Don’t underestimate the importance of doing mindless tasks

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Being freelance has taught Caroline O’Donoghue that, sometimes, generally farting around is the really crucial work

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

“I do often wish,” a freelancer says to me, wistfully, “that someone would just give me a big stack of envelopes to stuff and frank, or point to a filing cabinet and say, 'ALPHABETISE THIS,' or to a big stack of chairs and say, 'ARRANGE FOR A CONFERENCE.'”

It sounds mad, doesn’t it? Who would want to stuff an envelope when they could be pursuing their passions? Who needs chairs when there’s important, permanent, real work to be doing, most of which occurs between your mind and your computer screen?


Sometimes, I think – perhaps controversially – all of us. Regardless of what industry you’re in, when you first start out you are 20 per cent intellectual contribution and 80 per cent a warm body. Pack this; deliver this; tweet this; clean this. You could be anyone, really, and many of us go through life as a junior both shocked at how little our expensive university brains are actually worth and hyper-aware that we could be replaced at any moment. Then, slowly, the ratio shifts. You become 50 per cent robot helper, 50 per cent valued experience. When I left my last permanent job, my ratio was at about 30-70. I did a lot of creative work, but I also spent about a third of my time tweet-scheduling and farting around online. (No matter what job you’re in, farting around online is a vital part of your day.) I had a friend who managed to fart around exclusively using the closed-network intranet her office used, which is really a commitment to farting around.

Now, I work for myself. I cannot fart around and still get paid, and – even more troublingly – I have almost no mindless tasks to relax my brain with. I go from writing one thing to writing another. I go from one incredibly intense email to a second incredibly intense email. There are meetings where I’m expected to contribute something, as opposed to picking my nails and taking slapdash notes. Once a month, I have half a day for invoicing and another half a day for chasing those invoices. But that’s it, in terms of donkey work. For everything else, I need to completely focused.

Look, I know what this sounds like and, while this might seem like the problem of a bougie writer who just wants to fan herself on a chaise longue all day, I’m definitely not alone in this. Currently, 15 per cent of the UK’s working population is freelance, and the figure is only sky-rocketing – it’s expected to reach 50 per cent by 2020. There’s a huge number of questions around how that’s going to affect our society’s infrastructure – pensions, for one – but very little chat around how it’s affecting our mental health.

Even if working solo is something that suits you, there’s still the problem that your brain literally never gets a break from itself. This isn’t just mentally exhausting – it actually makes us worse at our jobs. The frontal lobe network, which is the part of the brain that dictates reasoning, planning and judgement, only works when the brain is quiet. According to Psychology Today, your brain uses its downtime to connect prior knowledge with random thought bubbles, and this, basically, is where ideas come from. This is the “a-ha” moment we’re so used to hearing about – the unexpected bolt of genius that seems to come from nowhere. Newton being hit on the head by an apple and discovering gravity is a story we tell each other to say, “See? Inspiration comes from nowhere.” When, in reality, it’s a story about how sometimes you need to just take a break and sit under a fuckin’ apple tree for a bit.

Even if working solo is something that suits you, there’s still the problem that your brain literally never gets a break from itself. This isn’t just mentally exhausting – it actually makes us worse at our jobs


Lately, between the advertisements for Glossier lipstick and £5 Romwe dresses, I’ve been served a bunch of ads for tools that are supposedly going to make my day easier. Invoicing, report building, personal finance, newsletter writing – whatever numbingly boring task that an AI can potentially do, I am encouraged to outsource. Why? So my brain can be freed up for the really important stuff, the stuff that I have spent the last 10 years fighting for the chance to be able to do. So my writing, my creativity, my ideas and expertise around my industry can take centre stage. So I can get my work done faster and instead focus on having a life. (“Life” in these sexy technology adverts seems to consist of three main activities, which are travelling Asia, going to a music festival and holding a large bunch of flowers.)

But it never seems to pan out this way, not really. Over the years, I’ve worked in dozens of places that have tried to introduce some new fancy way of getting our work done quicker and, without fail, we have ended up leaving our desks at the same time. It doesn’t matter what era or industry you’re living in; since the Industrial Revolution, people have been claiming that each subsequent invention will free up our time for more leisure and it has never truly happened. The vacuum cleaner didn’t cut down on housework – it just raised our standards for how clean our house should be. Similarly, each time we outsource our lowliest tasks, we higher our own ever-climbing standards for how productive we’re supposed to be.

So, the next time you beat yourself up for spending two hours on Twitter, or making a spreadsheet look needlessly pretty, lighten up. You’re working toward your next big “a-ha” moment, regardless of what tree you’re sitting under.


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