Oiling the machine – how much of what you do is that?

A colleague once complained to me that they could spend all of their time “on admin” and not doing any real work. I call this “oiling the machine”. If large corporations are big machines then to keep all their parts moving they need constant lubrication. This is not to be confused with productive work however. Oiling the parts just keeps the machine moving, it’s not creating new parts or moving the machine in different directions. As Hugh MacLeod says:

“What is is about large organizations that makes everything other than doing the work the focus of people’s lives?”

A lot of it is to do with being seen to “do the right thing”, with being liked, getting on and doing it because “that’s the way we do things around here”. To be clear, these are all things you need to devote some of your working week to doing but they are (hopefully) not the reason for your existence and most definitely not the creative acts that you were hired to do in the first place. Here are some tips for how to avoid spending all of your time oiling the machine:

  1. Block out a period of time in your diary every day for some “non-oiling activities (AKA creating your art). Choose a time which works best for you. Early in the morning, late at night it doesn’t matter when as long as when that time arrives you take it.
  2. During this period don’t just sit at your desk hoping inspiration will arrive but get up and do something different. Take the dog for a walk, cut the grass, go sit in a coffee shop and watch the world go by for a while. Whatever it is just make sure it is sufficiently different to where you spend most of your time.
  3. Wherever you go don’t forget to take something with you to record your thoughts and ideas. Remember that ideas come at you in many different forms so being able to record sound as well as images helps.
  4. Don’t censor your thoughts and ideas, just record them, filtering and refining can come later.
  5. Finally, don’t forget that creativity comes not just from within but also from connecting with others. Make sure that at least some of your “non-oiling” comes from talking with others, either directly or via the ever expanding array of social networking tools we have at our disposal.

As a final thought refer to the post by David called Metaphors we live by and think how we might change our perception of organisations if we did not think of them as machines but something a bit more approachable and human such as a tree or another living organism. Maybe, rather than oiling, we would call it nurturing and see that as a a more positive approach to how we inevitably spend a large part of our days when working for large organisations.

However you view this, remember we only get a certain number of brain cycles to spend each day. Make sure you spend as many of them as possible on your art and not on oiling the machine.

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3 Comments on “Oiling the machine – how much of what you do is that?”

  1. […] he had a sudden surge of creativity in the very thing he was thinking of giving up. As discussed here sometimes we get too bogged down in the daily humdrum of existence to give our inner creative […]

  2. […] get bogged down in day to day trivia, thinking we are doing work when actually all we are doing is oiling the machine. Seth Godin goes as far as saying we should all be obliged to carve out some time in our days for […]

  3. […] with what is new and what is current. The danger we all face is that we can spend too much time oiling the machine rather than using the finite number of brain cycles we have each day making a difference and making […]


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