The Relationship Between Work and Meta-Work

Meta-work is defined as the work you do about your work. We all do this to a certain extent. By organizing our work, we are able to complete more than before. All productivity systems are a form of meta-work, whether that is creating to-do list, arranging schedules, or organizing existing information. Some people swear their livelihood by their productivity frameworks.

I instead would like to talk about how actual work relates to this meta-work.

There are 3 distinct phases when it comes to work and meta-work: Underloaded, Loaded and Overloaded. Each of these phases describe a specific relationship between the nature of work and meta-work.


During the underloaded phase, additional work has no bearing on your meta-work. This occurs when you have limited task but numerous resources.

For example, during school holidays there’s no task at hand. If there was work to be done, there is no need to organize the work. Didn’t matter if you did it today, tomorrow or even next week as the outcome is the same. There was an abundance in resource and time, thus making organization pointless.

Thus, the diagram below demonstrates that each additional unit of work that is incurred, there is a no increase in meta-work.

The Underloaded Phase


In the Loaded phase, additional work creates a proportional relationship with meta-work. This occurs when you have a larger amount of task but limited resource.

There is meta-work being done to maximize completion whilst minimizing resource consumption. For every additional task you get, you include it into your to-do list. For every additional meeting, you schedule it into your calendar. So work and meta-work relates linearly.

Most of us (I hope) operate this way on a day-to-day basis. As work comes in, we manage our limited resource and time to ensure that the work is completed.

Thus, the diagram below demonstrates that each additional unit of work that is incurred, there is a proportional increase in meta-work.

The Loaded Phase


Finally, we have the overloaded phase. For every additional unit of work, the amount of meta-work increases exponentially. This occurs when you are overly burdened and have extremely limited or even insufficient resources.

You operate by the skin of our teeth, juggling our different plates, and switching roles on a constant basis. 

Thus, the diagram below demonstrates that each additional unit of work that is incurred, there is a proportional increase in meta-work

The Overloaded Phase

I would think all of us have encountered this “Exponential Phase”. For me, it was when I had multiple roles in different societies in my university years. During this period, my calendar was packed, and my to-do-list lacked coherency.

I observed that small changes had huge implications. For example, in my packed schedule, I only had a 10-minute buffer within each meeting. If the earlier meeting that day was delayed by 30 minutes. I had to rearrange all my other meetings to accommodate the relatively small change. This involved communicating with different parties, apologizing profusely, and internally processing the different moving parts all at once.

For every additional unit of work I received. The meta-work needed to be done was much more. Though bearable in the short run, the mental taxation was heavy.

The work we do

I realized that the meta-work had no impact on the work I produced. The same output of work is produced by both an Overloaded and Underloaded person. But a larger amount of effort was required by the overloaded person. Being overloaded was a form of mental mutilation with no applauding audience. It was an overestimation of my capabilities and underestimation of the effort that led me here.

Nonetheless, ever since that experience. My tolerance and threshold for work has increased. Furthermore, I’ve developed a keen sense of prioritization. I think a bit of overloading is good in the long term.

Perhaps as you read this, you will be able to identify which phase that you are in. Not necessarily one particular phase is superior to the other, but each of the phases possess unique properties. Something to reflect on might be this:

What phase do you need to be in right now for this season?

Viola! My first blog post. It took me 1 hour to write the first draft, but 4 hours of intense deletion and edits. If you’ve managed to read this far, I’m eternally indebted to your attention span. Hopefully, you’ll stick around!

5 thoughts on “The Relationship Between Work and Meta-Work

  1. James

    Very good insights 👍…end of the day.. work will never leave us..its a choice..each choice will have results and subsequent path to take

  2. Pingback: How to be more Productive: Being Efficient vs Effective - Joel's Blog

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