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Clean the Tiles, Not the Floor

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One advantage to having stark checkerboard floor tiles in your bathroom is that it makes the floor much easier to clean.

I pondered this midway though a home-based silent retreat, as I attempted to clean my bathroom like a monk would – intentionally, without the aid of podcasts, or even daydreams.

I was lying on my side, getting to the trickier tiles beneath the clawfoot tub and its small maze of exposed pipes. Gently contorting myself to get my arm in there, I was surprised at how the task wasn’t even a fraction as unpleasant as I had imagined.  

All I ever had to do was choose a tile and wipe it down, which is always easy. Then do the same with an adjacent tile.

As long as zeroed in on the current tile, rather than think about the dozens of tiles I had yet to clean, there was minimal discomfort and no tedium. Whenever my mind started to drift that way, I remembered my elegant strategy: look at a tile, and clean that tile. As far as I could tell, nothing more was required.

I continued this pattern to the end. The expected tedium and displeasure — which seem intrinsic to the task of cleaning this particular bathroom — never arrived.

It occurred to me that there is a qualitative difference between cleaning the tiles and cleaning the floor. Cleaning the tiles is much easier, even though it looks the same from the outside, and the outcome is the same.

And that means I don’t ever have to clean the floor. I can just clean the tiles instead.

“Clean the tiles, not the floor” is not equivalent to “attack the corners” or “break the job into bits.” It isn’t just the same experience divided into more digestible pieces. Rather, something is circumvented completely. The floor gets just as clean, but the difficulty never rises beyond that of the trivially easy task of clean this tile. As I move through the tiles in this way, I never encounter one containing the tedium and struggle I feel when I even think about cleaning under the tub.

And that’s a major clue. The real pain of many tasks is psychological, arising from the way the mind processes them, not so much from the actions that constitute the tasks themselves. It really matters whether the goal is to clean the tiles or clean the floor.

The general rule seems to be this: the more abstract we make an event – that is, the more we see it in terms of its meaning to the mind, rather than how it feels to the senses – the greater the psychological pain that is created. The more we can zoom into the direct experience, and refrain from engaging with the story around it, the less of a pain in the ass it is.

I stumbled across this principle years ago, while working in a New Zealand orchard. The job was physically grueling: pluck kiwifruit endlessly from overhead vines, while dust and itchy kiwi fuzz fall into your face and down your t-shirt. However, once I learned to simply watch my hands pick this pair of fruit, drawing my attention back whenever it drifted to the context – how many hours were left, how mean the boss was, the cold Coca-Cola in my lunchbox — it got ten times easier.

I made a rule not to dread work on the way to work, or join my co-workers in complaining about a shift after it ended. No need to expand the task’s unpleasantness beyond what it actually required.

This was easier than it might sound, as long as I remembered the rule. There was always something more interesting to do or think about when I wasn’t actually pulling the fruit down.

That tactic got me through those hard months in the orchard, but I didn’t really know how to apply the principle elsewhere. Now I’ve got a handy refrain for cutting away the psychological cruft that forms around unpleasant tasks: clean the tiles, not the floor.

***

Photo by Mick Haupt

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{ 52 Comments }

Linda J Kinney January 19, 2021 at 2:17 am

Thank you for sharing that. I can imagine many things in my life that I can apply that idea.

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Natacha January 19, 2021 at 2:19 am

Thank you David, that’s so good! The difficult part for me is not to daydream but stay with the task. I guess that’s a capacity I could develop with meditation.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:35 am

Mind-wandering isn’t a bad thing, but it does happen, so doing this takes a standing intention to keep bringing the attention back to the task at hand. The key is to find the hint of enjoyment in having such a simple, small task ahead of you (e.g. cleaning a tile), which can come as a relief if your mind is drifting into larger-scale concerns (e.g. cleaning a whole bathroom, or whole house)

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Ms.V. McCormick January 19, 2021 at 2:27 am

Awesome!
I enjoy playing music when cleaning and telling myself.”Get to clean, wash the dishes etc. It makes it more manageable!
A job well done deserves a pat on the back an a Whoop! Whoop!
Sincerely an old lady.
VMC

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Nova January 19, 2021 at 3:14 am

