The Centipede’s Dilemma

A centipede was happy – quite!

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”

This raised her doubts to such a pitch,

She fell exhausted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.

– Author Unknown
Photo Courtesy: Nicholas A. Tonelli

Have you ever felt like you keep tripping yourself up? Have you ever worked in a job where you never felt like you got “into a groove?” The reason may actually not have anything to do with your boss, your position or even your company. The reason just might have something to do with the Centipede’s Dilemma. In this classic poem, a toad asks the centipede how it keeps track of all of it’s legs and which foot should step next. As the centipede stops to think about which leg should come next, the process of putting conscious thought into his actions, actually becomes so overwhelming that she doubts her thinking and ends up tripping over her own feet and cannot start walking again.

The moral of this story can be interpreted the following way: If you are constantly putting your mind to routine tasks, you will become paralyzed by thought. It is this principal that keeps people from making a decision when faced with seemingly unlimited options.

So how exactly does this relate to my job?

Psychologist George Humphrey referred to the Centipede’s Dilemma in his 1923 book The Story of Man’s Mind: “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work,” he wrote. “If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled.”

How much of what you do at work would be considered routine? How much of it would be considered “out of the ordinary?” In a typical job that you have been performing for enough time to be completely comfortable and familiar, you may find that 50%, 60%, or even as much as 90% of what you do may become what you would consider routine. The kind of tasks that take little to no effort. The kind of challenges that you know how you will handle at the slightest sniff of their existence. You might even think of them as mundane, but don’t get confused, we are not necessarily referring to the boring or mundane, simply that which is routine. The tasks that you can “do in your sleep,” metaphorically speaking. Nor are we talking about your daily routine, or repetitive tasks. We are talking about the parts of your job that you have mastered to the point that they should take little to no effort.

The trouble comes when we are, for an extended period of time, forced to think about the routine and put some conscious thought into every single part of it. Why is that an issue? When you are forced to think about every detail of a routine task, you become unable to work in a fashion that is efficient; seemingly effortless. Finding ourselves in a position where nothing is routine, we will, quite often, become mentally fatigued, make mistakes, trip up and constantly stumble. The easiest analogy may be one from baseball. Baseball is full of statistics. One statistic that has been kept for over 100 years is called an “Error.”  Wikipedia defines an error in baseball as follows:

“An error is the act of…fielder misplaying a ball in a manner that allows a batter or baserunner to advance one or more bases, when such an advance would have been prevented given ordinary effort by the fielder.”

You will often hear baseball commentators say that a player made an error “on a routine play.” Or “committing an error.”

Why do these errors occur? Many times it is not for lack of thought or focus, but too much thought. Over thinking what you are doing. Concentrating on what you are going to do, rather than just doing what you have done thousands of times before. So much of what athletes do to be successful relies on muscle memory: Repeating a task so many times that you no longer have to think about it, your body just performs the task.

The same is true in other professions. Whether it is a carpenter swinging a hammer, a receptionist answering a phone, an air traffic controller calling in a plane, or an executive making a presentation, we must find ourselves able to perform the routine flawlessly and with as little thought as possible. It is basic human nature.

You may be finding yourself thinking, “Yes but, I have never found anything about what I do routine.” Let’s look at a few common reasons that people find them selves unable to perform the routine without tripping up:

 Your Supervisor

You may have a supervisor who has built a relationship with you whereby you second guess everything you do. This is neither healthy, nor productive. While we will not go into the details of how and why this occurs, it is often times one of the reasons that people find themselves “committing errors.” If your brain spends more time thinking about not failing than it does simply performing the functions it needs to accomplish the task at hand, chances are good that you will “commit an error.”

Your Brain

Let’s face it. Nearly every one of us has hang ups. Those things, that no matter what we learn, we still find ourselves tripped up by. Maybe it is a poor self image, a lack of confidence, or a “doomsday” attitude. Regardless of the reason, many of us find that we over think, over analyze, and give in to unproductive thinking. These kinds of issues will often come back to haunt us as they will cause us to “commit errors” simply by causing us to second guess our actions and never fully relax and “find our zone.”

Your Experience

How do you respond when you are performing a task for the first time? For many of us there is a degree of trepidation. No one likes to make mistakes, let alone outright fail. If you have not worked long enough in your industry, position, or department to become completely comfortable there on a day to day basis, you may find yourself unable to make the “routine plays” and thus a little more anxious on a day to day basis.

Your Experiences

Sadly not everything we have experienced in life is positive. For many of us, we come to work everyday with emotional “baggage.” For some the reason they are never able to fully execute the routine, is simply because they have too many left over, or unresolved issues, pain or negative experiences from their past. These kinds of issues should be explored with a trained professional as often we cannot find health on our own.


Regardless of why, you find yourself tripped up in the midst of the routine, the key is to stop focusing on the routine tasks start focusing on “muscle memory.” Muscle memory is developed by performing the routine correctly repeatedly, then simply trusting yourself to “make the play.”

How do you do this at work? While every situation is different, start by removing the internal roadblocks. Your experiences, your thinking and your experience are controllable by your own thought process.

If it is an external force that is causing you to “commit errors” know this: While we cannot always control how others act, we can always control how we react to them. You may be able to simply change your relationship with your supervisor by changing how you react/interact with them.

If it is your experience that is causing you to trip up, then just give it time. Keep working diligently. Identify those parts of your job that should be routine and focus on muscle memory for them. Find a mentor who has been doing your job for a while and lean on them for advice and encouragement.


Lastly, never, never, never let your doubts get the better of you. It will only leave you in a ditch.

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