Mastering Manual and Mundane Work

Is manual work worth doing? Skip it or face head on?

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Around 5 minutes to read

Yesterday, I manually created and exported 28 certificates of completion for the latest cohort of people that have completed courses from Design System University. According to my time tracking software, this took me 2 hours and 56 minutes to do.

I could have found some way to automate this. All the ingredients are there: the certificates are heavily templated and very little changes from one to the other except the content... a perfect candidate for some automation. There’s probably some plugin or bot or software that can generate all of these certificates in seconds, given the proper configuration.

Was it a waste of time to do manually?

I say no. Here’s why.

First, consider this sarcastic quote from Google engineer Zhuowei Zhang:

Never spend 6 minutes doing something by hand when you can spend 6 hours failing to automate it

Often times, it’ll take longer to figure out the automation than to just finish it manually.

But even if I could automate it just as fast or faster than doing it manually, I still think the manual work is worthwhile. Maybe not all of the time, but certainly not none of the time.

Entrepreneur JK Molina said it well:

Sometimes improving... is as simple as being willing to do what others are not.

The founder of Grubhub walked all over San Francisco to collect menus to then manually input the menu items into the system. There was no API of menu items they could simply utilize. If there was, anyone could have built that business. It was solely because the data wasn’t easily available that only the people willing to manually collect and input it could start that business. The willingness and ability to do the hard work that other won’t is a major competitive advantage.

In his talk "Do Things the Long, Hard, Stupid Way," designer Frank Chimero talks about working this way as a gift to those who are the recipients of the end result of this kind of work. I’m a sucker for multiple course tasting menus. The only way to eat anywhere from 4- to 22-course meals is for each course be fairly small, often about one bite. Despite their size, sometimes these courses take hours of preparation to make and assemble with meticulous instruments of precision like tweezers and particular sauces... and only moments to eat. But it’s this long, hard, stupid way that makes me enjoy this kind of meal more than most. Truly, it is a gift to my palate.

But it’s more than just a gift to those who experience the results of this way of working. It’s a gift to those who work this way too.

When I’m training new designers, I try to give them some manual work as early as I think they can handle it. This can be something like creating a spreadsheet of 100 companies they want to apply to or sketching 100 different logos for a fictitious product. Their first instinct is usually to try and automate it. Automation is great when it helps you to work smarter, but my hypothesis is that they try to automate it because they’re trying to get out of doing it, because they’re scared of it. They’re scared that they’ll be bored or that they’re above this kind of work or that design is supposed to be doing more glamorous things that this.

In my experience, there are 2 ways to face work that you’re scared of:

  1. Find a way to avoid doing it.
  2. Do it so much that it’s no longer scary.

The first way precludes a skill. The second way procures one.

The first way requires smarts. The second way requires bravery.

I’ll take bravery over smarts any day.

For new designers, I want them to experience "flow" as early as they can in their career. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term to mean "the feeling when things are going well as an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness." In his book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, he outlines the elements that describe flow:

  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Actions and awareness are merged.
  5. Dimensions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes autotelic.

For new designers, #3, #6, and #7 work together to beat you down. New designers are often in a state where they’re still fighting their tools. It’s hard to design logos in Illustrator because the pen tool is weird and Bézier curves are a mind-bender. You can’t get into an effortless state of flow because new skills require conscious effort.

Manual, mundane work normalizes all of that. The fact that you could "do it with your eyes closed" is a feature, not a bug. It’s a quick way to achieve flow. As your skills grow, the challenges can grow too, allowing you to achieve flow on more difficult tasks. But no one starts this way. If you don’t have the practice to do simple, hard work when you first start, you won’t have the muscles developed to more complex, hard work when you’re more senior.

When it comes to doing mundane work, a lot of people think their job is to find or create a solution. They don’t realize that the real job is to be the solution.

Lastly—and somewhat ironically—doing manual work is often an antidote to burnout. In her book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily Nagoski defines burnout by three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion: the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long
  2. Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion
  3. Decreased sense of accomplishment: an unconquerable sense of futility or feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

Manual, mundane work addresses points 1 and 3 head on. Manual work isn’t very emotionally exhausting because you probably care too little about it, not too much. And because manual work is usually pretty easy to do, you can often accomplish it in less time than you might think.

Which brings us to point number 2: one of the biggest reasons people burn out is that they don’t care about what they’re doing, often because they’ve lost touch with the people they’re actually doing it for.

The only reason to do manual, mundane work—to do something the long, hard, stupid way—is because you care. That’s the difference between the best designers and everyone else. Or the best chefs. Best athletes. Best plumbers. Best anything. They care more about the people experiencing what they do that they’re willing to do a little more than everyone else.

When you care more, everyone wins.

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