Unreal Work

Even the boring parts are still parts

March 20, 2022

For every person, in every occupation, there is work that feels central and work that feels peripheral.

When a painter is painting – looking, picking colors, applying them to a canvas – that feels like painting. When they are stretching the canvas, or building the stretchers, or prepping the ground, or cleaning brushes, or talking to galleries, or booking a model, or researching pricing, those things are necessary, but they can feel like they are somehow in the way of the real work of painting.

When a software developer is writing code that adds new features, that feels like software development. When they are writing documentation, doing code review, fixing small bugs, reading the codebase, talking to designers or users or stakeholders, that can feel like obstacles in the way of the real work making software.

Fight that feeling. If you do a sloppy job of those apparently ancillary tasks, you will get a sloppy result.

If you consider people who work exclusively on the “central” work to be more valuable than those who spend time and energy on the “accessory” work, your team will suffer.

If you convince yourself that half your job is an inconvenient time-suck, you will be unhappy doing it.

One way I’ve seen people deal with this challenge is by saying, “They pay me the same for the exciting work and the boring work.” For several reasons, I don’t think that’s a particularly effective way to think about the problem for several reasons. First, the feeling of “unreal work” crops up just as much in hobbies and side projects, where no one is paying you to do anything, as it does in wage labor; and second, because the best outcome is resigned acceptance – which doesn’t feel good. Is there any grinding stone that grinds you down faster than that? Obviously, paying the bills is important! If that is the best motivation available to you, take it, take the money, and live. But if you find meaning in what you think of as the “important” part of your job and not in “the rest”, take some time to consider how the latter supports the former. To whatever extent you can see the work as valuable, your day, and your work, will improve.

The work is the work. Take joy, pride, and care in the preparatory steps, and in the cleanup; in the planning and the assessment, and both you and what you produce will thrive.