At Work

Lessons I Learned as a Submarine Officer for Dealing with Drudgery at Work

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I’ve operated nuclear reactors and driven a submarine. I’ve overseen training programs for licensed nuclear operators,  and I now do institutional research for one of the world’s largest seminaries.

Each of these jobs has exciting and immediately rewarding aspects. But another thing these jobs have in common is a certain level of repetitive, detail oriented work.

Often there seemed to be little immediate connection between the work done and the desired organizational goal.

  • For example, it was exciting to be the officer of the deck at sunrise on the surface, with dolphins paying in the boat’s bow wave.
  • However, much of the paperwork I did as a submarine officer seemed to have little connection to making the boat function. It was easy to slip into a bad attitude about my work when faced with a mountain of paperwork.

Drudgery is work that is characterized by its difficulty and dullness. It may be necessary, like sweeping a floor or filling out repetitive reports, but it certainly isn’t exciting. It’s easy to feel like our jobs are pointless when we are caught in a cycle of drudgery. However, that isn’t the way we should view work.

Here are five ways to avoid drudgery and find meaning in your work.

Don’t Confuse Hard Work with Drudgery

Sometimes work is hard, and it needs to be hard. Part of the curse from Adam’s first sin was making some work frustrating and more difficult as thorns and weeds were sown in the earth (Gen 3:17–19). We should expect work to be hard and shouldn’t classify what we do as worthless just because it seems difficult.

This is reinforced by the close tie between human renewal and the renewal of all creation that Paul writes of in Rom 8:19–23. Creation will be renewed when Christ comes again and the general resurrection occurs. Our current frustrations with work point us toward that hope.

Find the Practical Purpose of Your Work and Focus on It

Based on my own experience, many times the problem was in my attitude and not the work itself. I failed to understand or appreciate why the work I was doing was significant.

Sometimes when I discover the purpose of a report or other repetitive work, I’m struck by its significance. For example, some of the preventative maintenance reports that I filled out as a submarine officer seemed pointless.

However, when I was later informed of some of the statistical trending that the Navy did with that paperwork, it became clearer to me why such simple, repetitive, and time consuming work was necessary. It really helped me to see the point of my work and have a better attitude about it.

Consider Eliminating Work That Doesn’t Add Value

We shouldn’t do work just for the sake of work. Supervisors should continually look for ways to eliminate tasks that don’t accomplish a specific purpose. If no one ever reads a particular report, then why is it completed? If there is no answer for why certain work is done, then perhaps it doesn’t need to be done.

Likewise, if there are tasks we are doing as workers that really do not have a purpose, then we should recommend eliminating the task. Not doing truly wasteful work brings the gospel to bear by increasing productivity and efficiency.

As long as suggestions are made in an appropriate manner at an appropriate time, most supervisors will welcome the opportunity to eliminate wasteful activities and allow you to do more meaningful tasks.

Set Goals and Compete with Yourself

Sometimes the reason work seems like drudgery is the lack of an immediate reward. Sometimes it is up to the worker to provide the reward.

How long did it take you clean the floors last week? Can you do the same quality of work and get it done in less time? How much less? Can you make the floor shinier today than yesterday?

This seems silly, but looking for ways to do our jobs better and faster can take simple tasks and bring a reward to them. It won’t be just going through the motions, but a continual attempt to improve. That really makes a difference in the enjoyment we can get from our work.

Remember That When We Work, We Should Work as to the Lord

Paul, writing about the relationship between household servants and their masters said,

Whatever you do, work heartily as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Col 3:23–24, ESV).

Someone else may write our paycheck, but ultimately our work is done for God’s glory. Until all of creation is renewed, there will be tasks that may seem practically pointless. We can find meaning in these tasks because even they can have the eternal purpose of bringing glory to God through the attitude of our service.

I find that my perspective and attitude toward work have a stronger influence on my satisfaction than the nature of the work itself. What do you do to make repetitive and difficult tasks more meaningful?

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