try anything it’s likely not to work out perfectly. Even the tenth time you might not get the results you wanted. But that’s where the satisfaction comes in – nothing that wasn’t at least a little challenging can really be that satisfying when you’re finished.

Now that I’ve hit on this idea, there are so many more tasks I’d like to learn to do. I want to learn to change my car’s oil. I want to learn how to properly fold clothes (finally).

I propose we take the small tasks of our lives back into our hands, and make them into art.

I’m going to start a series on this blog where I explore different tasks that are often outsourced, automated, or ignored, and show through images and words how one can become a skilled practitioner of the task. If you would like to contribute instructions or ideas, please do email me at or leave a comment here.


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