Initiative is real work

I’ve blogged a lot lately about decision-making, why it’s hard and necessary and scary and valuable. Just a few more thoughts before I give the topic a rest for a while.

I used to think that “real work” or “hard work” meant putting your back into something, ploughing on with something and getting a lot done. And that is true of one type of work. But I’m starting to realise that there’s a type of hard work that gives you a different feeling. Decision-making, emotional labour, taking initiative: here, hard work is often signified by an uncomfortable feeling.

I’m not talking about the difference between blue-collar and white-collar work. I’m talking about a more radical difference. Some of my voluntary work involves doing a defined, measurable task, often in the fresh air: gardening, painting, leafleting. Mostly, it feels really enjoyable. I feel satisfied afterwards, as if I’ve achieved something. Other voluntary work involves engaging with people, talking to them, persuading them, coming up with ideas, making decisions. That tends to make me feel drained and unhappy if I do too much of it. I thought that was a sign it wasn’t “real” work. Now I think it’s a sign that it is real work.

Decision-making is uncomfortable. It’s work. It’s work that not everybody wants to do. That’s partly why most really high-paid jobs have decision-making at their core.

And what’s harder work than making a decision? Creating a decision. Rather than deciding between option A and option B, you define what the options are. You invent plans, come up with ideas, get an open-ended situation into a place where choices can be made. It’s work. And it’s exhausting. That’s why most people like to avoid it.

When I realised that, I felt as if I’d been given a clue that not everybody has. (It’s a clue I really want to share, hence this post.) The clue is: when you feel uncomfortable or despairing or awkward or prematurely worn out by what you’re facing, it’s OK. It’s OK to feel scared or tired at the sight of a blank page or an empty calendar. That’s how you’re supposed to feel, because it’s a sign you’re doing the right work.

My instinct when dealing with blankness or open-endedness is often to run away, to seek out a comforting stream of “incoming”: check my email, check Twitter, check the post, whatever. It’s easier to play a game where the moves are obvious and it’s usually somebody else’s turn. But if you can stay with the uncomfortableness for a while and just make your peace with it, then do something with it… that’s how you level up.

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2 Comments on “Initiative is real work”


  1. […] determined to take the spontaneity out of festive occasions. But I figure that gift-buying involves initiative and decision-making, which means it drains your cognitive tank. And Christmas for many people […]


  2. […] on the big icky list, and working out how to start is work, because decision-making is work, and defining your options in the first place is work, and dealing with all this open-endedness is a drain on your cognitive resource and makes you feel […]


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