One of the most important distinctions we need to make in order to lead productive lives is between work and meta-work. Sadly, productivity enthusiasts fall into the trap of mixing the two, thinking that they are being productive and getting things done, when all they’re doing is getting meta-work done, which isn’t real work.
I know, because I’ve fallen into this trap so many times that it’s now my second home!
Meta-work is any work you do that’s not an end unto itself, but a means to get the real work done. The clearest example is a to-do list. You don’t write a to-do list for the sake of writing a to-do list. You write a to-do list so you can get the items on the list done. If you spend all your time preparing your to-do list, re-shuffling the items on the list, re-writing the list so it can look prettier, looking for softwares that can be used to write to-do lists, and anything along those lines, then you aren’t really getting work done. You are simply wasting your time with meta-work.
Don’t get me wrong. Meta-work isn’t a waste of time. It’s essential for managing the work you need to get done. But it only exists for the sake of the real work. Being productive isn’t about having a sophisticated system of meta-work. It’s about getting the real work done. You only need meta-work to the extent that it makes you better manage your work.
And since we manage different kinds of activities, we need different meta-work tools to better manage our work. For example, a to-do list is different than a calendar, because a calendar records time/date-bound events, whereas a to-do list is time-independent. A to-do list can be split by location (e.g. at home, at work, etc) to better suit the reality in which the activities will be carried out. Having a single to-do list with everything we need to get done might be confusing, especially when we can’t do most of the things where we are right now.
Meta-work that enables us to develop a supporting system for our work is essential for enhanced productivity, but it shouldn’t replace the actual work we need to get done.
4 Tips for Effective Meta-Work
Follow these simple tips in order to establish healthy meta-work habits to boost your productivity!
1- The Meta-work to Work ratio: For the time you assign to work, you need to reduce the amount of meta-work that you do as much as possible, and increase the amount of time you spend working as much as possible. Your aim is to focus on getting productive work done. Leverage your meta-work in order to achieve that. That’s the whole point of meta-work!
2- Allocate specific time for meta-work: When you mingle meta-work with actual work, it can be difficult to tell how much time you are spending on meta-work, and how much work you are really getting done. Besides, you don’t want to overlook meta-work. Otherwise you might lack a supporting structure for the work you do. Therefore, allocate some time where you focus solely on meta-work. You shouldn’t feel guilty about this time, because it will be used to enhance your productivity when you get to doing your work. But you don’t want to leave this time open-ended (it might get in the way of your work).
Make sure you select the most appropriate time, according to your work schedule. This could be in the early morning, the night before, or several mini-sessions throughout the day. Choose whatever works for you.
3- Allocate time for learning about meta-work: Another trap productivity enthusiasts fall into is learning about the many, many different forms of meta-work. They search for tips, tricks and tools that can enhance their productivity, but overlook the work they need to get done, or how they will use what they learn in their own meta-work. There is a difference between having your own to-do list, and reading up on how a to-do list is to be written. Learning more about meta-work is important. It can expose you to new ideas and point out bottlenecks in your own productivity approach. But this should neither replace your meta-work or your work. Therefore, allocate specific times for learning, and adjust your meta-work in order to incorporate what you learn.
4- Have specific benefits in mind: Why do you have a to-do list? Why do you use a calendar? Why do you want to organize your desk? You need to know the specific benefits and use you have for everything in your meta-work system, so you can get rid of the actions that have no purpose, and so you can know whether you are achieving your goal or not. For example, whenever I used to clear up my desk, I usually leave it completely empty, and store away all papers in my drawers. The desk becomes very tidy, but I lose my creativity. I have nothing on the desk to trigger my thoughts and to remind me of what I need to get done. The problem was that I didn’t specify the actual purpose I had in having my desk tidy. I wanted to keep my desk tidy so that I can know where everything is and to be able to focus on a single task, without getting distracted.
Having this purpose in mind – and the benefits I was seeking – would have changed my approach to “tidiness.” Instead of hiding everything out of sight, I would organize my papers for easier referencing, and leave a single project on the desk (for me to work on), and a to-do list of things I need to get done (to remind me of the projects I need to work on once I am done with the project I am currently working on).
By maintaining the distinction between work and meta-work, and having a sensible strategy for the use of meta-work, you will be able to enhance your productivity, without getting distracted!