High-leverage Housekeeping

20 May 2019, 600 Words

Work produces artifacts — documents, code, spreadsheets — and we often don’t consider it “work” unless it produces these.

These artifacts implicitly become an internal measure of work — the more artifacts you produce, the more work you’ve done. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day pressure to produce.

Even for the enlightened, the pressure is often real and external, too — projects to push forward, deadlines to meet, deliverables to, uhh, deliver. Things to do.

Everyone will acknowledge that “quantity of artifacts” — document word count, lines of code, number of spreadsheet charts — is an obviously bad metric to optimise for, but recognising this intellectually doesn’t make us immune to the production trap.

This is not a Terrible Thing — the artifacts we produce are, at the end of the day, the value that we create. But the biggest hinderance to value creation is creating artifacts ineffectively, or worse, creating the wrong artifacts altogether.

My solution is to carve out some time every week (Saturdays, in my case), to improve my ability to create artifacts — high-leverage housekeeping.

High-leverage housekeeping is the metaphorical tidying of the toolshed, the pruning of the hedges, the sharpening of the knives.

For me, this yesterday consisted of organising my Figma workspace where I do my design work. I split my project into different pages for Components, Frames, and an Archive for designs that didn’t make the cut. I renamed and grouped everything sensibly. I corrected design errors that I was keeping track of in my head but hadn’t gotten round to fixing.

The first-order effects of high-leverage housekeeping are to reduce the friction, both physical (well, digital) and cognitive, involved in producing work artifacts.

For the past 2 weeks, whenever I came to design something I was greeted with a cluttered, poorly organised workspace. This was a little unpleasant — my first feeling whenever I started designing was “ughh” — but the real problem was that it slowed me down during the work process. Tidying the workspace is high-leverage — it will let me produce work artifacts much faster — but among my day-to-day tasks, I could never quite justify spending time on it.

The second-order effects of high leverage housekeeping were more surprising to me, and more significant.

High-leverage housekeeping is cognitively close to driving a car — it’s not quite subconscious, but leaves plenty of mental resources free to just think.

Since we’re interacting with work artifacts during high-leverage housekeeping, our thinking taps into the themes of our work. Crucially, we’re not in the weeds of working, so we can take a step back and see things with clarity. This is the same phenomenon that gives us our best ideas in the shower, at the gym, or on a walk — we do our best thinking when we’re not trying to.

If none of this seems novel, it’s because it isn’t.

But I think giving this activity a name is useful in letting us correctly value it in our heads. Terms like “admin” or “housekeeping” are culturally trivialised, making us see them as insignificant at worst, or cost-centers at best.

“High leverage housekeeping” gives the activity the value it deserves, and I hope it makes me do more of it.

thanks for reading!

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