Most of us believe that metawork is a necessary evil that should be minimized. Metawork is like metadata; work about work (planning, meetings, reporting, etc). Metawork may not directly create value in the way that work does, but we need to do some of it.
If you’re a musician, playing a gig, recording, and writing a song are all work. You’ve directly created value by creating something that didn’t exist before: a pleased listener, a recording, or a new song.
Practicing, on the other hand, is metawork. You won’t be successful if you don’t practice. But, although practice makes you a better musician, nothing new has been created. By practicing, you’re storing up potential energy that will be transformed into kinetic energy with a gig or a new recording or song. Metawork indirectly equips you to create value.
If you work in business you probably think you could be a lot more productive by minimizing metawork. That’s a theme that runs through any bitch session about too many meetings and status reports. It’s a theme that runs through a lot of the current “productivity porn” out there, and I’m sure some disciples of David Allen will tell me that I’m wrong.
But the enemy isn’t metawork. It’s workishness.
Think about the metawork of practicing scales and licks. Would you ever advise a musician “If you want to be successful, minimize your practice time?” Of course not. That metawork leads to achievement, just like a short and well-run meeting with clear decisions leads to success.
On the other hand, what about a musician who practices little, but plays Guitar Hero incessantly? Striking poses with a game controller won’t make you a better guitarist. Yet playing Guitar Hero feels rock-star good, just like calling everyone together for a “war room” planning session (with no real outcomes) feels CEO-level important.
Feel is important. It is the big clue to when you’re veering from metawork into workishness. If the activity feels obligatory or righteous, but doesn’t create potential or kinetic energy, it’s workish. Workishness is the business equivalent of posing with an unplugged electric guitar. Workishness is to work what karaoke is to being a singer….lifelessness imitating art. (Sorry, I hate karoake, most musicians do. You can sing karaoke if you’re Bill Murray, though).
Those activities aren’t work, because they don’t directly create value. They aren’t metawork, because they don’t indirectly equip you to create value. We do them because they feel good or feel required. Those activities are workish.
If you think you’re drowning in metawork, take a careful look. Almost certainly the metawork (planning, meetings, reporting) you do is dwarfed by a mountain of workish activities. Standing meetings that once mattered and are now habit…workish. Status reports that aren’t read…workish. For the guitarist, there’s a difference between intentional practice (metawork) and playing the intro of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over without ever learning the rest of the song (workishness of the worst kind).
Work creates value. Metawork sets you up to create value, so it’s not the enemy…it’s just a way to create potential energy that can be converted to kinetic energy through work. Workishness is what the productive Dude will not abide.
(BTW, I completely suck at Guitar Hero, which is probably what started this rant).
Originally published 3/19/2016 on Medium