5 Ways to Stay Focused During Menial Work

Woman bored at work

Adobe Stock

Profile Picture
Heather K Adams734
Content + Copy Writer
May 23, 2024 at 10:29PM UTC
Restaurant work, janitorial positions, anything that sees a lot of effort for very little pay can be considered menial.
Here's the thing: no matter how much you love your job, and some of us love the heck out of our jobs, there are still some fiddly bits, those housecleaning-typed tasks, we just kind of... hate. Happens to all of us, no matter how awesome our job looks on paper. And what about those of us with those quote-unquote dead-end jobs? The ones where your entire workday seems to be filled with dull, repetitive tasks that are maybe, just maybe, below your talents. Awful, right? In one way or another, we've all experienced enough menial labor to know it's for the birds. Or is it?

What is menial labor?

Menial labor gets a bad rap. It's got the same vibe as that daily grind people drag themselves back to every Monday morning, or the job they complain about all the time. Restaurant work, janitorial positions, anything that sees a lot of effort for very little pay can be considered menial. It's also every uninteresting task you might have to deal with in an otherwise satisfying job: slogging through email, organizing a backlog of files, making follow-up phone calls. Dull, dull, dull.
Menial labor also has another definition: "unskilled" labor. Not just boring, but for the under-educated or, ahem, unintelligent. Is it, though? Think back to that first job you had — maybe it was a summer thing or working weekends during the school year. You hated that job! It was thankless, tiresome and endless, full of unhappy customers and coworkers more worried about their next smoke break than the quality of their work. But. How much did you learn, too? Think about it: that job taught you how a business works from the bottom up, how to smile at a rude customer, how to greet and treat a regular, how to keep going even though your feet and back were killing you. Those weren't just life lessons. Those were skills sets that can serve you well in the bigger, broader and even white-collar world.

Why is it necessary?

The little wheels turn the big wheels, sure. But how many of those big wheels ever get a chance to experience life down here as a little wheel? Your menial labor positions have shown you how decisions made at a corporate level play out on the floor, in real-time. You've developed a bedrock understanding of how a business works (or doesn't) on the daily and what makes for a really healthy work environment. It's true: if you want to put your finger on the pulse of any company, ask the people who take out the trash. They'll know what's what.
If you've never held a menial labor position but are dealing with menial aspects in your current job, try to incorporate this mindset while you tackle the drudgery. Yes, what you've been assigned to do might be boring. But it might also be revealing. For example, if you're the new girl, pay attention to who hands you what tasks, who passes the buck and who sees to at least some of those boring details herself.
For those transitioning from the world of so-called unskilled labor to more skilled or white-collar positions, understand that what you've learned the hard way, hustling during a dinner rush or doing the sweeping up after, can translate in a very practical sense into your new arena. Just because your job was "unskilled" doesn't mean you are, by any means.

How can you stay focused during menial work?

• Focus on the outcome. 
Recognize that this task or this position won't last forever. You can and will find better work for you. If it's a task, think how nice it will be to have it finished. Most of us don't care to do laundry, after all, but we all love a drawer full of clean underwear. If it's a job, create a personal mission statement or series of goals, and stay focused on getting there. Put in your time, and do what you need to do, in order to move on.
• Understand why you're doing it. 
So, right now, you're a little wheel, or you're doing little wheel work. That doesn't mean it isn't important. From flipping hamburgers to weeding through customer complaints emails, you are doing something essential. Somebody has to do it, after all, and for today that somebody is you. It's okay to cultivate a professional pride in a job well done, no matter how small and menial that job may be.
• Zen and the art of __. 
Undertaking a repetitive task can be an opportunity to check out a little bit, to take a mental break and let your body take over. Gliding on autopilot for a while can refresh you in the middle of the day, maybe even better than that extra cup of coffee. You don't have to think too hard to knock out some very necessary tasks.
• Learn. Grow. Level Up. 
Remember those skills menial labor can teach you? If you're in a job you hate and want to move on and up, pay attention to what you can learn from your current position to help you move forward. Not sure? Ask your manager. Tell her your goals, and explain that you'd like some feedback and advice on how to get there. It never hurts to let your boss know she's got a go-getter on her hands, either. Sometimes leveling up starts with just raising your hand.

Final thought

Very few of us start our working lives as big wheels. Most of us have to put in a fair amount of little wheel time doing menial labor, tackling boring chore-like to-do lists and just generally paying dues. And that's okay. You won't always be happy with the work you have, today, but if you pay attention to what you're doing, all that "unskilled" labor can help you learn what you need to get you where you want to be. Menial labor isn't where you end up, it's just where you start. And if you're smart, it can set you on the path to a solid, big wheel career.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up! 

Why women love us:

  • Daily articles on career topics
  • Jobs at companies dedicated to hiring more women
  • Advice and support from an authentic community
  • Events that help you level up in your career
  • Free membership, always