A bit of a neologism, I wondered if I should use the hyphenated “meta-work” instead. To explain: metawork is simply work about work. That is: rather than making widgets, metawork consists of conversations about making widgets.
Meetings are the quintessential form of group metawork. And the popular disdain for meetings among white collar workers is mostly due to the worst qualities of metawork. Metawork, because it is not the work that you really are tasked with, can just amount to a massive and frustrating distraction. A time-suck that produces nothing but lets people feel like they’re really being productive and getting things done. After all, a worker’s calendar wouldn’t have been jam-packed for weeks if he weren’t a vital person in the company.
Before we bash it too hard, a few words in defense of meetings and metawork. Meeting are great for a number of reasons: they allow everyone to be simultaneously available to each other. This means that decisions that would have to be had in a series of small and repetitive conversations can happen quickly. This also means that the gaps in different people’s understandings of their goals and tasks can be seen and resolved much more smoothly. Meeting are great for strategic thinking and aligning of a group in a single direction. This is necessary are valuable metawork.
But meetings don’t typically move a group very far in a given direction. That’s what the real work is for. And that is the essential tension of metawork. On the one hand, it has a lot of vital functions. On the other, it’s probably not actually doing anything that’s specifically impacting the organization’s real goals. And this tension is inherent, impossible to rectify.
An organization that does no metawork loses its way, continuing to do what it’s always done because it never bothers to find any new insights. An organization that does too much metawork doesn’t accomplish its core mission because it never really does any work. It’s so diverted by discussion of how much its mission matters and how clearly it has explored the details that it forgets that it has to work to get there.
So far I’ve only talked about metawork at the organizational level, because that’s where it’s obvious. But it’s just as relevant, if not more so, in your personal life. You need to do some metawork — organization, perspective-taking (what am I doing with my life?), etc — but you can easily convince yourself that it is more necessary and valuable than it is, and excuse yourself from having to do the real things you need to to have an impact on the world.
Especially in my early twenties, I asked incessantly what my goals and purpose in life were. And I rarely if ever got useful or satisfactory answers. And during that time I did shockingly small amounts of productive work that would let me accomplish any purpose in life. I was doing too much metawork.
This is what I now see. Metawork is, in too many cases, a fun, easy, and deceptively-close-in-appearance-to-productivity activity. A certain class of people enjoys the relaxing qualities of meetings and so have far too many of them.
Metawork’s a useful and necessary tool. But it must be kept in check and seen for what it is. Because you can never get rid of it, you just need to come to it with insight. Know when you’re doing the work, know when you’re doing metawork. Reflect on the balance. And when it seems that the split is off the mark, correct it. That’s the best you can really do.