This week, my brother Taimur (who I host a weekly podcast with in case you haven’t heard) introduced me to the idea of high-leverage housekeeping. I like the idea, and I’m going to start using it more in my own life. Here’s how he introduces it.
Work produces artifacts — documents, code, spreadsheets — and we often don’t consider it “work” unless it produces these artifacts. These artifacts implicitly become a measure of work — the more artifacts you produce, the more work you’ve done. Because of this, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day pressure to produce artifacts.
This is not a Terrible Thing — the artifacts we produce are, at the end of the day, the value that we create in the world. But what slows down value creation the most, is creating artifacts ineffectively, or worse, creating the wrong artifacts altogether. Related: the “work smarter, not harder” meme.
Even the enlightened, free from the internal pressure to produce, have external responsibilities to do so. A solution that I’m trying is carving out some time every week (Saturdays, in my case), for high-leverage housekeeping.
High-leverage housekeeping is the metaphorical tidying of the toolshed, pruning of the hedges.
In my case, yesterday this consisted of organising my Figma workspace — splitting my project into different pages for Components, Frames, and an Archive for designs that didn’t make the cut.
The first-order effects of high-leverage housekeeping are reducing friction, both physical (err, digital) and cognitive, involved in producing work artifacts.
For the past 2 weeks, whenever I came to design something, my initial reaction was an “ughh” of having to stare at a cluttered workspace. This was a little unpleasant, but the real problem was that it definitely slowed me down when it came to doing design work. Tidying the workspace was high-leverage — it’ll let me produce work artifacts faster — but among my day-to-day responsibilities, I could never quite justify spending time on it.
The second-order effects of high leverage housekeeping were more surprising to me, and more significant.
High-leverage housekeeping is cognitively close to driving a car — not quite subconscious, but leaves plenty of mental resources free to just think.
Since you’re interacting with work artifacts, your thinking can tap into the themes of your work, but the lack of an immediate need to produce lets you take a step back and see things more clearly than when you’re in the weeds of work. This is the same phenomenon that gives us our best ideas in the shower, at the gym, or on a walk — when we’re doing anything but trying to think of these ideas.
If none of this seems novel, it’s because it isn’t. But I think giving this activity name — high leverage housekeeping — is useful, because it helps us correctly value it in our heads. Terms like “admin” or “housekeeping” are culturally trivialised, leading to undervaluing and thinking of them as cost-centers rather than profit centers.
High leverage housekeeping gives these activities the value they deserve.