What Constitutes a Heinous Task?

February 22, 2009

Something made of resistance.

Something imagined to stand in the way of “my life” beginning.

A task that festers and gets bigger by not doing it.

A task that, when turned toward, becomes smaller.

For the dread they generate, heinous tasks are often not objectively difficult in proportion; often they can be done in less than a half-hour once the conditions have lined up. And the conditions do not have to line up perfectly. This is the most prominent snare, the belief in the perfect conditions. You can keep constructing those forever, conveniently never having to do the thing.

An archetypal example of this kind of heinous task, one that is relatively easy to execute, but that contains enormous psychic weight is making a sign to sell a car. This was the task a friend brought to the table one evening. She had been trying to do this for almost a year. As long as she didn’t make the sign she didn’t have to sell the car. As long as she didn’t have to sell the car, well you can see how this works…

Moving the marker across the paper such that it said the words For Sale, and then adding the pertinent details took roughly fifteen minutes to execute. A year to prepare for it, and fifteen minutes to actually make the sign.

Examples of tasks people have brought to the Heinous Task Table:

Completing an insurance application

sorting out receipts for taxes

writing a letter addressing an old conflict

making flight arrangements to visit ailing great uncle

Filling out a Do Not Resuscitate order

Heinous tasks often carry a valence of either near obsolescence or great uncertainty. So they might be rooted in the past in such a way that to do the task feels almost futile, as if the time has passed for it to matter, but it still feels necessary, as in writing up case notes, or sending back a pair of shoes that don’t fit. They are also speculative, for example writing a project statement. This projection forward can feel so indirect, it is easy to defer the task.

Some tasks can be traded. Others have to be done by the person, but maybe part of it can be delegated. Many heinous tasks can be broken down into 20-30-minute increments. Some cannot be done at a table, but perhaps moral support can be generated at the table, or someone at the table might offer on-site help. Sometimes knowing that someone else is aware that you’re working on the task can help provide the support needed to do it, so even if you are at home working on the task, it can be “registered” at the table.

It’s very interesting what happens when we turn our attention to these things we dread. When I have held heinous task nights, people inevitably come by and ask if we’re having a party. There is a general air of relief and play.


One Response to “What Constitutes a Heinous Task?”

  1. ecsims Says:

    I wanted to create a blog for the promotion and evaluation of relational art practices in the Bay Area. This desire resided nearly in the realm of fantasy, as I had imagined the creation of this blog to be complex and demanding to a degree approaching the impossible. I did not believe that I was made of the kind of stuff required. Blogging is the zeitgeist. I am not.

    I anticipated hours of internet research, expensive program purchases, vocabulary building, technological skill-set expansion, begging for, and scheduling of aid and advice, confusion, misery, and failure.

    Instead, the very day that I mentioned my fantastical, far-off blogging plans, Genine introduced me to WordPress, and helped me make one. Like magic. It took about an hour, and most of that time was filled by looking through her photos for an image resonant with the title of the blog (the perfect photo happened to be of an albino alligator.) It felt like goofing off, and hanging out.

    Once we were finished, I felt so overwhelmed by accomplishment and relief that I had to go home and lie down for a while.

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