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lifeflame's avatar

How do you get through really monotonous office tasks?

Asked by lifeflame (5907points) December 8th, 2007

Scenario: I’m a fresh college graduate, I return home to Hong Kong. I have ideals but they don’t quite match up with the job market, so I get stuck into something I am actually qualified for: educational research and data entry in an office cubicle. I’m going crazy—it is unnatural for me to sit in one place for 8 hours a day; my eyes hurt from staring at the screen for too long; I hate the florescent lighting; I have piles of data to enter, realms of types to transcribe and all my creativity is quashed but it pays the bills.

Four years later: I’ve long since quit my office job, and am doing what I really love: performing, directing and teaching on the side. I’m making a theatre piece right now about modern office cubicle life. So, to my compatriots who have ever been or are still stuck with mind-numbing tasks or environments, I’m curious:
— What do you do with your mind, either to motivate yourself, escape, or cope with boring tasks? What strategies do you end up developing?

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10 Answers

kevbo's avatar

Once, I had an assignment to compare two Medicaid rosters. One was held by the insurance company (my employer) and one was held by the State of Washington. The rosters were each two giant ledgers printed on that old green and white printer paper. The state’s roster had each Medicaid recipient listed numerically by Social Security Number. The insurance company’s roster had each recipient listed alphabetically by name. My job, of course, was to cross reference each and every name, which took me one month to do. Among my diversions were: a) lusting for the circumstantially attractive (as in she was the most attractive woman in the vicinity) redhead one or two cubes over, b) Eavesdropping on conversations, including a very open flirtatious relationship between a married man and a coworker (“let go of my hand!”), c) making sort of a game of putting off as long as I could listening to NPR on my walkman as sort of a way to preserve the relief it provided by not overdoing it.

I’ve made a lot of photocopies in my day, as well, and would say that standing at the photocopier is a wonderful way to fall into the lull of a rhythmic beat. True story, I had to copy scripts for a movie that I was working on. The movie company rented an old e-tail warehouse and the production office was strewn across the old front offices. The photocopier, consequently, was placed in the lobby where there were skylights. It took about two hours to finish copying everything and at the end I realized that my head hurt because I had gotten sunburned.

As a file clerk, I had a computer in a relatively public area of the office, and I used to change my screen saver every morning to something inspirational and/or poetic, which often brought discussion to my door. “People don’t feed dogs. Dogs feed dogs.” was one of the more controversial.

Wow, this is therapeutic.

I used to keep a spreadsheet that was a mile wide and 500 rows deep to track a doomed internal review process for all communications to hospital patients and health plan members. The process required that no less than 10 senior managers review a given letter and give their seal of approval or comments, and supposedly they were supposed to turn their review around in one day so that I could forward to the next. I hate spreadsheets and would frequently let it sit unopened until I needed to generate a report. Then I’d have to spend a couple of hours combing through my e-mails to determine when I first sent someone a document, when they replied with approval or changes, etc. etc. etc. Then I’d have to compare dates to determine whether steps were completed within x number of days (in compliance with the review process/policy) and note whether each document was compliant and if not who was to blame.

I had an internal client whom I was never able to please who would frequently demand a full timeline of events to determine why a project/document was late (often this was due to our ridiculous review and approval processes). So I spent a lot of time combing through e-mails to determine who received what when, etc. I suppose the game in this exercise was feeling varying degrees of self doubt and being pissed off while trying to figure out what happened and who was to blame and then figuring out how to write the timeline/report in such a way to minimize or highlight blame towards someone depending on whether they buttered your bread or not.

You divide people into people you like and people you hate. Even if you don’t really hate hate them, it’s just easier to have categories.

Surfing the internet is probably the most common anymore, and the trick is to go to sites that seem innocuous (or that aren’t outright blocked by the company). News became my entertainment, although during one temporary assignment for which I literally was assigned about an hour of work a day, I read (a blog precursor with 365 consecutive entries) in it’s entirety.

Towards the end of one job I spent most of the time planning my social life outside of work (looking up concerts, events, etc.)

My former coworker cum supervisor sat in the cubicle next to me and was just a loud person. Loud clicking of fake nails when she typed, loud talker, loud gossiper, loud whisperer. She’d file her nails and blow on them loud. You just couldn’t get her noise out of your head. She was probably a GTD’er and would frequently make phone calls in hour long blocks of time. I’m not sure how I endured that. I know I would get up and go do something else if I really couldn’t stand it—go pay work or social visits. I resorted to fantasies about smacking that loud mouth and that loud personality. I just hated having to be subjected to that and at the same time marveled at her incredible lack of self awareness (or sense of self importance).