I discovered recently this works really well for weight lifting too. Just focus on the next rep. Don’t think about how many more to go in the set.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:36 am

Yes! You can’t do sets, only reps. What a relief :)

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kiwano January 27, 2021 at 1:24 am

I’ve been finding this approach a bit tricky for exercise myself. I’ve recently started experimenting with not counting my reps, because I’ve noticed that when I count off the current rep, it brings my attention to my expected size for the set. Of course I want to know how many reps I’m doing, so that I know when to add weight — though part of what I’m doing with this experiment is trying to see if I can develop either a schedule or an intuition that can tell me “ok, this time count your reps to see if it’s time to add weight”.

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David Cain January 27, 2021 at 8:56 am

I know what you mean and have encountered the same issue with counting reps. You want to be with the rep, but you need to keep coming back to the abstract level of the “set” in order to count the rep each time. Mindfulness skills help bigtime here — the more natural it feels to attend to bodily sensation, the easier it is to stay with it while counting.

Try this: throughout the rep, open up to the physical sensation of lifting as much as possible. Let yourself feel the movement all the way through, and at the top of the rep, say the number (one, two, etc). Then before beginning the next rep, make sure you locate the feelings in the body again. You don’t need to think about the number throughout the rep, or even what the number means. You’re just saying the next number which is usually close to mind because we are extremely familiar with the numbers between 1 and 20. Saying the number can itself be another physical act to pay attention to in the same way. With some practice you don’t need to every stray from the task itself — you’re just adding the saying of a number to the lifting of the weight, which is also a small task. The final number you said is the number of reps in the set, which you don’t need to think about at all until the set is done. Then you can write it down for your records.

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Sascha Amarasinha January 19, 2021 at 3:45 am

What a beautiful tale of being in the NOW and getting on with the task at hand without becoming engulfed in its immensity, importance or significance. So inspiring. Thank you for cleaning that up for us.

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Delfina Hoxha January 19, 2021 at 3:47 am

You can’t control what you can’t control. But you can clean a tile, and then the next and then the next.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:39 am

It does reveal something about control. We tend to think about our challenges and to-dos on scales larger than we can actually act on. That is intrinsically stressful, because we can’t help but think “How am I going to deal with ALL THAT?” which is basically what stress is. But we can never *do* more than one tiny thing at a time, so if we keep our concern on that level, we don’t bear the burden of that unresolvable stress on top of the task.

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Rocky January 19, 2021 at 5:51 am

I spent a few years painting houses….
One board at a time. I did that work to supplement my income as a musician.
Playing songs….One note at a time. How do you eat an elephant??
One bite at a time. In your book
“You are here” you talked about rushing and non-rushing. Don’t get ahead of yourself. This is a very important concept I learned from you.
Many Thanks David !

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:41 am

Yes exactly, this is about non-rushing. Rushing sounds like it means “moving quickly” but I think of it as a psychological state, where we’re trying to contend with events that are not happening, or not happening yet. It creates stress because we feel a need to act on something we can’t act on yet.

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Nancy January 19, 2021 at 6:39 am

Needed to read this this morning. Thank you.

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Sue January 19, 2021 at 8:05 am

“Be Here Now” comes to mind. When I struggle to stay focused I simply bring myself back to that reminder…”Be Here Now”…right here, right now…and now…and now…and now. There is no other moment and there is nothing else to be done but what I am doing. Simple, but difficult…our minds can drag us from the very (only) moment we have without even a blink. I just keep going back to the moment and “the thing” no matter how many times I stray. Thanks for this post.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:44 am

Think of this as a task-specific way to “Be Here Now.” The instruction to “stay present” or “be here now” is hard to follow, because once your attention is here, what do you do? Well, we usually just revert back to our normal operating procedures, which habitually involve drifting away again. “Clean this tile” gives you a handhold on the present moment. There is something to do here and now, which is takes a small amount of time and effort and supplies a small reward. Much easier to maintain than simply trying to stay present, which is basically impossible without lots and lots of mindfulness training.

