Oct, 21 2020
3 Minutes

Imagine you’re going grocery shopping.

You haven’t eaten all day and so when you see the mini cherry strudels at the bakery, you place them in your cart. When you stop by the snack aisle you load up on kettle chips and double stuffed Oreos. By the time you get to the checkout, your cart is loaded with ready to eat, canned, preserved, packaged foods.

It’s never a good idea to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry.

But the mistake here isn’t the fact that you were shopping under the influence of hunger. It’s that you didn’t come with a list - you didn’t do the work before the work. The metawork.

Metawork is generally used in a negative light to refer to useless meetings and mission statement workshops. But despite office workers' disdain for corporate busywork, there is a strong relationship between metawork and the successful execution of the work that follows.


Why do we need metawork?

It’s my experience that Stephen Covey was right when he said:

[A]ll things are created twice. There’s a mental or first creation, and a physical or second creation, to all things.

Which sounds nice and all, but it’s the consequence of not doing this “mental” creation that puts it in perspective:

We are either the second creation of our own proactive design, or we are the second creation of other people’s agendas, of circumstances, or of past habits.

So consider again the case of grocery shopping. Without a list, we are subject to the arrangement of the store and the placement of items on the shelves. We are subject to our cravings at the time of shopping. We are reliant on our memory to restock our supplies of eggs or milk or bread. On different days, we will get different results.

And all too frequently, the result requires a repeat trip to the store. Do they accept returns for opened boxes of cherry strudel?

Metawork Prevents Stagnation

If you go to the gym without a workout plan, you might really break a sweat. Use a machine here, lift some weights there, maybe toss in some kettle bell swings and a few bar bell workouts. But after 3 months of doing this, there's a good chance you'll hit stagnation.

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." Your first workout plan might get an overhaul after just the first session, but it's the commitment to a certain fitness goal which allows each workout to build on the previous one.

Imagination is Cheap

Metawork allows you to imagine different paths before you actually walk down them. It allows you to eliminate possibilities that sound interesting before you have to pay the dear cost of execution. Metawork is a cheap way of avoiding bad outcomes.

How to do metawork

Once you understand the importance of metawork, your philsophy towards work begins to change. You start hunting for ways to derisk projects and make the task at hand much more approachable.

For writing, this is what I do for metawork:

  • Start with a good question (or questions) about the topic you want to explore
  • Turn on a tape recorder and talk to yourself
  • Turn off you computer monitor and just write (Optional: a shot of your beverage of choice)
  • Create an outline

For coding, I've found the following helpful:

  • Generate a list of questions about your unknowns
  • Search through documentation to find answers to those questions
  • Rapid prototyping to prove or disprove unknowns

In both cases, metawork needs direction and the best way to start is with questions. As you answer your questions (via research or doing), you will find those answers simply lead to more questions. And more questions. Until suddenly, you hit a point where rubber meets the road. You have no more questions.

That is clarity. Now you're off to the races.

An Example of Metawork

Today I found myself the beneficiary of metawork done well. In the morning, I spent 5 minutes thinking about a task I had been dreading and avoiding. I asked myself, “what information do I need to gather such that I can turn unknowns into knowns?”

After prototyping a little and gathering more information, it became crystal clear what needed to be done. I estimated that cumulatively, I’d need about 2.5 hours. Once I was done, I found it took 2 hours and 36 minutes. Not bad.