On tedium

The tedium of the repetitious task: how could it be otherwise? But we all know a few people — saints of a kind — who so enjoy setting the world to rights that no essential task seems to weigh them down, and they add figures or enter data with perfect equanimity. What most of us would experience as a boring necessity strikes them as an opportunity to enjoy the seamless functioning of mind or body.

And it is really all about mindset, isn’t it? Those elders who had no choice but to knit if they wanted to stay warm in the winter might think today’s hobbyist knitters slightly mad, unless back in the day they happened to be of a creative bent. But I’m told that when an Amish man draws up a cost/benefit analysis of a project, the labor required to complete it will be listed as a benefit rather than a cost.

I imagine it was only after the Industrial Revolution that tedium became a nearly inescapable condition of life — and with it the necessity for diversion on an industrial scale. Most sports, too, seem mind-numbingly dull to the uninitiated: soccer with its endless running up and down the field, American football with its constant, sometimes lengthy breaks in play, baseball and golf with their general lack of excitement. A NASCAR race would be the very embodiment of treadmill monotony were it not for the thrill of the occasional crash. Commercial TV in the U.S. has 20 minutes of highly repetitive, typically stupid advertising per hour. If people can learn to find that kind of tedium entertaining, why not data entry?

I’m wondering whether the high levels of distraction produced by the modern diversion machine might not make tasks traditionally seen as tedious more desirable now, as rare opportunities for sustained attention. That might explain why, this evening, I had a hard time tearing myself away from a highly monotonous repair job at one of my websites that involves doing essentially the same thing to each of a couple hundred posts in sequence. The rain was drumming on the roof, the furnace cycled on from time to time, and there was no other sound but the clicking of my fingers on the keypad. I was tired but not quite exhausted, happy but not actively excited about anything in particular, and it was only after I reminded myself that the task at hand was, in fact, monotonous as hell that I remembered to be bored, and stopped so I could write yet another goddamned blog post.


(Update 1/12) Thinking about this further in the shower this morning, I’ve decided that the supposed link between repetition and tedium is even more of a red herring than I thought. Further to my example of repetitious things we tend to find pleasurable, it occurred to me that music is the ultimate in repetition — except when it isn’t. Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate types of music at two extremes: atonal Western art music with virtually no repetition of anything, and highly repetitive, trance-inducing forms of world music. And remembering back to the first times I heard examples of musical genres I later came to love, such as blues, Appalachian string-band music and thrash metal, I remember in each case thinking, “This stuff all sounds alike! No way will I ever learn to like it.” We like to think that some tunes are inherently infectious, but I suggest they probably wouldn’t be so perceived by people from a radically different culture who hadn’t trained their ears to appreciate (in this case) Western melodic music on a diatonic scale.

So music may be the prototypical example of repetitiousness that we’ve learned to perceive as pleasurable. With the advent of mass-produced recorded music, we are for the first time in human history able to summon up virtually any kind of music on a whim — and I would argue that we do it largely to fight what we perceive as tedium. In this kind of use, as partly listened-to artificial soundscape, a lack of sufficient repetition can in fact be a real liability. To pick the extreme example I mentioned above, more challenging avant-garde music has few fans. But even traditional, melodic classical music, with its frequent changes in tempo and volume, is less than ideal as accompaniment to many tedious tasks in an industrial society, such as shopping, housework, or commuting by automobile. Pop music is much more effective at cutting through the noise, and perhaps inducing a state of mild trance.

I think the comments below by John Miedema and “mostly quiet regular” get at the essence of tedium: it is intimately associated with powerlessness. Thus while I can enjoy sitting on my front porch watching the rain or hanging out on a street corner watching people go by, I’m very likely to perceive sitting in a doctor’s waiting room as tedious, even if it’s full of interesting people. Sports — my example above — can be of absorbing interest because fans identify closely enough with the teams or players to feel enmeshed in the action, and of course certain kinds of crowd behavior can produce intense feelings of shared power. And with music, once we become attuned to a particular piece or genre, our entire mind-body is engaged, and one experiences — for lack of a better term — harmoniousness.

A final idea, then: what makes a tedious task tedious is the split it perpetuates, and perhaps exacerbates, between thinking and feeling. And I’ll stop here before this argument itself becomes too unbearably tedious by attempting to cover all the bases (sports metaphor FTW!) and thus in a way disempowering the reader, who after all, on the Internet, has a certain expectation of being an active participant in the exchange of ideas and not merely a passive consumer of them. (But I’m beginning to understand how real philosophers can write entire books on, for example, happiness.)

11 Replies to “On tedium”

  1. Repetition drives me insane if it is imposed on me. I get profound satisfaction from repetition freely chosen, be that knitting, weeding, puzzling, programming, or fitness routines.

  2. Dave, If you feel a prisoner of your blog you should take a hiatus, methinks. I enjoyed your thoughts here and, as always, your ability to describe them with such precision.
    I find repetitive tasks (of my own choosing) to be a useful as part of my creative process…a prelude to a more artistic expression that’s usually percolating behind “the forefront of my thinking” (a phrase coined by Dubya, which I like.) A neighbor called it “idling” and it seems true for me; as in, idling is what a machine does before getting into gear and performing actual work.

    1. Don’t worry, I was mostly being facetious there (though I am planning to take a bit of a hiatus in May, as I guess you know). I like the way your point expands on John’s. In my addition to the post, which you wouldn’t have seen when you left the comment, I do mention “trance” but that’s a crude way of putting it. I like your notion of idling very much!

  3. There’s lots of research (pdf) going on into the therapeutic benefits of knitting, which probably hold true for all sorts of other small repetitive movements. And then there’s overlap with flow. I find the diagram interesting which plots level of challenge against level of skill. However I think it assumes the activity has been chosen rather than imposed.

    1. Thanks. I see the first-linked article states, “The rhythm of the repetitive movement induces a form of meditation and can be utilised to teach mindfulness…” Not merely used, mind you, but utilised. Sounds serious! Also, some scientist at Princeton has found that repetitive movements “enhance the release of serotonin” in unspecified “animals.” Again, it’s not quiet clear what “enhance” might mean, but it certainly sounds all sciencey and stuff.

  4. Very interesting take on an interesting subject, Dave. Worth exploring further. Why do some of us find certain repetitive things energising, pleasurable, exciting, and other forms of repetition excruciating torture?
    I, for one, really love rhythmic repetition, as in African or Indian drumming and dance, Flamenco and so on, also in certain design patterns as in Islamic, African and pre-Renaissance European art. And I also enjoy certain repetitive tasks, eg when creating art or doing computer stuff. But ask me to listen to a heavy metal band, or to stay in a roomful of pictures decorated with repetitious sugary flowery patterns, or order me to bow a fixed number of times daily to the sun or the Queen or King, and I will run away screaming unless forcibly restrained.
    So does tolerance of repetition depend on one’s personality or culture or conditioning or choice? Are performers of synchronised swimming having the same experience as goose-stepping soldiers? Does a happy knitter have anything in common with a factory worker sitting day in day out at a knitting machine?

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