As I’ve gotten older, one thing I’ve started to realize is that there are many different kinds of burnout. I know this, because I’ve gone through several, and watched my friends, family, and colleagues go through an even wider variety of them.
For starters, there is the most physical kind of burnout. I’m talking about the kind where some combination of your commute, lack of time for activity, bad ergonomics, or even the physical nature of your job just starts to grind away at your well-being.
Then there’s the all-consuming work culture burnout — the kind where you have dreams about your inbox, or responding to comments in documents, or from personal experience, working inside the WordPress admin screen.
(I once had a full-screen, edge to edge dream about the WP admin where I spent some indeterminable amount of time updating user roles and content taxonomies. This is a true story.)
I also think you can burn out on certain things that tend to come with certain jobs. I’ve never had a sales job, but I’ve worked extensively with sales teams, and it doesn’t take some crazy amount of empathy to think of ways that work could burn you out in very specific ways. I’ve made a staggering amount of product videos in my life, and I actually did burnout on capturing screen footage at one point in, I dunno, maybe 2015. I’m not talking about throwing Loom on and just rolling with what happens — I mean getting great looking B-roll of unfinished products that covers exactly what you want, works perfectly, and fits exactly the aspect ratio you need. Eventually, I got over it.
These days, I’ve realized that I’ve burned out on a completely different thing at work, which I’ve found pretty inescapable and I’m legitimately concerned I can’t recover from.
I call it “work paste”.
What is work paste?
To me, work paste is the collective, usually digital output of a bunch of people smushing their time, knowledge, and opinions into something that looks and feels like our gut tells us work should look and feel. It could be a document, a deck, or a really long email. It could even (heaven forbid) include a meeting component. What makes it work paste is that it includes multiple perspectives and goals that are wildly out of alignment — sometimes they are contradictory, but just as often they are just not logically connected — that are then blended together and obfuscated into a single thing that does not resolve these differences, but packages them all up so it’s impossible to draw a single, obvious conclusion from the paste itself. In fact, many times, work paste will include multiple, directly contradictory conclusions within itself, and you’ll be told to ignore certain sections of the paste depending on who is showing it to you.
Here are some examples of things that are not inherently work paste, but often end up becoming work paste to everyone’s detriment.
- Press releases
- Website copy (especially on home pages)
- Brand/style guides
- Product strategy documents
- Company values / missions / vision statements
- Annual plans, goals and OKRs
- Sales decks
- Investor pitches
As I look at this list and think about what these things have in common, the first thing that comes to mind is “these things are all bullshit”, but that is unfair. None of these things HAVE to be bullshit, and I have personally seen, used, and even worked on non-bullshit versions of all of these things that were incredible valuable and useful. Even OKRs! But… I mean… most of them were bullshit in application, yes.
And that’s what is so interesting about the concept of work paste. It comes from a specific set of things that, together, all seem to cause the dreaded “this project is bullshit” feeling. But that means that if we can figure out the things that lead to work paste, we can figure out the things that lead to work feeling stupid and disengaging.
Why do we make it?
Just like no executive says “let’s have the most expensive meeting possible, and make sure we don’t make any concrete decisions in it”, no authority figure at work actually asks their team of literate, often talented professionals to generate work paste. Instead, this output happens because of things that are or aren’t part of the request. Here are some of my favorites.
Generic Allocation of Effort
While no one likes to be micromanaged, there’s something to be said about management asking for something concrete. Whenever you’re told to “put some time into….”, or “start a document”, it should set off some work paste red flags. Management involves resource allocation, but it’s not just resource allocation — you have to decide what problem you want people to solve, and actually tell them. That way, they can do it as directly and efficiently as possible, and be done with it. If you just say “your top priority this week is figuring out our partnership strategy”, you’re asking someone to generate the biggest pile of plausible-looking work output they can by the end of the week, and trust me, you’re not going to want to read it.
Here are some more phrases that may trigger you: “have ____ take a look at this”, “make sure you work with _____ on this”, “send it to ______ and get their thoughts”. Grinding your teeth yet? I know I am! Again, the vagueness of this direction is the problem. It doesn’t specify what you’re actually supposed to get out of the people being dragged into this process. It doesn’t make clear whether this input is just interesting color, or something more akin to an approval process. In many cases, the smartest person you ask will be smart enough to stay away from it, while the least informed and most desperate to affect things will riddle your work with hot takes, distractions, and even the dreaded word-smithing. When these interactions are useful, they’re only useful by the grace of everyone involved, and no one succumbing to the Peter Principle. In other words… most of the time, it’s not happening.