Once I organized all of the staplers by staple length and labeled each one by the length of staple and the maximum number of pages that each staple was designed to… well, staple. In the process, I also collected all of the standard staple remnants (bits of 5 or 10 staples) and loaded them into one stapler. This was at the copy station, and it was a slow day.

I spent a lot of time being social—flirting with women whom I considered attractive and approachable was essential. You play games with conversation just to kill the monotony. Getting caught up in gossip is an obvious corollary to that game. Twice, I’ve had hotties end up sitting next to me and it was pretty much automatic that I was going to come up with excuses to talk to them. To come up with compliments on shoes, outfits, etc to steal looks.

Origami was good for pointless meetings. Especially in auditoriums where it wasn’t so obvious. In table meetings, it probably wasn’t such a smart move on my part.

Lunch would creep earlier and earlier. Sometimes lunch was just to get away from work rather than being hungry.

With repetitive tasks, I suppose there is an element of rhythmic counting. You count numbers or you talk in cadence or you count off a batch (1–15, say and then start over). Assembling packets, say, your mind follows as you count out sheets of paper, tap them so they’re even, and then your left hand opens the folder while your right hand gets ready to slide the paper into place, or to staple or whatever. Your mind is talking like a square dance caller, while your body is doing the motions. Along the way, you figure out efficiencies (put this pile on the left instead of the right). Then you get to demonstrate what a dork you are by explaining to the next person how you do it and you catch yourself sounding like the world’s foremost expert on collating packet materials for the Cross-functional Customer Recruitment and Retention Strategic Planning Meeting.

You go home as fast as you can in this stupid traffic, stopping for what seems like an eternity for a fast food meal, strip off your work clothes, crack a beer, scarf your food and medicate on television for the rest of the night and go to bed angry and incredulous that your day is over and you haven’t fully decompressed.

joli's avatar

Deskside I prioritize all day long which not only helps me stay organized and busy, but focused. I get up every 30 minutes, at least, and spread an idea, find a reason to visit another office, or just drink a glass of water. I might run the papermail down even if it’s a few pieces just to keep my momentum going. This means I see people going about their business and I’ll bring back a funny story to liven up my staff. I guess including others in my workday is my key to success under a mound of mindwork. Other than that? I challenge myself to how quickly I can complete a task and go for it. I’ll try for 30 minutes to pick up the phone before my co-worker does which wakes her up! I might accomplish more if I didn’t interrupt myself so much, but I also might not be able to get up in the morning facing pure drudgery. Mix it up and make it fun!

soethe6's avatar

Smoke as much marijuana as possible in the morning, then again at lunch. Consider Febreze and Visine if you’re in close quarters with your boss. But if they’re going to give you that kind of boring robot-work, what do they expect?

andrew's avatar

@kevbo: “She was probably a GTDer…”, what, did she have a tattoo of a Moleskine on her? I’m guessing you don’t drink the GTD koolaid? ;)

ironhiway's avatar

I don’t know.
Until after reading Kevbo’s response which in itself seemed monotonous, I realized that I didn’t even know what really monotonous was.

kevbo's avatar

@andrew, she bundled her calls and generally handled e-mail and paper once and also had one paper stack, so I’m guessing. The downside in her case was knowing that she was going to be jabbering on the phone for an hour.

Personally, I like GTD. I just can’t keep it going very long. I find it calming to have everything listed and know tangibly that the list does, in fact, have an end.

weaselope's avatar

I do it by leching after the really hot chicks across the hall…

labesilol's avatar

Organise, plan and separate tasks. Sing tunes or listen to music is great while doing something monotonous. I always sing tunes in difficult situations or my mind takes ver and it becomes a enormous never ending boring task. Yes music definitely helps.

PerryDolia's avatar

There are two techniques for dealing with boring and unpleasant tasks:

1. Eat the Frog: do the most unpleasant task first thing in the morning. Don’t put it off. If you do it first, the rest of the day is a lot more pleasant.

2. Break It into Little Pieces: Don’t try to worry about how long it will take to do the whole task. Break it into small pieces. If you were checking the alphabetized list against the numerical one, say, “I will do the names that start with Ba…” Then give your self a break, go schmooze, flirt, eat or whatever. Then come back and say, “I will do the names that start with Be…” Then flirt, schmooze, etc. It’s easier to do small parts of the task and you remain more detail oriented.

Finally, a technique that works for me, but perhaps not for others. I work on the process while doing the boring job. I am always looking for ways to bundle the job differently, do it in a different order, use post-its to keep my eye on the line, etc. Adding this level of analytical thinking to task helps me relieve the boredom.

Zen's avatar

Worked in an office for 7 years. Hated it. Left it to teach and do other things 15 years ago. Never looked back.

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