Updated on 04.28.10

The Zen State of Slog Work

Trent Hamm

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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  1. John says:

    Have you ever considered outsourcing this slog work? I’ll bet there’s someone in India willing to sort through your comments for $4/hr.

  2. Mike says:

    I really enjoyed this post.

    If you do something long enough, it’ll become “slog work” so having a good attitude will help get things done more effectively.

    The best way to get work done is to “shut up and get back to work.”

  3. Chuck says:

    people who are good at slog work get more of it in my experience. the most valuable asset in a company is being able to sell yourself. its not the quality of work you do, especially if your work is mostly tasks no one really cares about.

  4. Erin says:

    Thanks for the motivation to have a productive last 30 minutes at work:)

  5. Amen John.
    If you don’t like the work, have someone else do it for you.
    I think this post is further to Trent’s thoughts about “apprenticeship” from a previous article.

  6. bethany says:

    Outsourcing works if you can afford it, but you usually have to slog until you get enough prestige/money/importance to hire someone. Even then, sometimes there’s boring work you have to do yourself.
    For example, I consider paper grading an important aspect of college teaching, I would hesitate to relegate it to a TA even if I got the kind of job where I would have one, but it’s still a slog.
    I like to use podcasts too, if the slog is something like sorting laundry or chopping veggies.

  7. noval says:

    The force is strong in this one.

    I’d like to see a few more posts like this, that is, on themes which relate to productivity and time management. I appreciate that there are many other blogs that attempt to address this kind of subject. Those other blogs, however, tend to be somewhat glib. I think you could bring a refreshing new angle to this area by stressing things like work ethic, grit, discipline, etc. Certainly your writing style is miles ahead of what some other bloggers dish out.

  8. Megan says:

    This also applies to the success of being an entrepreneur. I am working on starting a photography business and many times I have to remind myself that in order to be able to do my passion in the first place that I have to first do the menial tasks of backing up files, organizing and tagging files and dealing with paperwork. If I neglected these items or only did them halfway then I would either eventually have no business or a business that is only half as successful as it could be. It’s the tried and true idea that whatever effort you put into something is what you’ll get out if it.

  9. Jeremy says:

    Some work is “boring” but still important, and can’t be outsourced.

    I wouldn’t outsource paying bills, for example, as I don’t want someone else writing checks from my account or logging into my bank to do it for me.

  10. sewingirl says:

    There is slog work everywhere. When I was a SAHM it was dishes. That was my thinking time, the hands knew what to do, the mind was floating free. Now its vacuuming. I push a vacuum for 3-4 hours every night. Sometimes I put on the headphones and sing along, other times I just zone and solve the problems of the world. It has to be done, no sense in fussing about it, just make the best of it!

  11. Bob says:

    you’re a geek trent

  12. Stephan F- says:

    Slog work isn’t so bad. You can just flow thru it, it is more time-consuming then anything else.
    The worst work of all is pointless busy work that is cheaper for a human to do then a computer.
    I worked call center job that obviously you couldn’t zone out on. It was a job that was done by computer but it was somehow cheaper to hire thousands of people to call the installers and customers back all the time then to hire trustworthy people in the first place. Dumb.

  13. SEC Lawyer says:

    You lost me precisely here:

    “Some of my tasks . . . requires focus.”

    I gather that this is a chronic problem.

    You might want to focus.

  14. Angie says:

    @sewingirl – You vacuum 3-4 hours a night? This is for work, not home, right?

  15. almost there says:

    This post reminded me of “A Message to Garcia” written in 1899 when relating to the slog work. All would be well to read it. I had to google it to reappreciate it.

  16. Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com says:

    Great points but we should avoid the boring robotic work as much as possible. We are better than that as human beings!

  17. As far as I’m concerned, it is the efficiency with which we complete this “meathead” work that allows us the time or gives us the opportunity to work on the exciting stuff.

    That is just a tenet of the workplace if you ask me.

