What are some words, phrases, or idioms meaning either mundane or repetitive tasks, or inefficient methods?

For example adding up numbers from 1 to 1000, the repetitive way would be adding them 1 by one i.e. 1+2+3+...+1000, where as (1001)*(1000)/2 gives the answer in 3 steps.

Can "Donkey Work" be understood to mean a repetitive or inefficient way of doing things?

  • Inefficient and mundane are not synonyms. And I think this is pretty much a general reference question either way.
    – Robusto
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 1:09
  • And there's also no right answer
    – user10893
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 1:13
  • I've voted to close as "not constructive", which I wouldn't have done if OP had simply asked for words/phrases/idioms meaning either mundane/repetetive tasks, or inefficient methods. Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 1:24

2 Answers 2


Donkey work usually means work which is primarily repetitive and/or intellectually undemanding, sometimes with the implication that muscle power is the worker's primary contribution. The archetypal example, of course, being a donkey walking in circles all day turning a millstone. If the donkey actually thought about it, he might well resent never getting anywhere. Luckily, he's only a donkey, so he doesn't think like that. And the miller is perfectly happy so long as his corn gets ground. Common alternatives are scut work and grunt work.

It's important to note that the above expressions don't particularly imply inefficiency. Any given speaker might like to imagine he could use his brains to figure out a more efficient way of doing things, but that's just a natural consequence of the fact that most people don't like boring jobs, and many people think they could organise existing work practices better than their current boss.

Inefficient working practices arise from many possible causes. For example, in British English we speak of Spanish practices where a workforce over-prioritise their own (often, short-term) interests at the expense of efficiency (often, by retaining concessions which are no longer appropriate). In other contexts, a method might be described as roundabout if it's not the most direct way of doing things, or brute force if it relies more on muscle/computer power than on a specific carefully-designed approach.

  • +1 good answer. I think "brute force" perfectly describes what the asker was going for.
    – Jeremy
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 2:09
  • @Jeremy: In the particular example he gave, yes, brute force is much better than donkey work. But soldiers spud-bashing, for example, are probably better described by offerings in my first paragraph, even though automated potato-peelers might be considered "more efficient" by some. Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 2:19
  • +1 "brute force" it is, "time intensive" is the other thing I can think of.
    – jimjim
    Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 2:22
  • @Arjang: "brute force" needn't imply "time intensive". Witness the popular "brute force" approach to tv repairs (i.e. - thump it hard), which is much quicker than any other method I know of. Of course, it doesn't always actually work... Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 13:27

The best way to describe the method in your example is inefficient. You might also describe it as slow.

"Donkey work" isn't a phrase I've heard before. The closest phrase I can think of is busy work, which is work done just for the sake of doing work, that has no value to anyone.

In programming, we can call a poor or inefficient solution a naive implementation to imply that the person who wrote it wasn't experienced or knowledgeable enough to do something more clever.

  • I think donkey work is much more common in UK than US English. It's not at all the same as busy work, which we normally call make-work in the UK at least. Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 2:09
  • I commonly hear drudge work. Commented Oct 8, 2011 at 6:15

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