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The Hidden Danger Of Repetitive Work

August 17, 2009

brainSince I’m a bit of a word geek, yesterday’s post about the benefit of repeat work started me thinking about the difference between “repeat” and “repetitive”. Yes, I’m that much of a word-lover. Sad, isn’t it?

For those who struggle with similar words and expressions, “repeat work” is when a client asks you to do another job for them. “Repetitive work” is when a job involves doing the same thing, again and again – such as filling in forms, copy/pasting URLs into a spreadsheet and the like.

Repetitive work is dangerous. Allow me to explain.

In the past, I’ve had some weird and interesting jobs. Before I moved to France, I’d never had a job for more than six months. Given that I was some six years out of University, that means I’d had a lot of jobs! Fast food, bar work, teaching the Army, freelance computer nerd, cashier, working with printers, English tutor, charity stuff… done it. Never dug graves, though.

I have a philosophy about work: I believe every job teaches us something useful. Every position has value. No job is worthless. Yes, I’m the employee who carries the old lady’s basket while she’s doing her daily shop: it helps her and I get to talk with someone who might have something interesting to say.

So I was hardly ecstatic when I ended up stacking shelves at the local Waitrose supermarket to pay the bills, but I attacked the job with enthusiasm and gusto. I figured it was a chance to learn about how supermarkets work, to meet some new colleagues and to help customers. That dull repetition would free my brain to wander, to think interesting things instead of being concentrated on strenuous, brain-crushing, mental work.

Anyway, I’m rambling. I’m supposed to be telling you about the Hidden Danger of repetitive work, right? OK, OK, I’m getting to it.

Here’;s the thing: after three weeks of putting chilled food on the shelves, refilling butter and cheese displays, rotating stock and calculating reductions on almost-out-of-date pork pies, my brain stopped working.

I’m not kidding. I actually ceased being able to actively think. A sort of dull haze settled into my head and I struggled to put a normal sentence together. Doing those “30% reductions” actually took time, instead of just being a quick, mental calculation (I’m generally quite good at simple mental arithmetic).

Now, this is no reflection on my colleagues – they were intelligent and interesting people who were fun to work with. It was just the mindless repetition of the work. It was killing my brain cells.

So there you have it – my warning to you today is to be careful of repetitive work. You may think it leaves you time to ponder and philosophise… but it may just be deadening you to more energetic thinking.

Do you find repetitive work liberating or deadening?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Sharon Hurley Hall permalink
    August 17, 2009 12:12 pm

    Deadening, mostly. However, repeat work isn’t always repetitive – sometimes it can be varied, even though it’s in the same area.

  2. August 17, 2009 4:44 pm

    My job is repetitive so I have to do things for myself to make it more interesting. Sometimes it gives me time to think about what I’m going to write about or formulate stories in my head. I engage people in chatter and laughter and it makes it easier to bear. Sometime I love it as it gives me a chance to dream and other days is dulls my mind and senses.

  3. August 17, 2009 8:05 pm

    Deadening, definitely! I react in the same way as you, it feels as though my brain has gone on strike in protest.

  4. August 17, 2009 10:00 pm

    I will go into a stupor if I have to make the same thing twice! That is the reason I design one-of-a-kind jewelry. Clients have asked me to remake a style and if I agree, I do it halfheartedly.
    JR Nuerge
    Eco-friendly+Eco-nomical=Eco-fabulous!
    http://www.jrnuerge.com

  5. Steven permalink
    August 18, 2009 2:24 am

    Certain aspects of being an English teacher are definitely lack-lustre when it comes to the daily grind. I’m talking basic… ultra basic English. I got a new class a couple of weeks ago, and two kids’ writing was so atrocious, yesterday I assigned them to learn how to write the alphabet in an acceptable fashion.

    But, on the other hand, I give in class assignments often enough, which creates a period of inactivity on my part for 5-15 minutes in a given stretch. That’s enough time to sketch, write a few more pages of my story about drug trafficking in the days of Star Trek Voyager, or even to write a quick blog entry. Hey, I actually wrote “The Three Space Brothers” by doing that. Last night my wife finished typing it, I have to go over it to improve consistency, check for grammar, typos, etc., then it’s off to Indonesia where I’ll get my illustrators to illustrate it.

    If you’re going to take a mind numbing job, try to pick something like a night watch where you sit at the desk with periodic walk-abouts so that you can work on that next story or read that great book you wanted to make time for.

  6. August 18, 2009 9:11 am

    It’s simple
    Repeat work = good
    Repetitive work = bad

    Vacuuming is repetitive work – boring, mind numbing
    cooking is repeat work – creative, interesting, yummy

  7. spikethelobster permalink
    August 18, 2009 12:24 pm

    Sharon: Lovely to see you here!

    CJ: As long as the good days outnumber the bad! I found that, after a while, it was just utterly soul-destroying to do the same thing all day.

    Kate: I wonder if we could form a Union of Writers’ Brains. You know, claim compensation, call strikes, get good Elf & Safety…

    JR: I often wonder how people produce multiple things (articles, items, whatever) that are almost exactly the same. Working on a theme I can handle, but rewording or reworking the same stuff again and again is tiresome.

    Steven: Darned fine advice there. I remember hearing that one type of Customs Official was the best job for that – because it’s security of unopened, uncleared goods you’re actually not allowed to go walk around. You have to stay at the desk, watch the camera feeds and do nothing. Mind-crushing or mind-liberating, I guess it depends on how you handle it!

    Carolyn: I actually enjoy vacuuming more than cooking, but then I’m weird. :)

  8. August 18, 2009 5:30 pm

    lol We should! Admittedly, all the other brains would say we were pretentious, but we could write witty and stinging rebuttals.

    And our chant could be:
    What do we want?
    The right to only do fascinating tasks!
    When do we want it?
    Not until I’ve finished this article … hmm

  9. spikethelobster permalink
    August 19, 2009 10:26 am

    We’ll need some really big placards, I think. :)

  10. Jonathan Arevalo permalink
    September 23, 2009 10:15 pm

    Some sites I’ve used to kill the repetativeness:

    1. imacros
    2. pdfescape.com
    3. cutepdf

    Please share yours and let’s KILL THIS ANIMAL!

  11. bronski86 permalink
    September 3, 2012 8:30 pm

    Brain training on the ds or wii is good. or study the bible with jehovahs witnesses that’ll get your brain working overtime!

  12. November 30, 2013 7:26 pm

    Yeah, repetitive stuff is painful.
    I think computers will get better and helping us do that stuff.
    Found this the other day: http://proteg.ee/mentor
    It looks like their still building this thing, but it looks cool from the video.

  13. spikethelobster permalink*
    November 30, 2013 9:39 pm

    Just like the old Windows macro recorder. I wonder if they’ll build some intelligence into it or if it’ll rely on everything being in the same place, as the original did…

  14. December 2, 2013 7:30 am

    It certainly looks smarter, ie works in the background and detects patterns itself. Hopefully smart about the windows positions too then. Anyways, doesn’t seem to be ready yet. I signed up nevertheless.

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