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Mary Ann Owens January 19, 2021 at 8:25 am

It is good to think this way, to tackle things in smaller segments, and then we are able to get the whole thing done. Thanks for your writing! I went for a massage yesterday and was transported to another world. The music and relaxation took me there. Focusing on our senses can transport us, and focus our energies.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:47 am

It’s interesting that returning to sensory experience creates the sensation of being transported, because it’s actually the opposite happening. For once, we are returning to where we actually are, taking a break from the incessant mental “travel” we experience when our attention is absorbed by thought contents.

Its the same irony involved in taking vacations. We go somewhere else, with more compelling sensory experiences, so that we can be more present, more where we are.

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Jill Headen January 19, 2021 at 9:50 am

I read this then went and cleaned one tile in my bathroom. Then I cleaned another. I noticed that a big part of it is saying “not now” to the part that also wants to wipe down the baseboards and the side of the tub and the sink…

What do you think about how this all ties in with delayed gratification?

What you wrote and shared has directly influenced my life for the better today.

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David Cain January 19, 2021 at 9:58 am

Nice!

“Not now” is a big part of it, because ultimately you are deciding that the only thing in the world you are going to concern yourself with is this tile. What keeps me on track is the small sense of gratification I get from completing this one tile now. It’s a little reward, and it’s available if you stay on track. The clean edges of floor tiles make it easier — my hardwood floors aren’t so conducive to that effect.

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Tallgirl1204 January 19, 2021 at 10:01 am

We just moved into a home with Mexican tiles. I love mopping the floor because it is so conveniently laid out in a grid, and progress is obvious. I know where I am at all times, and I know when I’m done. I felt that way as a field hand back in the day too— the row of squash to pick had a beginning, middle and an end.

Both of these are not like the work I did in my career— it came from before I started and never quite ended. There was rarely a moment of “ahah, done!” Tasks like cleaning tile is very satisfying in that way…

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Donna January 19, 2021 at 10:20 am

Serendipity for sure. I was going to clean the bathroom, as the start of spring cleaning. Not looking forward to it. Now I will just clean the sink today.

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Ginzo January 19, 2021 at 11:10 am

Great down-to-earth approach for the duties of daily life. There’s always only 2 things; what is happening and our response/reaction to it. But these 2 things happen simultaneously and get twined around each other. Sometimes best to ‘tease it apart’ and see all that’s going on. Who would have thought consciousness would be so complicated. Ha!

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Edward January 19, 2021 at 11:21 am

An excellent article, David. Thank you!

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Brenda January 19, 2021 at 11:27 am

Reminds me that our most incredibly gifted and spiritual tour guide in County Clare had a saying: “All hurrying is violence.” I had to sit with that one a while but came to understand. Thank you for this reminder, David, and all your others…..

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Angela January 22, 2021 at 11:56 am

Oh my goodness! Was Pius your guide?

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Sharon Hanna January 19, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Love that from Brenda – “All hurrying is violence”. Wow. Phew. And thanks David for this. My ‘problem’ (first world prob. of course) is that at night I don’t clean up after dinner. So then in the morning it’s a little like ‘hurrying’ mixed with some shame about ‘why can’t I get it together’. Living alone – I dunno, it seemed easier when someone was washing, someone else was drying?? Maybe have to figure out how to break it down into small tiles. Thank you again for what you contribute.

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Leisureguy January 19, 2021 at 1:27 pm

I would add that it helps if you give focused attention to what your doing and what results. If you really observe the tile — the dirt and discoloration on it — and what happens as you work on it, you will find that your awareness will keep you present in the moment and lead to a state of flow, in which you become absorbed in the task and lose track of time. (For more details on the phenomenon, I highly recommend Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s excellent book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” Secondhand copies readily available at Abebooks.com.)

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David Cain January 20, 2021 at 9:24 am

The small reward of the seeing the finished, clean tile is a big part of the equation I think. It confirms ease of the work, on the level that it is actually done, and staves off the sense of tedium from trying to process to much work in your mind at once.

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LANCHI T PHAM January 19, 2021 at 1:49 pm

Dear David,

I love this idea! The title of the post intrigued me because in my mind, I couldn’t separate the idea of “Clean the tiles, not the floor”, but the way you described it made so much sense.

I usually meditate for 20 minutes every morning and I stumbled upon a similar revelation during meditation one morning. The epiphany hit me like this: “I don’t have to meditate for TWENTY MINUTES. I just have to meditate for THIS ONE MOMENT.” And meditation instantly became easier.

