The Rhythm of Work
My first 40 hour a week job was painting college dormitories the summer I turned 15. A combination of the manual labor and repetitiveness of the tasks reinforced my desire to go to college, but there were a few things about that job that I really enjoyed. In addition to interacting with a wide variety of interesting people and learning a useful trade, I learned a lesson about the rhythm of work.
Being a painter involves more than painting. We could only paint after we moved the furniture, taped the baseboards, spackled the holes, sanded, and spot primed the walls. And when we were done painting we cleaned the brushes and rollers, removed the tape, vacuumed the floor, and put the furniture back. There was a beginning, middle, and end to the work.
Just like different songs have different rhythms, so do jobs. For example, a cashier may repeat a checkout transaction every three minutes. A housekeeper may clean 15 hotel rooms a day. A plumber may complete 25 service calls a week. A decent residential real estate agent may sell five homes a month. As the time between the primary task of the job increases, variability often increases.
Paying attention to the rhythm of work can help you determine the type of work you enjoy most leading to more informed career choices. While some people are fond of saying that “No two days are the same,” most jobs have identified able patterns.
The pattern I’ve observed in the work I’ve most enjoyed is depicted in the graphic below.
I’ll share three examples from my life with hope that they will help you think about the rhythm of work in your own life.
Media Club President
Work need not be a paid position to begin to understand our pattern preferences. When I was in high school I was the president of the Media Club. We produced televised morning announcements and covered live sporting and musical events. A good deal of preparation went into each event‒often more preparation than the event itself. And afterward, we spent as much, if not more time, cleaning up the studio and discussing what went well and what we could do better the next time.
Preparation: Create a show plan, assign tasks, film, interview, edit, set up equipment.
Main Activity: Perform on camera or behind scenes.
Post Activity: Break down the equipment and conduct post show debrief.
Manager for Special Projects
My primary responsibility when I was the Manager for Special Projects in the Office of the President at RIT was to plan an annual innovation and creativity festival. I’ve written about what went into planning the first four festivals in a book about the event.
Preparation: Plan the program, coordinate logistics, recruit and train volunteers, market the event, and more.
Main Activity: Execute the event plan by assisting visitors, exhibitors, volunteers, service providers, and the media.
Post Activity: Analyze feedback from visitors, exhibitors, and service providers, pay invoices, adjust the plan for the next year’s event.
Management Communication Lecturer
While my current position includes a variety of service responsibilities, my primary job is to teach.
Preparation: Read, develop assignments, class activities, lecture slides, and online resources.
Main Activity: Execute teaching plan by facilitating the classroom learning experience.
Post Activity: Meet with students during office hours and tutorials, grade presentations and written work, reflect on student’s understanding of what they have learned, and adjust materials and teaching plan.
When thinking about careers, we often think of the main task of the job. But, as we can see from these examples, most jobs are more complex than the main activity. They have a rhythm. If you only enjoy the notes of the main activity then the rest of the experience might hurt your ears.
Every work experience presents an opportunity to learn about yourself and the type of work that might be the best fit for you. Don’t minimize what you can learn from extracurricular activities or summer jobs like working in a restaurant or as a lifeguard. We can learn just as much from the experiences we don’t prefer as those we do.
Finally, recognize that your rhythm of work preferences may change over time. A job with high variability at one time in your life may be a perfect fit, and other times you may prefer work with less variation.