Two Types of Work

All services require maintenance, but when you spend more time maintaining than growing, something is wrong.

— Scott Berkun, The Year Without Pants

There are two types of work: growth work and maintenance work.

Growth work involves making new things. It can be something big (Living in Information, a new workshop) or small (this blog post.) In either case, growth work often follows a loose process:

  1. Capture a (vague! fleeting!) idea, often emergent while walking
  2. Hash out the idea (as an outline, by doodling on the iPad, working with an editor, etc.)
  3. Research
  4. Revise outline
  5. Draft
  6. Revise draft
  7. Revise draft
  8. Revise draft
  9. Publish
  10. Revise publication
  11. Promote
  12. Etc.

With each step, my excitement decreases and trepidation increases. Step 1 is a rush. Step 5 is terrifying. By step 8, I’m ready to call it a day. This can be a problem — God is in the details, etc.

Growth work is fun, but also cognitively and emotionally taxing. I create in spurts, often shoving aside other things that need my attention, as though possessed. Afterwards, I’m drained.

Maintenance work is different. Maintenance work involves caring for the resources and instruments that make growth work possible. This includes tools, but also body and mind.

A trivial example: I have a large collection of tagged documents, bookmarks, and notes in DEVONthink. The quality of tags affects the dataset’s usefulness.

But the tags are a mess. I’ve tagged items bottom-up over years. (Some items are over a decade old.) As a result, my system has redundant tags (Information Architecture ≠ information architecture), compound tags (Information Architecture ≠ informationarchitecture), acronyms (IA), etc.

Every once in a while, I “prune” the collection — an important step towards surfacing related items in the future. It’s menial work, the sort of thing I can do while listening to a podcast.

But it’s not without charms. For one thing, the process resurfaces ideas that feed the growth track. For another, it’s something useful I can do while “disconnecting” — i.e., without intensely focusing my attention.

I find maintenance relaxing, so I’m often tempted to focus on it. But time is zero-sum: Time spent doing maintenance work is time away from growth work — and growth brings home the bacon.

Maintenance is ultimately in service to growth. But effective growth can’t happen without maintenance. As with so many things, the ideal is a healthy balance — and it doesn’t come without struggle.

These words are evidence of a small victory.