How to Stop Doing “Stupid Work”

by Tammy Strobel on June 22, 2010

“Stupid work” happens when you give into fear, give up creative control, and stop doing work that matters.

Depending on your field of expertise your idea of stupid work might be different from mine. For instance, by the time I was in my mid 20′s I worked at a number of “real jobs,” had a BA and two masters degrees. But I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment or that my work rocked. A lot of my work was unnecessary, automated, and stupid. Attending three hour meetings, commuting over 2 hours a day, and playing office politics were a few of the many stupid things I engaged in. This type of work left me feeling dissatisfied and pressured to conform to what others wanted my professional life to look like. I also wondered if all my education mattered or if it conditioned me to follow the status-quo.

In many ways I think the motivation for doing stupid work emanates from fear. The fear of being useless, fear of being without money, or the fear of doing something different. By choosing to stop doing stupid work you can make meaningful choices. For example, a meaningful choice might be scaling back the time you spend at the office and devoting those hours to volunteer work.

Here are the top four things that will help you do work that matters.

1. Produce work that creates a better world.

I think people are hungry to do meaningful, creative work. Work that contributes to producing a better world; one in which we can get more from less.

Ask yourself:

  • How does my work make other lives better?
  • Does my work give me time for family and community?
  • Do I  have creative control over my work?
  • What is my legacy?

2. Expand your knowledge base to pursue creative endeavors.

Keep learning and expanding your knowledge to pursue creative endeavors, to question the status-quo, and to make informed choices.

3. Focus on one thing at a time.

In an age of distraction there is a lot to be said for focus. So many folks try to do 5 things at once, rather than focusing on one task. For instance, if your working on an article focus on that task. Do you research ahead of time and then start writing.

4. Keep asking questions.

Professionals control the technical means but not the social goals of their creative work. The professional’s lack of control over the political content of his or her creative work is the hidden root of much career dissatisfaction … Professionals are licensed to think on the job, but they are obedient thinkers. ~Jeff Schmidt

Continue to ask yourself hard questions about the nature of work. By asking tough questions you might be “unprofessional,” but you won’t be an obedient thinker.

What would you add to the list?

1 Jeff Slobotski June 22, 2010

Great post. Simple, yet such an amazingly strong reminder. We only live once. Do it right, and make sure it’s real.

2 jacqueline June 22, 2010

I think seeing value in the work you do is a vital component to living – but everything we do needs to have value. Picking up garbage, fixing burst pipes, serving meals at the diner are all important parts to the fabric of our lives that the more we all see what we do as valuable the better off we will be. If, though, you do not see value in what you are doing by all means stop doing it and find something that rocks your socks.

3 Kay August 9, 2010

Well said, jaqueline. Value is a matter of perspective, and I don’t think a cubicle farm and value-driven work are mutually exclusive.

4 Jeffrey Tang June 22, 2010

Great post, Tammy.

I’d add this: Try everything that interests you. Chase what makes you come alive. Everything else will fall into place over time.

5 Rasmus June 22, 2010

I would add: Surround yourself with people who are smarter than yourself. Not in the traditional IQ sense, but people who have found a niche and become experts. Or tribe leaders, if you will. Those are the people who can help you build the courage to follow your own passion no matter where it might take you. I know that a lot of people find themselves in the exact situation you describe, of having taken a higher education only to find themselves withering away creatively. But walking away from that takes guts and that’s where those smart people can inspire and motivate.

6 Tiny House Talk June 22, 2010

I’d add: Spend some time everyday reading about topics that interest you and people you admire. You’ll be able to learn their hard earned lessons and become better at what you do. – Alex

7 Ibai June 22, 2010

Nowadays, achieving #3 is really complicated, almost impossible. Everything tends to multitasking. Thanks to remind us how to stay focused.

8 Rebecca Truly June 22, 2010

Tammy I love this post and this quote by one of the most brilliant critters on Spaceship Earth, Buckminister Fuller, reinforces the ideas in your post:

The things to do are: the things that need doing: that you see
need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.
Then you will conceive your own way of doing that which needs to be
done — that no one else has told you to do or how to do it. This
will bring out the real you that often gets buried inside a character
that has acquired a superficial array of behaviors induced or imposed
by others on the individual.

— R. Buckminster Fuller

9 Tammy June 24, 2010

@Rebecca – Now that is an excellent quote! Love it. :)

10 ShelleyD June 22, 2010

I was a late bloomer. Four kids were grown when I decided to go to college. What I came to realize was that I was a person who needed goals and challenges. I thought chasing diplomas would give me what I missed in my 20′s. For a few years, I taught at college level. After a move across country, I found myself teaching high school Language Arts. I have to say, teaching was the most difficult thing I ever did in my life. About year 7, I had to weigh it all out. Either continue with the stress and demands of the educational bureaucracy, or do something about it.

It’s been over 2 years since I quit teaching. I don’t know of any lives that were made better. Any creative self was squashed by curriculum standards. Many times when my children came to visit, I was committed to something. I doubt that any legacy was left behind. Walking away set me free to discover my own creativity. It’s taking a little longer than expected, but I’m enjoying my search.

P.S. I gave your e-book Minimalist Health to my daughter in law, Cindy (who rarely uses the internet). She absolutely loved it. You may have a new follower-Thank you!

