Maintenance Thinking

Maintenance is action based on past decisions, primarily designed to prevent loss. It is patterns of behavior that by definition require no thinking and bring no new rewards. A double-negative definition. Examples of maintenance actions include:

  1. Brushing and flossing
  2. Keeping work areas clean
  3. Renewing licenses and permits
  4. Keeping certifications active
  5. Spending time in a relationship consistently
  6. Inspecting processes in a workplace
  7. Reviewing performance of investments
  8. Routinely purging filing cabinets or digital storage of things you no longer need

Maintenance must be distinguished from three similar patterns

  1. Consistent creativity behaviors (such as posting regularly on a blog, which I haven’t been very good about lately here)
  2. Testing behaviors (such as audits and probes into the state of operating systems).
  3. Periodic procedures (such as filing taxes, which may involve serious thinking and different actions year to year)

Creative people don’t like maintenance tasks because they are addicted to stimulation from variety. It’s a kind of immaturity.

One reason is that a lot of maintenance is the result of bad planning and decision-making further upstream. If a repeating human behavior pattern is anticipated in the future, it makes a lot of sense to try and make it self-motivating. The best way to do this is to build an element of continuous learning so that repeat instances are not identical, but exhibit subtle variations that the maintainer can learn to be mindful of, and use to improve the process continuously.

If this is not possible, the only two options available are to try and automate that action (codify it sufficiently that a less creative human or machine can do it) or turn it into an act of meditation.

If I could come up with an approach to improving maintenance behaviors, or making them easier to endure, I’d be rich.

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About Tempo


  1. “That which your hand finds to do, do with your whole heart.”

    Sometimes our hands find a paintbrush and canvas, sometimes they find a sink full of dirty dishes.

    Perhaps that is the meditative attitude you alluded to. I think the Bible verse I quoted above is also expressed well in the Buddhist saying, “When walking, only walking, and above all, do not wobble.”

    Happiness is clearly a function of engagement and attention.

    I agree there is a mode of being that can be characterised as maintenance thinking.

    However I think we should include an ethical dimension to the discussion. Maintenance thinking is a mode of care. It expresses a relationship to things – and by virtue of the reality of things to others – that conserves and keeps. The conflict between conservative, maintenance thinking and other more creative or progressive attitudes is a construct. Both entail the expenditure of energy on order. Entropy claims everything in the end. There are so many ways for a room to be, and only a few express care – for oneself, for others, for the cost of the things themselves that are prone to decay.

    We may at times consume order, paying for the new with the disorder of the existing. “Creative destruction” the economists euphemistically call this. But the difference between change and violence often lies in ‘t’. If all human beings were wiped out by a big space rock tomorrow that would be a violent end. If we diminish and die off over thousands of years that is an unfortunate change.

    To spend energy on change and create disorder, or to spend energy on care and prevent disorder? That is an ethical question. We benefit from the empathy of ‘do unto others’ in many ways. But we also benefit from those to whom ‘leave things as you found them’ was a guiding principle.

    Those who care enough to clean up, are keeping the noise to signal ratio manageable for those with the creative urge to find new and unique ways of arranging the material of our existence.

    When sitting, only sit, and above all do not wobble.

    That’s not easy when you are sitting in a pile of dirty socks and empty pizza boxes.