How to make tedious work FUN!!

Several times in my (~relatively short) professional career, people have warned me about “burning out.” They would tell me to avoid working too hard because it could lead to me “blowing up and not wanting to work any more.” These were normally people older than me telling me this. They told me that life was a marathon and that it was critical I found “work-life balance” so that I could make it the whole race.

I probably never articulated it well in the moment but I generally rolled my eyes at this type of advice. Both at the how it was delivered (generally in unsolicited, confident packaging) and the content (what they were telling me was not sticking!).

My inner monologue would say something like: “umm. Like I get what you are saying—I hear you for sure I hear you that I should AVOID WORKING HARD IN THE SHORT TERM BECAUSE IT COULD COMPROMISE THE LONG TERM—but I THINK I just flat out disagree with many of your core assumptions. What if I actually enjoy working? What if that is what I want to be doing? What if work is super fun? How the heck am I supposed to achieve [x amazing thing] without working hard? Can you give me examples where this was the case in history? I do not quite understand.”

So that was my thought process. For a long time. I had no empathy for the “burn outs.” The ones who threw in the towel because the “going got tough.”

But fast forward a few years.

I burnt out.

Yes, me. The burnout non-believer.

Who is the one laughing?

I am not the one laughing that is for sure (well, maybe a little I am laughing at myself, but not that much) because BURN OUT SUCKED.

By burn out—I mean, well, if my body took on the form factor of a car engine of sorts, the answer would be that I basically exploded. Mentally. Even physically (mind-body connection type ish). I lost it. My whole body shut down and I was unable to work. That is not ~really the point of this essay—there’s a whole lot more to this story with fun (and not so fun) details—but the real reflection I am doing now is less about the burning out (i.e. what happens when you reach the so called point of burn out) and more about WHY AND HOW you can get to that stage.

Because, if I were to reflect on _how_ I got there, I would NOT say that I burnt out because I worked “too much.”

THIS is probably where the advice was coming from. People would experience burn out (bad bad bad thing!) and then draw a linkage between them working too hard and burning out. And then, because, well, why not, they would give advice to me about not burning out! And the cycle repeats. The cycle repeats.

My gut—which I am listening to more often nowadays—tells me that would be the wrong conclusion to be making. Feels wrong. Does not pass the sniff test.

Why would working hard lead to burn out?

This prompt does not quite sit right with me. Does not feel causal. Instead, feels maybe related but certainly not a law of physics. Not a constant.

There are many debates around hard work and smart work and which is more important. My answer is that it is possible to work smart and work hard. You do not need to choose. In fact, you have to do both to win. And by win, I mean really win. But that is a definition again for another time.

So where does burnout come from, then, if it is not just working hard?

My answer to that is that burnout comes from LACK OF POSITIVE FEEDBACK.

I think burnout comes when you stop winning. When you lose momentum. When you try and fail and try and fail and try and fail. And you lose hope. That is when you turn to burnout and your body shuts down as a defense mechanism that helps you escape the needless loop of burnout.

So if we accept the above premise—that we need positive feedback loops somewhere in our lives, how can we build more of them?

More specifically, how can we turn the typically tedious and boring into something that gives us energy and flow?

That would be pretty amazing and powerful don’t you think. Because, after all, bidness is business and business is mainly execution and execution is mainly (not only but mainly) DOING TEDIOUS THINGS over and over and over.

Implementation, as they call it, is the product of RELIABLE execution. Reliable execution is harder than it sounds. Reliable means having a high say/do ratio, and whenever you have humans involved, especially a large group of humans with various incentives, that ratio tends to drop. It drops so much that you end up with a function—of organization building—that is NON-DETERMINISTIC. We try to troubleshoot things in so many ways to figure why that is. We run alignment meetings and strategy meetings and all this nonsense.

The reason organizations become unpredictable and are no longer equations is because HUMANS GET BORED AND FRUSTRATED AND BURN OUT by the tedious, though necessary things (and also by the unnecessary things).

So what if we did the following:

  • Cut out the unnecessary things
  • Kept in the necessary things but tied a more fun/positive feedback loop to them

That would make for a more DETERMINISTIC function, such that we could arrange the inputs appropriately and then run implementation like a predictable assembly line.

So how do we solve this? How do we ACTUALLY make the tedious more fun?

Well…let’s look at this screen. The thing I am looking at right now. Would you say it is more fun to type on a macbook pro than write things on a piece of paper? I would say yes. It feels closer to a bicycle for the mind—the feedback loop of getting my thought out requires WAY LESS FRICTION than the writing by hand.

Another thing is that I am writing this, right now, in an arc browser window that has no other tabs open or distractions. Distractions would make this work less fun and enjoyable. It is not particularly glamorous (maybe I should not even call it work). But being able to focus and tune into the activity at hand (with light jazz music playing in the background) makes it more pleasant.

Another thing I do is I set a timer. I remember growing up I would ask my little brother to do tedious things for me—like go get my socks, and I would tell him that I would time him to see how fast he could do it. It became a competition. That made the tedious fun.

What if we made an operating system that combined these elements?

  • Checklist feeling when completing things
  • No distractions
  • Built in timer
  • Remove friction of executing tasks as much as possible