“We need a section on _____”. Do we, though? Because just having a section on a topic doesn’t actually do anything. If you want someone to answer a question, or propose a solution to something, just say it. “Having a section” on something without a requirement for what that section is supposed to accomplish is a clear invitation for work paste. Another favorite red flag observation is “we just need people to know we are thinking about X”. If we didn’t write about X, and X is a big justification for the proposal, mentioning it makes sense on the merits (not just because people want to see it). But if we didn’t write about X because it’s not really relevant to our proposal/solution/idea, there’s no need to jabber on about it. At worst, just include a “X is irrelevant to this because ______” and move on.
No One Cares About This Topic
This is a big one. If you have an American company, and your employees went through the same high school and university system I did, you can bank on the fact that they know how to feign expertise — and even passion! — about things they could not possibly care less about. With certain kinds of work (and in some cases entire careers) while people are highly motivated to look important and involved in a lot of things, the actual things they make aren’t important at all. I would absolutely, 100% prefer to get less/no credit for some company project than muck it up and make it worse but get a piece of the action. But I am a lunatic, and most people are much more pragmatic.
How do we not make it?
Work paste sucks, but unfortunately it’s going to be what most of us do all day because it’s a natural byproduct of some of the most fundamental aspects of 21st century professionalism — the internet, corporate capitalism, and the natural tendencies of people tasked with working together on something. It’s not going to go away on its own. It’s the foundation of some of the dumbest, most fraudulent parts of the modern meritocracy.
So… you gotta get to the roots. Real deep. But hey, I used to run a department, and I was able to hold off this kind of thing pretty well with a couple of basic policies.
Actually Read Things
Nothing reveals terrible, vapid ideas quite like actually reading them. I’m serious! Don’t skim. Sit there and read it. Even better, read it in front of the authors, and ask questions. Just remember, don’t contribute to the work paste problem by feeling the need to insert random opinions or ask questions just so you feel involved. Instead, read it like a person who doesn’t want to be involved in this project, and just needs value from it. If you do this enough times, and you’re in charge, your terrible reactions to work paste will start to generate different incentives for your team, and eventually different output.
Don’t Value Work Product for the Sake of Work Product
Management has a really self-destructive obsession with making sure people are doing a lot of things. I get it — this is entirely self-serving and comes from actual, individual managers justifying their own existence by adding up the work output of their subordinates. That’s great if your team is bailing hay, or welding doors to the side of Ford Fiestas, but it’s not so great if you’re making brand strategies or “alignment documents” or whatever.
A lot of information work is stupid, redundant, or both. It just is! Everywhere I’ve ever worked, we’ve faced the challenge of throwing documents and words and so, so, so many Google Docs comments at issues we wish we had more control over, or the confidence to make a clear decision on. But all we did was burn time and energy talking past each other.
Let Russ Cook, or Just Check Down
For those of you who aren’t (American) football fans, “Let Russ Cook” is a now very dated reference that referred to once-very-good, now-pretty-bad quarterback Russell Wilson. As a young, exciting player, fans begged for the team’s coaches to stop micromanaging him, simply give him the ball, and let him do crazy stuff, because more often than not it worked out.
If you have a Russell Wilson-type strategist, just let her/him cook, man. Get out of the way. You don’t need 15 people figuring out a product strategy. If you don’t have anybody like that who’s qualified to “cook” on the topic at hand, do the other football thing and “check down”. When you check down, you look at all the high reward downfield options, decide “nope, no good”, and make a simple, low-risk/reward through to the guy standing next to you.
In other words, don’t try to write the unifying theory of our reseller program if no single person you’re willing to empower has a clear vision for one. Ask for something much simpler, like “two things we can do to improve the reseller program in Q4”. I get why people want the big thing, but too often when teams just don’t have the discipline/willpower/idea juice to make it work, they spin their wheels on these incoherent, written-by-committee projects and end up with a tube of work paste.
Life is short, and we can’t all be working on colonizing Mars or building the iPhone. The least we can do is try to actually move the needle on whatever it is we’re stuck doing.