11 Tammy June 24, 2010

Thank you Shelley! I’m so happy your daughter liked the book. :)

It’s so odd about education. I’m all for expanding your knowledge base. But in a a lot of ways I agree with @Hessiess. “The education system rely does kill creative types.” I think part of that has to do with the emergence of standards and lack of programs devoted to art, music, building awesome stuff, etc. :)

12 Hessiess June 22, 2010

I would add: obsess about the things you are interested in, the only way you can improve your ability in anything is to practice *all* the time. The only way that you can keep your motivation up in order to do that is to become obsessed with your subject of interest. Some may say that it is unhealthy, but these days it is the only way to break out of the constant stream of useless information we all experience.

@ShelleyD: The education system rely does kill creative types, I have had exactly this same problem. Growing up I always hated education because it was so constraining. Getting out of education and discovering my passions through self-study was the best thing that has happened to me.

13 Chris O'Byrne June 22, 2010

I agree with the importance of focus. I struggle with this daily. My pattern is to focus in on a few important things, expand to many more as I explore and find new interests, then focus again on a few important things… back and forth, back and forth. But hey, at least I keep bringing my focus back in! :)

14 Living Large in Our Little House June 23, 2010

The only thing I would add is to find your passion. I too worked at a meaningless corporate job. I did have one title there that I loved. Of course, the corporation didn’t see value in it and eliminated the department. However, that experience taught me that it isn’t just enough to be making a great salary. We spend at least 40 hours a week doing what we need to do to make a living and life is too short not to find your passion in it.

15 Little House June 23, 2010

I’d probably add Work Smarter, Not Harder. Earlier this year I had an epiphany when my husband and I were traveling and my husband was completely stressed out. We were receiving calls from a client who was having computer problems. My husband really doesn’t fix computers anymore (he did 10 years ago), so he was really stressed about having to receive these calls. I told him that this year we need to work smarter. Having a tech-help page on our website could resolve a lot of these phone calls. (Of course, we still haven’t created this page yet!). This simple step could resolve a lot of our “stupid” work. I think I need to focus on that page this week!

16 Logan June 23, 2010

Awesome post! It takes alot of bravery to pursue what we are passionate about. It is so easy to swallow our dreams and stand in line to exchange our lifetime for paper money. I’m proud that I have a partner that has taken this lifetime challenge on and decided to “work smarter” :).

17 Dan June 23, 2010

Fantastic Article Tammy, thanks for this. I always look forward to reading your articles!

18 Andrew Randazzo June 23, 2010

Unprofessional = Genuine = Likeable

19 Tammy June 24, 2010

@Andrew – Love that! :)

20 sayonara June 24, 2010

unprofessional doesn’t means genuine. a professional can be also genuine. I believe in that (since now)

21 Tammy June 23, 2010

Hey everyone – I’m behind on comment responses.

I wanted to pop in and say THANK YOU for all the thoughtful comments. All of you rock. :)

22 HowToPlaza June 23, 2010

Nicely put Tammy. (I just landed here via Zen Habits).

I think the easiest way of not having to do stupid things is being the best in what you do. It may sound clichéd, but the more you improve, the more you can afford to focus (because then you work faster, easier, and people pay you more for your expertise and experience) on your core strength (the point where you mention how your work makes this a better world).

~~ Sarah ~~

23 Tammy June 24, 2010

Sarah – Sweet! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

24 Joe Wilner June 23, 2010

A really wonderful post. I like all the ideas and particularly “produce work that creates a better world.” I feel like this is a mission most people want to undertake but can feel overwhelmed with idea or values that must be inculcated to accept this mission. I think that this comes with developing self-awareness and a spiritual connection. Secondly, we can never learn too much, or what I should say is, we can never get too much feedback to keep developing ourselves. Your ideas make me realize that the more we learn about ourselves and the world around us, the more likely we will find our calling.

25 Katie June 24, 2010

Great list, Tammy. I find myself becoming less and less tolerant of “stupid work” as I do more and more meaningful work. It’s like I’ve become allergic to mindless, pointless make-work. Government town, what can I say.

26 sayonara June 24, 2010

work smarter

27 Bankruptcy Ben June 24, 2010

thank you for the Jeff Schmidt quote, it accuratly sums up my professional life

28 Vanessa July 17, 2010

I really resonate with this post. Doing what you love is very important to my happiness and it’s something I’ve been working on for the past couple of years or so. It’s tough but this is the type of “hard work” I like. The type of work that feels truly fulfilling. I really love your number 1. Those things are very important to me.

Focusing is super tough for me, though. I get overwhelmed with how many things I “want” to do and “need” to do. Balance is probably the biggest obstacle for me, but I love knowing that I’m not alone in these endeavors.

Great post. Thank you :)

29 Jonah K November 7, 2010

Nice idea, but very difficult to accomplish in today’s corporate environment. More and more I’m finding that I’m losing creative control over my work by management control freaks who fully dictate the process and rate me based on how closely I follow it. In a hierarchical bureaucratic system, management is rewarded by constant process improvement which mandates increasingly more dogma and control passed down to the workers.

30 Rita January 11, 2011

I hate people trying to control me and everyone around me. Isn’t it enough that you turn up and do the work? They want to have your soul as well because you get a measly (compared to what those pricks earn) pay cheque!!

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