  18. katiebird says:

    This was helpful to me. I have a ton of “slog” work that I have been ignoring…because I hate it. I have piles of stuff to slog through – both at work and at home. When I make myself buckle down and go through it piece by piece with no emotion attached, I feel so much better, but I find it hard to do. But my tendency is to just avoid it and let it build up…and then work with frenzy to get through it. On other note, I find that so many folks are really critical in their comments on this blog. I find it weird. Why read the blog if everything that is said annoys you? It’s not like you had to pay for it….

  19. Diana says:

    After 25 years of it you can go a tad mad, though

  20. lisa.ray says:

    2 Aug 2007 … Through the use of great comments, the Simple Dollar has an interactive feel. For example, sometimes the author of the site, Trent, …I worked call center job that obviously you couldn’t zone out on. It was a job that was done by computer but it was somehow cheaper to hire thousands of people to call the installers and customers back all the time then to hire trustworthy people in the first place.

  21. Susan says:

    @almost there – thanks for passing on the info on A Message to Garcia – very good read. And so accurate to today even though it was written so long ago.

  22. Sarah says:

    Thanks Trent, that is EXACTLY what I needed to hear this morning. Unfortunatley your website just happens to be one of my small distractions ;-) I’ll just have to put it off until later in my day.

    Maybe you’re off having a baby?

  23. littlepitcher says:

    Slog work is good stuff to have if you have stress in your personal life. Turn on the iPod and zone out…and if it’s phone customer service, get your customer talking and learn something new.

  24. AmyG says:

    @ littlepitcher. Absolutely dead on. I need a little slog work now and then to balance the higher stress, detail oriented, deadline-based stuff I do for a living. It provides balance both physically and mentally in my life, so I don’t mind slogging along from time to time.

  25. Renee says:

    Isn’t it called paying your dues?

  26. Adam says:

    You know my situation far too well. Time to slog. Thanks, Trent.

  27. Scott says:

    Seems like you are equating zen with zoning out, but actually the two are really opposites. If you really focus on exactly what you are doing during your “slog” work, what your body is doing, how you are breathing, what your 5 senses are really picking up while you are doing it, that would be close doing samu, which is zen working practice. If you did that, and tried to be hyper-aware of what you are doing, rather than trying to zone out as fast as possible, you might find that boring, tedious work that you hate, something that is fascinating or even liberating.

    Work is work. “Boring” or “Mindless” are states of mind. The two are not related.

  28. Harrken says:

    My job is usually very hectic with multiple projects going at the same time so I really enjoy those time when I get to slow down and do the slow, repeatative tasks, i.e. slog work. It gives me a chance to tune out the hussle and bussle of the office.

  29. Eric says:

    What if your place of employment rewards those who do not put effort into slog work by taking away their slog work and dumping it on the folks who actually DO their work?

  30. Cynthia says:

    Inspring. Off to do the slog work, what better time then Friday afternoon??

  31. michael bash says:

    One of the most difficult jobs is to do a simple task hundreds of times and never make a mistake, never make a mistake because if this happens just once, the whole process is called into question and that may NOT happen. The process I’m thinking of is marking the multiple choice section on the extremely competitive entrance exam to a school, hundreds of A,B,C,D questions on hundreds of exam papers. One approach is to mark each paper twice, dozens of people for very long hours all bored to death and scared to death of making a mistake. The pressure doing the same simple task is intense.

  32. Kerry D. says:

    And the value of doing slog work well–I once got a promotion in part due to my conscientious attitude about doing one of the most seemingly pointless tasks I’ve ever heard of! In a State office, the file folders had to be measured, and totalled–those in file drawers, on desks, carts to file, and in briefcases… As a new college graduate in a professional position, this was an odd request, but I did it. A couple years later when I got a promotion, this task was specifically mentioned.

  33. Brittany says:

    I think an important point that you briefly touched on was that line: “Sometimes, I’ll dread doing those mindless tasks and I’ll find anything else to do. Other days…” Somedays, I can’t get a meaningful and stimulating piece of work done to save my life, but a couple hours of slog work to some music is really satisfying. It’s all a balance.

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