Valuable Repetition


The Value of Repetition - CommStorm

If you were lost at sea, would you send your distress signal once?

I watched a man move two chairs off a truck. He maneuvered his way through the glass doors of a cafe, around the sign welcoming patrons, down the hall and out of sight. He came back empty handed and headed out to the truck where he used the same patient, methodical movements to take two more chairs into the cafe. He did this 12 times and I watched him the entire time from my viewpoint inside the cafe by the window. He never ran, he never hurried and his movements completely captured my attention.

My husband has watched me prepare filo pastry treats with the same concentration. My own movements have been repetitive and one would think, uninspiring and yet we watch. When someone knows their job well, the sureness of their actions captures our attention. The music of their movements speaks to their ability and although you can’t hear the music they are moving to, you can appreciate the rhythm.

I thought perhaps the attraction that comes from watching someone perform such repetitive tasks was because we enjoyed watching expertise at play.  Malcolm Gladwell explained in his book, Outliers, that 10,000 hours of practice is required to become an expert at just about anything. Even if you haven’t performed a task for that long, if you have done it repeatedly, you get better at it. Except for one thing, the cognitive scientists (including the one who Malcolm references) have said that the theory is wrong or at least it does not tell the whole story of how someone becomes an expert. So why do we watch? What is it about simple repetitive acts that capture our attention?

In advocacy and in marketing, we use repetition to assure that messages are heard. It helps our audiences to process the concepts and ideas being promoted. We all process information at an automatic and unconscious level, so while we may hear the words, or see the visuals we are not necessarily taking it all in.

Think about what happens when you are driving. You move in and out of traffic, you note road signs and lights, pedestrians and cyclists, the state of the road and the temperature in the car. You are taking in a vast quantity of information. This activity is called pre-attentive processing. We see and hear but it does not interfere with the song we are singing or the story we are listening to on the radio unless we get a pre-attentive cue. A pre-attentive cue is something out of the norm or unanticipated, something that we are predisposed to respond to, like a threat. A visual pre-attentive cue is the bright red flag in a field of yellow flags.

Higher level thinking, the digesting of information happens when our brain sifts through all the content being fed to it and digests the relevant bits.   Our brain will pick some things over others based on our biases. To ensure that the messages we want to be heard are heard, we can use repetition or surprise. In fact, you could say that the repetition becomes a surprise because it captures our attention, it stands out.When we repeat an idea often enough, we force others to hear it and interpret it. They can then break it down and contemplate it. Repetition allows us to understand how something works in the moment, while it is happening.

As I watched the man move the chairs I chatted with my daughter and sipped my coffee. I also wondered about why he moved so slowly, why despite the mundane nature of the job he did not hurry. I realized that by moving the chairs in a slow methodical fashion he avoided all the obstacles and made sure that he did not damage the chairs or injure himself. Repetition allowed me to compare, consider and comprehend in real time not just what he was doing but why he was doing it.

Do you find yourself watching when someone is performing a repetitive task? Have you ever used repetition to get your point across to someone?

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0 responses to “Valuable Repetition

  • Completely agree that repetition is essential to acquiring a skill or mastering a task…but I never related it to marketing. It fits! Methodical…steady…even pace. Seems that it almost needs to work that way.It isn’t until you see that Gecko many times that you begin to relate it to the insurance product, right?

    • So true (about the Gecko)! I know I oversimplify, but marketing is essentially relating to people or getting them to relate to the product or service your selling. At it’s best it’s all about understanding how humans think and having some fun with it. 🙂

  • Hi Debra,

    I’m sure I have caught myself staring at someone doing something like that because I’m a big people person and I can just watch people for hours and be thoroughly entertained.

    I’m not sure about the doing something 10,000 times in order to reach expert status but I would hope you could get darn good at something by doing it that many times. LOL!!! I hate the word expert myself mainly because I guess being in the online industry now things are constantly changing. So for someone to claim they’re an expert would mean that they would immediately always be on top of those changes and know how to implement them expertly and I just don’t see that myself. Maybe it’s my pee little brain that can’t wrap my head around that.

