The Zen State of Slog Work

The people that succeed at any job are the people who get the job done effectively, even if the work happens to be incredibly boring.

At one of my (many) college jobs, I would spend hours upon hours sifting dirt. I’d scoop a big pile of dirt onto a box with a screen on the bottom, pick up that screen box, and shake it back and forth, allowing the fine dirt to come out and the rocks and large clumps to stay behind. I’d discard the lumps and rocks and repeat. Some days, I would go through more than a thousand pounds of dirt in this way, as I would fill up a hundred pound tub with the dirt, then haul it elsewhere.

I usually worked in tandem with a guy who was constantly horsing around. He’d work in spurts, then start fidgeting and finding ways to goof off. He’d try to get me involved with it, but I usually wouldn’t. In fact, most of the time, I didn’t hear him. I would simply “zone out” during the work, not really being aware of anything at all. The time would seem to pass very quickly and I’d be finished with my dirt while he had barely filled up a bin.

It wasn’t long before I got a raise and he was fired.

Later on, I noticed the same phenomena when I was a computer programmer. For several months, I was involved in writing a giant database API. Some of the code was interesting and required me to think. Most of it was not – it was just very simple stuff that had to be done. I would often find myself “zoning out” while writing this simple code.

Again, there were ample opportunities here to hit the water cooler. One of my other coworkers did pretty much everything possible to distract and interrupt my focus.

Six months later, the project shipped, she had contributed only a small fraction of what had been accomplished, and she was out looking for another job.

The same exact phenomenon happens today, with my writing job. Some of my tasks – researching topics, writing posts – requires focus. Some other tasks – sifting through comments, separating spam emails from real ones – require very little focus.

Sometimes, I’ll dread doing those mindless tasks and I’ll find anything else to do.

Other days, I’ll turn off Skype, turn off the phone ringer, put my favorite iTunes playlist on repeat, and dig in. Three or four hours later, I’ll find that the slog work is done – and my situation is much better off because of it.

There are two lessons here.

First, for most of us, it’s the successful, repeated completion of the slog work that makes the difference. In each of those cases above, the boring, grinding work felt like the last thing on Earth I wanted to be doing. Yet, by just bucking down and heading right for the boring, repetitive work, I got through it.

Even more important, it was the completion of that slog work – often over and over again – that laid the groundwork for success in other areas. It built trust in those around me. It built the foundation for further work. It enabled a greater array of communications. Each of these things enabled me to succeed in areas that were much more personally valuable to me.

Second, if you just throw yourself at that work and let your mind go, slog work is often completed more quickly and more easily than you expect. Just turn off the distractions and stop with the excuses. Sit down and get to work on those mindless tasks you’ve been avoiding. Turn off all of your potential distractions, hit the boring task hard, and just let your mind go with it.

What you’ll find is that if you’re not distracted away, time passes quickly and you’re done with the task surprisingly fast. Even better, the task is now done and it’s likely created the foundation for much greater success – building the respect of your coworkers, enabling you to move forward on a project, or something else.

As you’re reading this, you probably have a few hours left in your day. Why not spend that time taking care of some mindless task that, if you completed it, would make tomorrow a lot easier? Turn off the distractions, hunker down, and complete something – it’ll do wonders for your career.

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