Maintenance Work and Creative Work

I recently came a realization that helped me to think about work in a very useful way. Some work is “maintenance work” (I originally thought “hygiene,” but “maintenance” sounds better) and some is “creative.”

When I’m thinking about work, I think about maintenance as:

  • Things that have to be done that don’t seem to add value to users (administrative documentation for leave, conferences, following up on previously discussed issues, etc)
  • Things that take a lot of time and don’t seem to contribute something new to what we’re doing (replying to email, going through inboxes, etc)
  • The things that just have to be done to keep the boat moving.

When I’m thinking about creative work I think of it as:

  • Increasing value for our users (new services, planning new events, building new relationships on campus, etc)
  • Moving the organization forward (participation in some types of meetings, strategic planning, etc)
  • Things that are not routine, and require us to think about what we’re trying to do.

I derive a lot of satisfaction from creative work, and much less from maintenance. I see that trend a lot in online discussions, though in face-to-face conversations I’ve talked to a lot of people who genuinely enjoy maintenance.

I’ve long wrestled with the idea that email takes so much time and doesn’t feel like real work. For a long time I tried to justify the time by reframing email as a *place where works gets done. Some work is done in meeting rooms, some in my office, some in the gmail client. After all, a lot of work that used to take place in meetings (ALA work, some internal, etc) happens in email.

But that didn’t ease the sense that I was losing a lot of time in it. Then, the other day, I was struck that everything I was doing in that big, open, unscheduled day, was maintenance. For me it’s not the most exciting work in the world, but on that particular day I had been so involved in the creative side of things (meetings, looking up what others are doing, thinking about things I could do here) that I had fallen behind in maintenance.

So now I’m thinking a bit more about how to fit maintenance and creative work into the same day. That way when I do get the rare unscheduled half day or day, I can use it, or at least some of it, on creative work. And I still will chip away at things while being creative each day as it goes along. That would be far more motivational.

In this context, I’ve been thinking about the 80/20 rule, and how that fits in with this. Should 80 percent of the day be creative? That’s the more valuable work for me to do. Though, at times, it feels like maintenance takes 80 percent…

How do you frame your work? Or make sure that you are able to carve out time for the work that gives you the most meaning?

My name is Lauren Pressley. This is where I think out loud, document what I'm doing, and share the things that I like. I'm the Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech University Libraries and author of a few books. This blog focuses on libraries, education, information, & the internet. When not at work or blogging, I spend most of my time with John and our son, Leif.

2 thoughts on “Maintenance Work and Creative Work

  1. I like the distinction you’ve drawn between maintenance and creative work. While I derive greater satisfaction from the creative work of planning instruction, doing a literature review, or preparing for a poster presentation, I also find this kind of work tremendously draining. If I had to spend 80% of my time doing high-level stuff, my brain would never be able to process the other 20%. (Not to mention: unlike many people, I don’t mind, and often even enjoy, maintenance activities.) In an ideal world, I would spend about 40% on creative work and another 50% on maintenance. The last 10% would be unstructured time where my brain could recuperate from thinking too hard and juggling too many details!

  2. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the comment. I like your thinking about percent times. And I hadn’t even thought of the need for unstructured time, but you are absolutely right!

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