The Valuable Business of Maintenance Work

Let me guess: you’re feeling a bit stretched, fried, or tired?

You had high hopes after your last reset. You took time away from the pile of projects, tactics, and commitments—only to fall back into the same trap when you got back to work. Why does this happen again and again?

There are a few big reasons, and they have nothing to do with your willpower, discipline, or any other individual trait. The reasons are cultural—ingrained in us from the day we’re born.

Today, I want to dig into one of these cultural forces that cause us to overcommit and burn out:

As a culture, we overvalue creation and disruption, while we undervalue maintenance and care.

The countless hours devoted to raising children, caring for elderly parents, maintaining a home, and nurturing our own bodies are pushed to the margins. Unpaid. Under-appreciated. Unrecognized. Women and people from marginalized groups bear the burden–resulting in less financial stability and more negative mental health outcomes,

On the other hand, we turn the disrupters into heroes—even when the products they create undermine our communities. We lift these people up—often privileged white men—and celebrate them with magazine features and mythic status.

As more of us are herded into freelancing and self-employment, we carry this cultural pattern into how we set up our businesses. We’ve been led to believe that the next disruption or startling new idea will be the ticket to ultimate success. We’ll finally overcome whatever circumstances we find ourselves in and achieve our dreams!

But even when significant disruption is present at the genesis of a business, it’s never enough to make it sustainable. Disruption, after all, is the polar opposite of sustainability. The decisions that get made after the disruptive idea are the ones deciding whether a business continues or dies.

It’s easy to feel that you’re not really building your business if you’re not disrupting something

Rebranding. Developing a new product. Trying a new marketing channel. Hiring a new consultant.

Changing things up can seem like the highest use of your valuable time. It’s certainly exciting, and it gives you something to impress people with on social media. But… is it really helping? Is it really getting you closer to having a stronger, more sustainable, more effective business?

Individual disruptions can absolutely have a positive impact. Always chasing after the next disruption, though? Well, let’s just say it’s not helping (and is probably undermining your success).

Disruption is premised on creative amnesia, on a productive or at least profitable disregard for details.

Adrian Daub, What Tech Calls Thinking

That brings us back to maintenance work.

For many small business owners, the dream is to delegate all of the maintenance work.

They hire a virtual assistant for administrative tasks. They hire an ops manager for project management and system-building. They hire a customer support person to manage and maintain their customer relationships.

Delegating away the maintenance work means they have more time to devote to “more valuable” activities.

Now, I’m not going to argue that, at the surface level, some tasks have a greater economic value than others. The time I might spend coaching clients or building a new product does produce real financial benefits quickly. But that ignores the deep, long-term value that maintenance work creates.

After all, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to even do the financially beneficial tasks without the maintenance work.

The “traditional” 2-parent heterosexual family is a good parallel here: without mom taking care of cooking, cleaning, and caregiving, how could dad spend 50 hours a week at the office?

Why are we so quick to delegate this important work away?

To hear many small business owners (and I’ve been one of them) talk, maintenance work is beneath them. It’s for someone who gets paid less—or not at all. It’s for someone that’s less creative and forward-thinking. It’s for someone with a different set of (less valuable) skills and proclivities.

Maintenance work isn’t beneath us as business owners.

Maintenance work isn’t beneath us because maintenance work is the work.

Disruption and creation—while incredibly necessary—are really only a tiny fraction of the activity of running a strong business.

Sari Azout, a startup investor and product strategist, recently wrote about this in regards to online communities specifically—but her insights apply broadly:

All of this has me thinking about what happens when we focus so much on disruption, and not enough on preservation, on building products and services that can withstand and improve with the passage of time…

As it becomes easier to build new things and replace what breaks, it’s worth thinking about the cost of chasing the new while neglecting the work of preservation. Our idolatry of startups and innovation has meant the focus for the past decade has been: what do we want to disrupt? The limitations of this focus have become apparent: creating online spaces without moderation, luring customers into half-baked solutions in critical industries like healthcare, systems designed for growth but not able to sustain uncertainty. How might the outcomes change if we asked a different question: What do we want to preserve?

What do you want to preserve? To maintain? To care for?

I’m revisiting a lot of the work I’ve created over the last few years, and I’m noticing that giving it a little care and a little maintenance could be hugely valuable.

I could turn an old ebook into a new program or guide. I could repurpose old writing in new visual assets. I could remix old interviews into new podcast episodes. I hadn’t done these things before because I quickly moved on to creating the next product or article or interview. I kept disrupting instead of caring for the work I’d done. I’d proudly declare, “That’s who I am! That’s just how I work!”

Right now, I’m putting the finishing touches on my book—which is itself a process of care. There was a flurry of production back in the first stage of the project. I wrote about 60,000 words in 6 weeks. But since then, I’ve been caring for the ideas and stories. I want to make sure this baby can live on its own someday very soon. There was a time–not so long ago–when that kind of work would have bored me to tears. But today, I see the incredible value in it, the purpose behind it. And that makes it a rewarding and, dare I say, enjoyable project rather than a slog.

Over the years, I’ve heard many justifications for missing deadlines, making spontaneous decisions, or failing to plan. These justifications often center on an identity as a creative, someone who doesn’t care for structure, or a person who has to work on multiple projects at one time. I get it. I do it too. But more and more often, I can see these justifications for what they most often are: coping mechanisms. We’ve internalized cultural values that make it nearly impossible to say no, to rest, to prioritize care over trying to get something new off the ground.

That’s not to say that there aren’t genuine reasons for missing a deadline! Yet often, even those reasons take root in an unexamined lack of respect for care work.

I know that I am drawn to creation and disruption as a way to prove myself to others.

It’s a way of signaling that I’m good enough and a valuable member of society. It’s a way of coping with broken systems and the financial value of different kinds of work.

Where does that drive to prove myself come from? Why does coping look like relentless disruption?

It all comes back to living and working in a system that values disruption over care. We can’t break these patterns—and reap the benefits of doing so—until we know where they come from.

I don’t have to see relentless disruption as an inherent part of my identity or my nature. I can honor what all of that creation and disruption has done for me (even when it was also harming me and others), and I can recognize the incredible value of maintenance and care.

I can personally start to push back against the cultural forces that deprioritize maintenance and care work.

If you want a true reset on the habits that cause you to feel stretched thin or burnt out, start by prioritizing maintenance work.

Find the value and satisfaction in making things better instead of making something new. Celebrate following through instead of moving on. Create a culture of maintenance & care in your own business.

And, please, pay the people who do maintenance for you (and with you) well.

Originally published: January 27, 2021

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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