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David Cain January 20, 2021 at 9:26 am

This applies is a major way to meditation. In fact, it’s a crucial insight to have in meditation practice — you can’t meditate for twenty minutes. You can only meditate by meeting the present moment, which fortunately, is a very small task. You just do it repeatedly to build the momentum, so that it becomes more natural and less effortful.

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Donna January 19, 2021 at 2:21 pm

Hi David. Thanks for your clear insight. In a few weeks I will be doing a retreat that is online (not in a retreat centre with others)- this will help me so much with moving about my day. And every day!

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David Cain January 20, 2021 at 9:27 am

Good luck with the retreat! I’ve done three online ones now, and it is quite different. If you’re at home, it’s easier to slip back into unconscious habit mode, so it’s helpful to emphasize doing mundane tasks mindfully, like making coffee, cleaning, etc.

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LAURA PETERSON January 19, 2021 at 2:28 pm

Thank you, as always, for the timely article. There are tasks that I dread and sometimes even things I enjoy that for some reason or another are difficult to start. I often just tell myself to start and not think or dwell on it and that is very similar to what you are saying but, the way you said it is much nicer. In the end it never is as big a deal as we make it in our minds is it.

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David Cain January 21, 2021 at 10:04 am

The way I’m picturing it now is that tasks are small, and there is a huge psychological cloud around many of them that can be many, many times bigger. I have dreaded tasks for months that took ten minutes. The solution seems to be to find the actual task in the cloud. The solid core, which is the sensory experience of it, among the thinking and storytelling.

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Natalie Moreno January 19, 2021 at 2:59 pm

I make it a point to be very aware of the psychological resistance I have to acting on difficult things. I realize that it’s usually the thought, not the act, that deters me. However, I specifically have a tile restoration project that I have been avoiding for months. It just seemed too daunting to get around. You just literally put that entire project into perspective.

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David Cain January 21, 2021 at 10:08 am

There are so many subtle applications for mindfulness, and that’s one of them: be aware of the resistance to the thing, and notice that it isn’t the same as the thing itself. I described it ina a comment above as a cloud, a dark fog surrounding the task, which is actually concrete and small compared to the cloud. You don’t have to deal with the cloud, only find the task in it, and deal with that, and the the cloud dissipates.

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Linda January 19, 2021 at 9:41 pm

I appreciate how you capture this concept with an easy to remember saying – clean the tile. My mom died 22 years ago and I inherited a lot of stuff, including two big boxes full of photographic slides. I recently decided to go through them, looking for interesting memories of childhood. I took it one package at a time, one slide at a time. All I was ever doing was just looking at one slide. Over the course of several weeks, I processed all 5500 slides. I had put this off for many, many years, always feeling overwhelmed by the sheer numbers I “had” to do. Taking it one slide at a time eliminated the dread and helped me feel in control, that I had a choice in what I was doing. Thanks again for a powerful essay.

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David Cain January 21, 2021 at 10:12 am

I’ve got a lot of tasks like that that have been on my radar for years. I went to europe over two years ago, and took hundreds of pictures, and nobody has ever seen them because I have never sat down to go through them. But they could be thought of as even easier-to-clean tiles!

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Mike January 20, 2021 at 10:39 pm

Wonderful post David – it may have saved my wife’s life.

13 days ago she was diagnosed with cancer and had to have an emergency operation to remove the tumour. The 13 days have been filled with so many ups and downs, and we still have multiple tests to do, appointments to make, and chemo to go thru.

Today – she was overwhelmed. I remembered this post from a couple of days ago and let her read it. It didn’t help at that particular moment, but it left an impression on her. She is still in hospital and I’m lucky enough to be able to be with her during COVID.

She had a test today where they had to put her out and it was one she doesn’t like which was really stressing her out in advance. She had one a 13 days ago – and it was quite painful. We had a couple of hours to prepare, which just gave her time to get herself worked up about it. I went down to the second floor for the test with her and I was beside her when she woke up (although she was clearly still sedated).

Through half-closed eyes, she whispered – “I cleaned a tile….” My heart stopped. There were tears. I was so proud of her at that moment.

