Jeremy Côté

Being Happy With Being Repetitive

One of the most difficult things to do in life is to focus. Maybe you’re different than me, but I have a lot of trouble sitting down and focusing on one task or idea. Instead, my mind buzzes with activity while my hands do another. I’m always switching between ideas, and it takes a lot of energy to focus on just one.

On a more macro level, my trouble with focus manifests in the types of activities I want to do. There are so many wonderful things I could spend my time on. I could become a better runner, I could type words all day, I could learn to program, or I could work on teaching others what I know in mathematics or physics. This is just a small sampling of the activities which interest me, and the difficulty is being able to focus on just one (or at most, a few). After all, I don’t want to just do these activities. I want to to be great at them!

This is where reality comes knocking at the door. We simply don’t have enough time to do all the activities we wish we could do. Furthermore, it’s likely that you don’t even like a lot of those activities. Instead, you think you would enjoy them, but you haven’t actually tested that theory out. The result is that you have a bunch of ideas flying around in your head that are either not grounded in reality or aren’t practical to do all at once.

With only finite amount of time in a day, we can only make meaningful progress in a few of those areas.

This sounds limiting. When I encountered this obstacle, my instinct was to rebel and try to find a loophole. Surely I was different? Maybe most people can’t focus on a bunch of hobbies and projects, but I’m sure that I can.

Perhaps you are different than me, but I found that I can’t do it. If I try to take on multiple projects or hobbies, I can’t sustain it. I might be able to do them, but I won’t improve and get to a level of excellence that I want. It just doesn’t happen.

Instead, I’ve learned to embrace repetition.

Instead of looking to do a bunch of activities, choose a few of your favourites. Perhaps one or two to start. Then, focus all of your attention on these pursuits. If you need to, block out the sources which broadcast what you’re “missing”. They aren’t helping you if you feel the need to go do those activities every time you see them.

This isn’t easy. It’s very difficult, but it is also freeing. When you remove the other sources of activities you could be doing, you don’t have to fight a mental battle each day to choose what to do. Instead, you can focus on the few pursuits which you want to do for this season of your life.

If you want to really get better though, you need to embrace the repetition. Not only will you take small steps every day to improve in your pursuit, you will look forward to the very act of doing the thing you want. This might cause some confusion. Aren’t I doing this thing because I love it already? That may be true on a mental level, but you have to feel it.

For myself, this is the difference between feeling like I “have” to go on a run every day because that’s how I’ll get faster and remain a lifelong athlete versus feeling lucky to go run. When I go to bed at night, I look forward to the run the next morning, even if the weather is supposed to be terrible. I’m looking forward to the run of today. Not the results in three months, but the activity in the moment. This is what I mean by embracing repetition. It’s more than just doing the same thing over and over. It’s finding joy in the daily act, not in the long term results.

I must confess: this didn’t come automatically to me. For a long time, I was pursuing activities as a means to an end. I had one eye on the moment and one towards the result that I was seeking. However, I now think this is the wrong way to go about it. If you want to improve and get really good at your thing, start by loving the act of doing it every day. If you enjoy writing, learn to love the experience of facing your keyboard and putting down words on the page.

Why? Because that’s all you will ever get.

Yes, you might someday be published in your dream publication. Yes, you might bring a book into the world. However, that won’t change the fact that the act of writing isn’t seeing the published work, but the actual work of crafting words. There are a lot of details and specifics depending on exactly what you do, but the essence of writing is putting words on the page. That’s it. If you can really enjoy doing that each day, you will improve at your craft.

Furthermore, when you start enjoying the daily act of your work, it’s easier to ignore those other calls for attention. Sure, it might be fun to try out this new pursuit, but if I already love what I’m doing right here, why bother changing it up?

I want to be clear. There’s no problem in changing things up with your pursuits. In fact, that’s a great thing, because it lets you expand your skills and grow as a person. However, this can be taken too far, and that results in switching from pursuit to pursuit, never quite satisfied.

The problem is that a surface-level familiarity with a pursuit isn’t enough. To really enjoy it, you have to dig deeper. This takes time and focus. Only then will you start to see that this pursuit is meaningful, perhaps just as much as that “other” pursuit which society loves.

I’ve experienced what happens when you switch from pursuit to pursuit. You become restless, thinking that maybe the next one will be right for you. This makes you want to keep on searching, never being quite satisfied because there is a possibility that something else is better. That might be true or false. I can’t answer that. What I can say is that you can waste a lot of time searching for the “right” activity without ever doing anything. Therefore, my advice would be to find something you seem to like, and then dig deeper. Give yourself a few months in which you will focus exclusively on this pursuit. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you need to give yourself enough time to find joy in the repetitiveness. At that point, you can decide if you want to keep your search going.

Finding the work we love to do seems like the difficult part, but the real challenge is being brave enough to stop searching and say, “I’m going to try this and see what happens if I give it all of my focus.”