Who exactly was Sisyphus, and why does he set such a great example we should follow of how not to be?
As you may remember from high school, in the Greek myth of Sisyphus, the title character was a king cursed by Zeus to forever roll a boulder up a hill in the depths of Hades, only to always have it roll back down.
He was cursed in this way because of his arrogance and deceitfulness. So lesson number one here is: Don’t be a jerk.
The reason this myth resonates with most of us is because we can relate at some point or another to that terrible feeling of achieving nothing, just like someone condemned to push the same rock up the same hill fruitlessly every day. You’ve put in the work, you’ve done everything you’re supposed to, and at the end of the day or the week or the month, you’re left scratching your head and wondering what you actually accomplished…. Just as the giant rock rolls back down the hill and over your head, setting you up for more tomorrow.
(I promise this post gets more upbeat in just a minute. Hang on.)
If you find yourself in a Sisyphean state, there are two solutions:
- Accept your fate, and enjoy rolling that rock back up the hill every day.
As recommended by the great Algerian-French writer Albert Camus.
- OR — and I’m betting you’ll prefer this — break the pattern. I mean, it’s not like you have been cursed by Zeus, right? So this should be doable.
Which begs the question:
Who says you have to roll that same rock up the same hill every day?
Answer: Usually, ourselves.
It’s easy to get stuck in the pointlessness of same-o same-o. We are all in danger of it, of one day waking up and thinking, “Well, here starts another day in the salt mine…” and then trudging over to your work area. Fred Flintstone, we should remember, yells “Yabba-dabba-doo!” only when he’s leaving an endless day of… yes… moving boulders up a hill.
That stuck feeling itching at your insides? That comes of focusing on tasks rather than goals. It comes of listing the things that “must” be done — and let’s admit that our definition of “must” is frequently pretty loose — and approaching those tasks as the highest priority, rather than looking at the goal as the target to hit.
The consequence of focusing on tasks without first setting goals — or, as we like to say in a larger sense, a strategy — is that you run the risk of missing the larger point. Of missing the target. Of missing the goal.
Example: Your focus shouldn’t be on brushing your teeth three times a day. (Although you should do that.) It should be on dental care. Brushing your teeth is a task aligned with your dental care. It is a subset. Dental health, as part of your overall wellbeing, is the goal, and there’s more involved than simply brushing your teeth three times a day.
Both for ourselves and certainly for clients, we at Counterintuity are ever-alert to the confusion between doing tasks and pursuing goals. Whenever someone comes to us asking for a specific implement, an implement being a tool such as a website design or a social media campaign, we ask what they’re trying to build. What we’re really digging for is the goal that they think the website design or social media campaign (or whatever) will address.
“Why do you want that?” we ask. “Do you…”
- Want more leads?
- Want more brand awareness?
- Get plenty of visitors to your site, but people can’t find what they’re seeking?
- Need to make it work for more people who’ve embraced newer technology?
- Have to keep pace with changes in how people work, shop, behave, and lead their lives?
- Just want it to be beautiful, because your company is beautiful but your current branding and marketing look ugly? (We actually get that one a lot, where people have beautified their product/service offering, or how their company is operated, but sadly you wouldn’t know it from looking at them. Hey, we’ve all been there at one time or another.)
The website, or the social media campaign, or whatever the “thing” is — isn’t itself the need. It may be a factor that’s intrinsically important to meet the goal. But it is meeting the overall goal that’s important, with the website serving as a potential factor in meeting that goal.
Other factors might include:
- Your marketing strategy — how you’re going to make an impact, step-by-step, with calendar and budget and other metrics
- Your positioning — what you do, whom you do it for, and how you talk about it
- Your brand — which adds design onto your positioning, and reflects your core values
- Your tech stack — are you properly set up to reach the people who should hear about you?
- Would you benefit from an integrated marketing system?
- Do you have an appropriate email platform?
- How are you collecting, segregating, and scoring leads?
- Are you able, digitally, to set and track metrical success?
- Your vision — where will this all lead you so you don’t find yourself stuck in a quarry with unwieldy boulders?
The three steps to stop being Sisyphus, then, are to:
- Ask yourself, “What is the actual goal? What am I actually trying to achieve?”
- After you’ve set that actual goal, determine the steps — the tasks — that align with that, and schedule them. Attach dates for completion, insisting on realistic deadlines, and add important supporting facts and notes.
- Review your pre-existing task list and cross out anything that doesn’t match with that goal, or some other goal. Because judging by Sisyphus, the road to Hell is paved with pointless tasks.
But, you say, what if some of those unfun tasks are actually important? Well, then you do them. This is where the Covey quadrant, drawn from Stephen Covey’s brilliant The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People comes into play.
Note the upper-left quadrant. It doesn’t matter that you hadn’t planned for your house to be burning down that day — if it is, call the fire department, then grab a hose if you can. Emergencies are called emergencies because they are emergent. If something is a crisis, you handle it.
Barring that, take note of Quadrant 2, in the upper right, where “planning” is included. Your strategy came through planning, and your ongoing work to achieve your strategy also belongs there; the house isn’t on fire, but boy are you lit up to achieve something great.
Quadrant 3 in the lower left is the zone of interruption — and, gee, it happens. This is where other quotidian tasks go. We all have them, and even for the fabulously rich or fabulously famous, they never fully go away. Yes, Elton John puts his socks on one at a time. The important thing is not to focus on these things. These are not the things you went to bed the night before dreaming about doing. Just put on your socks and shoes and head off to the important things.
And Quadrant 4, on the lower right, is the seventh circle of Hell. These are the time-wasters that we’ll all regret on our deathbed. The things down there are not important and not urgent, sapping you of time and leaving you stuck. And, by the way, what actually happens in Dante’s seventh circle of Hell? That’s where traitors are forever encased in ice, presenting a great metaphor: of betraying our inner impulse to achieve greatness by allowing ourselves to get stuck in a block of ice of our own creation. Those time-wasting things tempted us, and we succumbed. Maybe taking Monday afternoon and hitting autopilot wasn’t so bad. But when that rolls into Tuesday… and Wednesday… and more… then you’re truly in a Hell of your own making.
Every day, for eons now, while rolling that rock up the hill, has Sisyphus ever stopped to think, “How do I break this cycle?”
Has it occurred to Sisyphus that, because Zeus sentenced him to this service, Zeus could also relieve him of it?
A little apology from the former king might go a long way.
But to do that, Sisyphus would first have to realize: The point of this was never to roll the rock up the hill. The point was to punish me, and I now get it.
To make a greater impact, then, the first thing we all need to do is to recognize how we aren’t.
Imagine the success we all could have and all could benefit from… if we did better things with our time than pushing rocks uphill.