Thank you!

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David Cain January 21, 2021 at 10:19 am

Wow. I hope things go as smoothly as possible under the circumstances.

A few people have mentioned the wisdom of one day at a time or one moment at a time, and there’s a reason we’ve been cultivating that perspective from ancient times. Life is big and complicated and when things get difficult it’s just impossible to deal with it all at once. But we can see it in more granular terms, and deal with the little bit that is in front of us. It’s still hard but it’s something we can do. Best wishes you and your wife.

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Heidi J Roe January 21, 2021 at 12:22 am

This post reminded me of the beauty in the moment …even the feel of a swipe of a cleaning rag, the tile, this one tile. I had to look up a quote from the past:

“But dispelling this dread isn’t a matter of trying to forget about washing dishes, it is realizing that in actual fact you only have one dish to wash, ever: this one; only one step to take, ever: this one. And that is Zen.”
Alan W. Watts, Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life

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David Cain January 21, 2021 at 10:20 am

Alan Watts, what a gift to the world. <3

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Ben January 23, 2021 at 4:06 am

A brilliant way of putting it.

I’m always fascinated about how this links in with the neuroscience – it’s pretty close. All thought is correlation over sensory experience, and attention is like a search light we can scan over different portions of the abstraction pipeline. Attaching bodily pain (or any emotion such as disgust for the bathroom) to nasty abstractions has survival utility in action planning (e.g. I’ve got a bad feeling about entering this bear cave…) but isn’t perfect for our (safe) daily life.

We can cleverly subvert our natural inclinations though by, as you say, focussing narrowly on the immediate sensory experience. The lower level sensory experience doesn’t have the strength of negative emotional correlation (as it makes less sense to fear wiping a tile, we might perform wiping motions in many other contexts that are not emotionally negative), and we can exploit this by staying present here.

This job still gets done but we just attend to different parts.

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David Cain January 23, 2021 at 2:29 pm

I’m fascinated by the neuroscience too, and I hope in my lifetime we get some sort of reliable mapping of the mind-brain relationship.

I think mindfulness and other ways of coming back from abstraction is vital for human beings living in the modern world. Almost everything about our world pulls us away from direct sensory experience into thinking and abstraction, and it is responsible for a lot of our unhappiness and mental health issues.

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David D January 23, 2021 at 6:07 pm

The easiest way for me to clean my whole house, is to actually truly believing I’m going to clean just one room, so it’s an easy and quick task. After cleaning this room, the satisfaction I get from it become a motivation bump that makes me think “Hey, why not keep cleaning? It surprisingly worths it!”. If I had plan to clean the whole house, I’d probably never have started at all.

I use a similar trick to go to the gym too. I set a very low objective like: “Just one 5min exercice”. Since the task easy, I’m never giving up going to the gym. But once I’m there, I always do more than 5min :)

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Kathy A Johnson January 25, 2021 at 7:25 am

I am absolutely using this concept this week when I clean and repaint the woodwork in our bathroom. I’ve been dreading this task for literally years.

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Jose B January 26, 2021 at 12:34 pm

A way of not getting frustrated while doing stuff that is not meaningful. Also stuff that can be overwhelming.
This is a great tool to confront a wide range of situations. Thanks!

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Donna February 5, 2021 at 5:59 pm

I just love how your mind works!

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SANJEEB February 16, 2021 at 8:41 pm

Thanks, David for the post. Beautifully written this simple but very effective concept. I am from a Technology area and once I read your post, I immediately related this to one of my earlier posts in the Economic Times media publications ( Roll the sphere, not the cube! ), thought of sharing here: https://travel.economictimes.indiatimes.com/speakeasy/roll-the-sphere-not-the-cube/4364

{ Reply }

SANJEEB February 16, 2021 at 8:43 pm

Thanks, David for the post. Beautifully written this simple but very effective concept. I am from a Technology area and once I read your post, I immediately related this to one of my earlier posts in the Economic Times media publications ( Roll the sphere, not the cube! ), thought of sharing here: https://travel.economictimes.indiatimes.com/speakeasy/roll-the-sphere-not-the-cube/4364

Thanks!

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negar March 5, 2021 at 8:38 am

An excellent article, David. Thank you!

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