    I do agree though that repetitive action when it comes to our business is a necessity if you want to have some type of success. You definitely can’t give in too soon because we think it’s taking too long to accomplish something. I use to do that until I made a deal with myself to give it more time and gosh darn it worked.

    I bet that man moving those chairs knows his stuff and that’s why they count on him to do the job right. Yep, sounds like he did just that too.


    • The concept of expert is definitely daunting and a little suspicious since it assumes a finite knowledge, but sometimes you just need to separate out the enthusiasts from the experienced and practiced.

      Isn’t people watching one of the most enjoyable things to do? I can make up all kinds of stories based on the glimpses I get and have a riot doing it.

  • The man moving the chairs was knowledgeable in his skillset. He didn’t need to rush because it would only cause him problems. If problems were to arise he was working at a level that he could stop and fix what ever it was. It doesn’t have to be pretty or flashy but it works. That is definitely how I try to work…smart. I’m still learning and fine tuning but I will get there.

    • Isn’t funny how smart doesn’t look the way you think it will? If the guy had been rushing, I think I would have found him so disruptive or an irritating rather than interesting

  • I definitely would agree that it took me 10,000 to reach expert status as a teacher. It takes a lot of trial and error to improve, but more and more people are giving up too quickly because our media heavy world makes it seem like everything is instantaneous. Many even argue against the value of memorization and note-taking since almost anything can be Googled. There’s something to be said learning the ins and outs of any process.

    • So true about our changing expectations around how long things should take. Having everything show up faster and faster and with little effort is a great way to ruin our ability to focus and learn.

  • Hi Debra,
    It is interesting observing others. You notice a lot of repetition is seniors with well established routines, who would otherwise be lost without one. You also see it in those who are eccentric and those who are obsessive-compulsive, such as depicted by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.

    Repetition is important to those with established routines. Let me say that again.
    Repetition is important to those with… never mind. You’re not there yet. 😉

    • Hahahahahahahha…I wondered if anyone would do it (repeat a line) and I’m amazed you are the only one who did. 🙂 Seniors and children (and many of us in between) love routine. It helps to make life manageable.

  • Eleanor says:
    April 16, 2014 @ 09:02 am

    The surprise some advertisers use is to be funny I am thinking after reading your article. What do you think?

  • Interesting post, Debra. I remember bring in MX a number of years ago and watching the workmen move cement in small pails, over and over again. As you say, slowly and methodically. It really made me realize how rushed we are in everything we do in our modern society. In the tropics, they don’t rush because it’s too hot, and also because they need to make the limited amount of work last.

  • crystalzakrison says:
    April 15, 2014 @ 09:12 pm

    Debra, I love that book! I recently got into zumba and I am not a great dancer. I was easily the worst in the class. However, I kept up with it and got better. It was because of repeating the same dances and moves over and over again. I agree with you that repetition is important in honing a skill. Great article! 🙂

    • I took a Zumba class about a year ago and when I started I thought, this will never work, it’s too hard to follow. A few weeks later I was amazed at how “easy” it seemed by comparison. Our bodies are great at remembering repeated motions.

  • Repetition is key in marketing, in learning, and in writing. It takes several times for a person to do what the marketer wants. It takes repetition to learn. And it takes practice to be a great writer.

    Many people like routines, too, which involve repetition. Routines provide security. I know my son likes his routines, especially after living with upheaval for years. 🙁

    • Lorraine, as you know from being a teacher, most children, and adults for that matter, like some level of familiarity in their lives. Routine lets us anticipate and prepare and although we can get bored and look for a little change, as a species we generally like to have a handle on what’s coming next.

  • Like Max mentioned, i too thought the man moves slowly with the chairs as to not get tired in the process 😀

    I can get mesmerized by repetitive movements – maybe i am easily hypnotized, never thought about it before! Sometimes i mesmerize myself through repetition – just this morning i was taking the dry laundry inside and folding it. It’s repetitive, alright, especially when a lot of the same type of clothing has piled up – not sure for how long I’ve been doing this but after i was done, i was super calm, maybe it’s a type of meditation that i have found for myself 😀

    And yes, i totally agree about repetition being an important part of our marketing efforts. It should be subtle though. Good use of repletion across all channels may be valuable but if done wrong, the audience can perceive it as “being-in your-face” or more less…

    Great post, Debra – thanks for the food for thought 😀

    • Folding laundry is a great way to do deep thinking. The movements are simple, repetitive and when you stop you have a chore done and generally solutions to the challenges you were contemplating.

