Never Underestimate the Value of a Mindless Task

wrinkled paper

Short of ironing, you can’t unfold paper.

Do you dread certain tasks because they seem so…mindless? Rote. The kind of work we call unskilled labor. In college, a friend convinced a bunch of us to fold boxes for some company. I realized then that I might have missed my calling as a factory worker.

I thought of that again when I recently spent a couple of afternoons smoothing out crumpled paper. Why smooth paper, you ask? Short answer is it takes up less space, but the long answer is we moved and were left with a ton of packing paper the movers used. It’s good paper. We might use it as compost in converting our yard to a meadow. To save time, we crumpled it up and shoved it into trash bags. Thing is, though, the trash bags, six of them, are bulky and we’re having some work done in the basement, so I wanted to make room. Flattening the paper and rolling it would do that.

I set up a card table and proceeded to flatten. Talk about a mindless task. Radio reception out here isn’t the greatest and I’m not a fan of most music stations. I don’t have a CD player in this room and we only have one that works anyway. Besides, flattening paper is surprisingly noisy.

I flattened in silence. Just me and my thoughts, and, well, the noisy paper. It’s rare that we let ourselves be alone with our thoughts for more than the time it takes to drive to work or brush our teeth. The hours I spent doing this task allowed my mind to wander. And boy did it.

At first, my thoughts dwelt (dwelled?) on imagined scenarios involving people I know and their recent actions—not particularly good ones. Should I snub them? What if they ask a favor? Why would I want to help them out, given what they did?

All possible different reactions crossed my mind as I untwisted paper clumps, laid them on the table, and methodically swept my hands from the center outward in wide sweeps. It felt good. Like I was resolving an issue that had been bothering me but hadn’t risen to actual consciousness. Since then, I haven’t thought about it at all.

It would have been nice if my mind had wandered to my current writing project and solved all the plotting and character problems, but that didn’t happen. Maybe I should have directed my thoughts there, but it didn’t come naturally, so I didn’t force it. That, in itself, might be telling me something useful.

Often the answers to burning questions or lightbulb moments come during such seemingly rote activities. Showering. Running. Washing dishes. It’s like internal censors get bored and go to sleep, leaving our minds to come up with new ideas and solve seemingly intractable problems. That’s why we say sleep on it.

Flattening paper, like trimming pruned branches, reduces the space something needs. An exercise in efficiency I appreciate. Pruning off all the little branchlets, so that the end product is one dimension, basically a line, saves space in the yard-waste bag or compost bin. Flattening crumpled, 3-D, paper down to two dimensions also saves space.

What did make me think about my WIP (work in progress), was in watching the crumples unfold and thinking that if space, as in outer space, were like paper, and we could just fold it, how much easier it would be to get from one end of the universe to the other.

That’s the beauty to paper folding. Origami fascinates me. I’m not the type to work out new designs or even manage to follow instructions for anything more complicated than maybe a crane, but I sure can appreciate the skill and sheer physics that go into the art.

A few years ago there was an origami exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. Excruciatingly complex creatures were created from a single piece of paper with no cuts. It was mind boggling.

Since I can’t fold paper like that, I contented myself to appreciate the act of unfolding it. And when you think about it, folded paper can never really be unfolded. Short of ironing it, which made me think of John Gieguld’s character in Arthur, I couldn’t get it as flat as it had started out as.

In the end, those six bags of rolled up paper fit into two small boxes. I felt oddly fulfilled. I’d accomplished something without even working hard at it. It might be why I don’t mind mowing the lawn. I see the results right away. I suppose it’s why my neighbor doesn’t mind riding his mower for eight hours every two weeks, though I’d prefer he got that sense of satisfaction without the carbon footprint.

The next time you have to do something seemingly mindless, try to take advantage of that to be more creative.


For more:

A fascinating documentary about the many benefits to folding flat things:

The work of an amazing origami artist, Michael LaFosse:

And, I mean, seriously?: The Royal Butler’s Guide to ironing one’s newspaper






  1. There’s something about physical motion that doesn’t require much attention that frees the mind to wander constructively. I can lie in bed early in the morning trying to figure out solutions to problems and only get more and more frustrated, while a brisk walk can let the solutions rise to the surface.

    1. Ironically, last night I lay in bed for hours wide awake and did manage to come up with some fruitful ideas for my writing. But yes, a brisk walk can work wonders.

  2. Well, the mindless can be mindful! I refer to myself origami-challenged so I admire the art form that much more.

    1. That’s a better way to think of it. The task may be mindless, but the mind can be…taskful?

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