How Much Grunt Work Do You Have?

I’ve been traveling a ton in the past couple of months. That means I get to meet all kinds of people—professionals in my field, hospitality people in hotels, taxi drivers, you name them. People often tell me how they feel about their work. Some of the professionals hate their work. So do some of the cleaners and taxi drivers. But many of the people I meet love most of their work, much of the time. I wondered why.

I love most of my work. I have to change email providers (again!), but that’s a set of specific tasks I don’t like. I worry I’ll screw it up. I worry that this provider isn’t good enough, that the money I spend won’t be worth it. I worry I’m not making it easy enough on myself. You name it, I’ll worry about it.

However, I like sending my monthly emails. I like the results when people email me back. So, while I’m not enamored of the infrastructure work, I don’t have to do too much of it to get the results I want.

I love much of the rest of my work: teaching, writing, speaking. I might not love the actual travel to get someplace (infrastructure or grunt work), but I love working with the people or touring when I get there.

I love the work. I don’t love the setup to do the work. (That’s why cleaning my office is such a pain. There’s no payoff or not much of a payoff. I actually did clean up a little a couple of weeks ago. When I packed for this trip, I couldn’t find my chime for my workshops and was all set to buy another one. Luckily, I opened the drawer “it couldn’t possibly be in” and I found it. Sigh.)

I have met some developers who don’t like programming. I’ve met testers who don’t like testing. I’ve met plenty of managers who don’t like what they think management is. (I wouldn’t like it either if I had to do it the way they are.) When I ask what they don’t like, it’s often what they refer to as “grunt” work.

Grunt work is work that appears to have little or no value to the deliverables. It’s setup, or infrastructure, or something that doesn’t appear to add any—or enough—value. That’s value to the person doing the work or the person receiving the work.

I wonder if the people who don’t like their work perceive that all their work is grunt work.

Sometimes, it is.

Here are some causes of people feeling that their work is all grunt work:

  • They don’t get to see the results of their work. Everything is in service of “getting there.” They rarely see the finished product.
  • The work exists in a formal hierarchy. They can’t do innovative work because other people get to do that work. They get handed tasks, not outcomes.
  • The people are so busy with everything, nothing feels satisfying. They multitask constantly, never feeling as if they finish anything useful.

You might have other reasons for feeling as if you have only grunt work.

If you feel as if you only do grunt work, it’s time to change something. I’ll address how you find more satisfaction in work in a future post.

In the meantime, that is the question this week: How much grunt work do you have?

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