A mentor, Naomi, once told me “it’s more fun to write programs that help you write programs than it is to write programs”. While funny — and true, at least for me — I think what she was getting at is something a little more general: meta-work is a way of distracting ourselves from the real work. Or, more nefariously, meta-work is a way of feeling like we’re accomplishing something when we’re standing still (with respect to our goals).
This has been coming up for me recently around blogging and blogging software. I had a really good blogging habit for a while, and it served me well. Arguably I have my career because of it. Today when I read something interesting and want to comment, amplify, or rebut part of it, my thoughts still go to publishing. But I’ve lost the habit, the muscle, so instead I dither. I focus on how much I pay for WordPress hosting*. I
view-source and look for tell-tale signs of what tool another author is using. I familiarize myself with headless CMSes, flat files, and “IndieWeb” standards. What I do not do is write.
Almost inevitably two things happen. First, I run out of time: I have to get back to work, I have to make dinner, etc. And second, when I finally return to the open browser tabs — now 90% meta, 10% what I wanted to reflect on — I say to myself, “why the fuck not wordpress? it’s not like it’s done anything to you in the past; yeah, it’s not new, and it’s not written in a language you’re enamoured with today, but it’s not like you have time to hack on it anyway. And if you did, you could do a lot worse than plugging into an ecosystem that big. Suck it up.” And then I close the tabs because I’m annoyed with how much time I’ve plowed into not-writing.
Later me is right: writing my own blogging software is in no way a good use of my time right now; I am not not-writing because of the software; using
Jekyll Hugo Pelican Plume will not suddenly cause me to blog; making POSSE work is not a way to rebuild the blogging muscle; my theme is not my problem; post formats do not matter; Guttenberg didn’t reduce my likelihood to post; the list goes on.
Sometimes meta work is an interesting, high leverage way to approach things: there have been times I wrote a program that helped me write a program, and the result was doing something in a few days that we thought would take a few weeks†. The difference is, in those cases, I was already actively using the mental muscles I needed, I was already in “the habit”. When it comes to writing, making art, or sewing, the habit is really all that matters.
- *I pay because a few years ago I was trying to get myself out of a similar rut, this time around what VPS to use and how to secure it. That time I told myself, “it doesn’t fucking matter, just pay to have someone else deal with this, and find a managed service.” And I’ve resented them ever since, despite the great service they provide. Probably because I’m not using the service I pay for.
- †For example, the time I wrote a codemod using jscodeshift that added sane security defaults to Lob’s entire API codebase.