Why we keep doing boring work

Praise for the monotonous work - over and over again

I met Thorsten when I was practicing monotony myself. Instead of researching, phoning and writing as an editor, I worked in less varied jobs with more routine tasks. Two days in the Sauerland factory as Thorsten's colleague, and two more days as an editor before the publication of a novel. All day long cleaning screws and paying attention to spelling and grammatical errors. What does that do to me

Before I get down to work, I speak to someone who is familiar with monotony. The philosopher and media scientist Norbert Bolz has dealt intellectually with the phenomenon all his life. Bolz confirms my impression that monotonous does not mean boring and certainly not useless. "Monotonous is actually most of life," he says. "And that's good. Otherwise we would be mercilessly overwhelmed by the world. "

A survey by Techniker Krankenkasse also showed in 2011 that multitasking jobs can be more psychologically stressful than monotonous activities. 52 percent of the employed people surveyed at the time described deadline pressure or agitation as stressful. More than a third felt overwhelmed by the permanent availability or the excess of information in their company. In comparison, only 15 percent saw a burden in monotonous work.

At the screw manufacturer Schriever I work for two days in a hall not far from Autobahn 45. Next door: other industrial companies, factories and warehouses. In Schrievers Halle there are around 50 dark green machines on red tiles that make a hell of a noise. The air is thick and smells of oil.

My job is pretty monotonous, just as I wanted it to be. For two days I have to press the same button on the same machine. From morning to night. Over and over again. The red button on the so-called sling. There the oily screws are poured in and cleaned at my command. The clean screws come in a box. Label on it, off to the dispatch hall, the next screw box.

Who needs a break?

At Schriever, the screws are produced endlessly, that's how it works. One of the many boxes I push on a cart in front of me can contain more than 100,000 screws. But the seeming endlessness spurs me on. Just do it, don't think.

Philosopher Bolz sees it similarly: “Monotony is something like a basic condition for us to be active at all. We need monotony in order to have the energy to try something new or extraordinary. "

Above all, however, monotony increases efficiency. I notice that myself. After a short time I develop a system with which I can work faster. The machine I'm standing at can process three boxes at the same time. One is poured into the cauldron and thrown, the second waits in the middle, and the third is sent on to the assembly line.

So I took advantage of the waiting time of the second box to get the next screws. The system creates free space in my brain to think about other things. For example, I am already formulating the first passages of this article in my head.

A few hours later, I look around the factory. Everyone else is gone. A colleague comes to me and asks: "Don't you want to take a break with us too?" Why a break, I think. I'm in the middle of it right now.

Because I know that breaks are sacred in a factory, I'll go with them anyway. I talk to Manuel over lunch. He wears his black baseball cap with the peak back and grins a lot. I explain my monotony experiment and Manuel immediately asks: "Why monotonous?"

His work is not monotonous, "sometimes it's big screws, sometimes small". And then he laughs out loud. He knows what society means when it says factory work is monotonous. Of course, he only ever sees screws, but he still finds his tasks varied. He not only has to make sure that the screws get the right thread, he also has to get the tools for it. To do this, he watches over several machines at the same time.

At work I quickly notice what Manuel means. Even if I keep repeating myself, I have to be careful not to make a mistake. For example, I could accidentally push screws that have already been thrown back into the machine. Something similar happened to Thorsten, the singing worker. “That was a disaster!” He says today.

Thorsten and Manuel have jobs that we as a society depend on. Not only because we would live much worse without screws, but also because we need uniform work, each and every one of us. For centuries people have done monotonous work - voluntarily.

Knitting, crocheting, listening to music, playing computers, painting, jogging. It's not for nothing that we look for hobbies where we don't have to think much after a hard day's work, yoga and gardening are just a few examples of this cognitive vacation. And yet creativity and variety are the beautiful daughters of the world of work today, it seems. And the monotony? Is the unloved Cinderella.

Free space for the mind

My impression that monotony is better than its reputation can also be found in scientific studies. For example in Jesper Isaksen's. You could say that the doctor of occupational psychology is an international monotony expert. In 2001 he wrote a doctoral thesis on "Constructing Meaning Despite the Drudgery of Repetitive Work".

