On routine 23:16 on Monday

As some of you might know, every Tuesday morning I travel east to Vuosaari and spend three hours on a woodworking class. The most important thing I’ve learned there is to appreciate that, generally speaking, there’s no undo in life. When you drill a hole into wood and miss your target by 1mm, you can’t move that hole 1mm left to fix that. That reality can kind of get lost when you work on computers all day.

Another thing I’m learning is to appreciate routine. To appreciate skills that can only be learned by repetition and refinement of process.

In his book The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism Richard Sennett outlines two approaches toward routine. The positive virtues of routine are drawn from Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie published during 1751–1772, while the negative point of view comes from Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations (1776).

Diderot sees routine as the gradual perfection of work, even in his example factory where specialized workers repeat tasks over and over in clean, well-maintained surroundings. Smith argues that as work is split into smaller and smaller tasks, the single, specialized and monotonous tasks make workers dull, even stupid.

It seems the idea of “the information age” is to make machines (computers) do the dull part of work, freeing us humans to do “knowledge work”, and contemplate the more complex and creative challenges at hand. To some extent this is true: you can design newsletters without the painstaking task of hand-setting a letterpress, for example. But anyone who works with computers knows a lot of routine work remains, and the net result would seem to be people are less tolerant of routine work, and routine work is valued less than non-routine work.

Yet everyone knows that person in the workplace, who might not rank high, but who seems to know everything and everyone, and who is consulted at times of need and unforeseen problems. That knowledge and intuition is often the result of doing “boring” routine work, shifting through the same papers or bumping into the same events for years and intuitively starting to figure out patterns and causal relationships. The value of those persons is only revealed when they quit.

I agree this post is a bit thrown together from things I’ve come across in the last few days, the Sennett book I’m reading, and my long-term interest in “work”. But I think routine is important to think about, and it could be useful to find out what routine work you could start to value, and by that way, enjoy.

Comments are closed.