Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

On Meta-Work

A woman, working at a computer and looking fatigued

Meta-work is a term that I first heard in this video by journalist Steven Poole. If you haven’t watched it, I recommend that you do. And that’s not because Poole reiterates a lot of what I’ve been writing in this space over the years …

Meta-work is those tasks that many of us seem to do on top of everything else that we do. That could be anything from trying to learn something new to clearing out your inbox to finding and trying to implement the latest life or work hack. And just about everything in between.

Those tasks can be little ones, or they can require us to put in a lot of time and a lot of effort. We’ve all done it. I know I have!

But is all that meta-work beneficial? Is it worth doing? Before answering those questions, I think we have to understand why people undertake meta-work.

I can think of three reasons:

  1. They’ve swallowed the idle hands myth, gives them a skewed view of productivity. That view? Being productive is about always doing something.
  2. They’ve procrastinated and have left some tasks lie a bit too long. Now, they have to scramble to finish that work in addition to the other tasks on their plates.
  3. Some guru or expert says that they need to do something more in order to have a better or more fulfilling career or life.

The second reason is easy to fix: fight the urge to procrastinate. Schedule time for those tasks. If it’s a large task, break it down into manageable chunks and set aside time each day to tackle individual chunks.

The first and third reasons are hard to rein in. You need to look at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Are you doing worthwhile work, or are you just filling in so-called dead time? Can you better use that time to relax and reflect and refresh?

One question you need to ask yourself is Will all this meta-work get me closer to my personal or career goals? If it isn’t, then chances are you’re doing the work simply for the sake of doing the work. In that case, you need to rethink why you’re doing that meta-work and reconsider what productivity means to you.

Meta-work can benefit you. It can benefit your career. It can also be a set of shackles that keep you chained to the treadmill of productivity. It’s a much a choice of doing more as it is one of how you want to live your life — either a balanced life or one in which it’s productivity for the sake of productivity.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.

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