      Great point about how you repeat, effective delivery can turn into annoyance if you don’t refine along the way and time things well.

  • You would be amazed by the number of strangers you can mesmerize by knitting on the bus. A few will even approach to say how impressed they are, and that they could never do it themselves – too hard, too repetitive, too frustrating. Yet they are content to sit and watch me do it.

    There is peace in repetition. I know I pick up my needles when I need to unwind from a stressfull day or information overload, and by the time I put them down again, I am completely refocussed.

    Strangely, this is also how I avoid falling asleep during movies when I am tired. You’d think that dividing my attention between the movie and the knitting would make it harder to concentrate, but somehow that’s not the case. Maybe it’s the fear of dropping a row of stiches that keeps me awake ;).

    • I had to laugh at the knitting comment, I get mesmerized by it and I have seen other people get sucked in by the movement of the needles. Our minds are amazing things.

  • Both Advertising and Prayer are based on repetition so I expect everyone has used it to get a point across, Debra. Studies have shown that repetition is an important part of a child’s brain development and that they are more receptive to repetitive designs on fabrics, wallpapers, borders etc than to any other kind. I suppose that’s why its important to repeat the right things because just as muscle memory retains good practice it also retains a bad golf swing. Trust me !

  • We are what we repeatdly do.

    The interesting thing with this, it goes against standard thinking. Many today think that if they don’t get it right away then it wasn’t meant to be. It is through repetition of the basics that we learn the ways to move beyond. The learning process is slow and boring, but the most important portion.

    • Well said Jon, Both the quote and the thinking. We are trained to want immediate success/satisfaction/gratification and yet the evidence speaks for itself, patience, practice and repetition does make perfect.

  • I think when you do something methodical you actually save time. As they say “haste makes waste”. I have also heard that if you do something for 21 days it will become a habit. It hasn’t worked for me but I keep trying. I think you also need patience which is not a virtue of mind to so something repetitive.

  • I love to watch anyone who is in flow, and being in flow often involves repetition.

    I do think that not all repetition is equal, though. I’ve long been fascinated by the 10,000 hours-to-reach-excellence theory that Gladwell wrote about in “Outliers”. I think that while it’s basically accurate, it makes a lot of difference what you’re doing with those 10,000 hours. If you’re working for continuous improvement, then excellence can happen, but not if you are just doing mindless repetition and practicing the same mistakes over and over.

    Mindful repetition can be beautiful, and create beautiful things, including peace of mind as well as excellence in our craft. Mindless repetition, though, would be a different story. I know which one you and I are working to cultivate, Debra :).

    • Very good points. Doing something that doesn’t work over and over again mindlessly is a waste of time. Continuous improvement is also critical, refining the action or the message so that it becomes clearer or more precise is like watching movement evolve into dance, beautiful.

  • If something is repeted enough times it becomes true to the majority of people. This is something, not only marketers but politicians use all the time. And it definitely works. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t that easy..That a minister of finance who have almost caused deflation is associated with keeping the countries economy in fantastic shape, is an example of lamentable side effects of repetition.

    • This has been a point of frustration for me more times than I care to remember, so much so that I learned to emulate the behaviour. I have used it in government, in opposition as a lobbyist and still use it today…I should add, I’ve never used it to make a lie into the truth. 🙂

  • Hi this reminds me of something my dad once told me. I know this family in louisiana that owns a carnival. most of the work is done by the owner’s two grandsons. If you watch them assemble the rides they do it the same way whether they have a full crew or if its just them. They take one ride at a time and move through the steps slowly and methodically. They never rush and what’s more they never seem to get tired. I didn’t have enough vision left to see it myself, so my dad told me about it to teach me an important lesson. thanks for sharing this. Take care, Max

    • Isn’t it amazing how that patient repetitive process can achieve not only effective results but fast ones? Efficiency is not about moving fast, it’s about thinking strategically.

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