The awkward German translation would be: “Finding meaning in monotonous work - despite the drag.” Isaksen says: “Everyone who does a low-skilled job still has mental capacity left to think about other things.” The important question is: How do we use this intellectual space to develop further?

I also had to concentrate on the screw extractor, but I had my head free for other things. My work was physically demanding. But there are also monotonous intellectual activities that do not take place in factories, but at desks. How much thinking capacity do I have left?

Petra Schmidt is a lecturer. It not only removes spelling mistakes, but also improves expression, sentence structure, meaning and logic and gives authors advice on wording. Once a year Schmidt meets authors at the Leipzig Book Fair. Most of the time, however, she spends at her desk.

If a novel is badly written, says Schmidt, it takes longer to read. On the other hand, if a book is particularly exciting, you don't even notice how time flies. Sometimes her husband comes into her home office and asks: “Don't you want to take a break?” Schmidt says - with a little pride in his voice: “My job is very creative, I keep getting new ideas. And I often don't know how the day ends. This is exciting."

Schmidt gives me an unpublished manuscript by a freelance author and explains to me how editing works. I have to read a lot over the two days. Letter by letter so that no spelling mistakes creep in - and sentence by sentence so that no protagonist puts on a jacket in one paragraph and then wears a T-shirt in the next.

When I sit in front of the computer at 8 a.m., I smell the smell of my coffee. I think I'll need the caffeine. Reading can be quite tiring. Then, the first sentence - a comma error. And another one. And another one. On 66 pages - always the same comma error. It can't be that difficult, I think. But I don't want to rant: the mistake keeps me awake. It is demotivation and motivation at the same time.

At 11:12 am I grabbed my cell phone for the first time and open Facebook. The monotony sent my motivation curve into a deep valley. If you are your own boss and do monotonous work, you of course have to bring a lot of self-discipline with you - or learn it. In the factory, the discipline came from outside, the pace of the machines gave it to me. When editing at home, it has to come from within.

Monotonous is actually most of life. And that's good. Otherwise we would be mercilessly overwhelmed. Norbert Bolz, philosopher and media scientist

But the monotony gives me a lot of concentration later in the day. I have the feeling that I am fully involved in witnessing the novel myself, I am so focused. I read on and on, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter. In monotonous activities, people always move from one intermediate success to the next, in my experience.

Monotony also makes us humans more balanced. Because there is little that is unexpected. No to-do lists, no meetings and no calls that throw us off our feet. Only exactly one task. This is as unusual as it is pleasant.

Monotonous work has its own charm

Each of us should try that. For example, we can transfer our collected business cards to the digital phone book. Typing umpteen names and numbers can take a long time. That is why there are of course apps for this that save the business cards via photo recognition. But the attraction is to consciously do this monotonous work yourself and not to outsource it to technical helpers.

How positively or negatively we rate monotonous work depends not least on our environment. At least that is the thesis of psychologist and monotony expert Isaksen. While doing research for his work, he had met a dishwasher. The dishwasher had the most insignificant job in his company, also financially. This carried over to his self-image: he thought he would never find another, better job.

Researcher Isaksen had met another dishwasher, also in the lowest position in a catering company. She was highly motivated - because she belonged. She felt enriched by her work and the regular contact and exchange with colleagues. “You cannot say by definition that monotonous jobs are irrelevant,” explains Isaksen. "Meaning is something we humans give to things."

This also explains why monotonous jobs have a worse social reputation than, for example, a triathlon or a marathon - the epitome of hours of physically strenuous monotony. Statistically, only every 600th German runs a marathon. It is one in ten of the Dax and MDax bosses. Our society and those who do a lot in it also determine which kind of monotony is boring and which is en vouge.

With all the praise for the monotony: According to researcher Isaksen, it is particularly difficult to find a meaning for yourself when it comes to repetitive activities. The social reputation alone is not decisive, the employer also contributes to the well-being. And salary plays a role, albeit a lower one than we commonly think. Isaksen emphasizes: "The workers have to feel: 'What I do here every day has a purpose, a purpose.'"

Even if it was only for two days at a time - I felt like my job had a purpose. Who wants to buy screws smeared with oil? And Petra Schmidt? I want to pass on my suggestions for improvement to the author. If it were up to me, I could practice monotony more often.

* Name changed