“That Looks Like a Lot of Work”

As Mr. T and I have been actively DIYing our own windows, hot water heater, attic insulation, etc we’ve heard several versions of the phrase: “That looks like a lot of work.” People are so impressed that we’re willing to work so hard to save some money. As a society, we’ve become programmed to shy away from something that will be hard. The decision between spending two weeks in your crawlspace working on insulation and paying someone $1000 to do it instead seems obvious. The default answer is to spend the money and let someone else do the work. How did we get here?

Culturally, work has changed significantly in the past 200 years. At my youngest, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “Farmer.” Yes, I liked the idea of hay mazes, tractor rides, and having animals around, but more importantly, I assumed farmers made the most money. Everyone eats food. Farmers grow food. It was an obvious supply and demand situation to me. (When someone told me that Bill Cosby made way more than a farmer, just by telling jokes, I started saying “Bill Cosby.”) In 1810, 81% of the United States labor force worked on a farm. By 1890, less than half of the labor force worked on a farm. This decline continued rapidly with only 12% of the labor force in agriculture in 1950 and by 2012, less than 2% of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture.

Farming is unarguably “a lot of work” and the work is directly correlated with the output. Farmers labor in the fields and keep the crops alive. At the end of the season, the “fruit of their labors” are literal as they harvest their crop. With the rise of the factory, labor was disconnected from output. There were no seasons in the factory and there was no harvest. The assembly line was the same yesterday as it was today. Decades later, the computer became a ubiquitous part of the labor force. Manufacturing and farming both declined giving rise to a labor class that is completely devoid of product. Stores, books, and even money have all become digitized. All of the occupations introduced to us as children by Richard Scarry seem to be in the minority. Now people maintain databases, troubleshoot apps, and update widgets. We’ve made up words and occupations. But there is rarely any concrete output.

When we worked on farms, we felt the satisfaction of our labor. We produced something and saw the tangible benefits of all that work. As a result of our labor, we valued our product much higher because we “made” it. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely and his colleagues labeled this the “Ikea Effect” and performed a series of experiments to study it:

  • In one study, 52 participants were randomly assigned to either build a basic IKEA storage box with instructions or inspect one that was already built. They were then asked to make a bid on the box. If their bid was under the random price that would later be generated, they would not get the box, but if their bid was equal to or higher than the price, they would pay the price and take the box. The builders bid much higher on their box than those that merely inspected the same box. Conclusions from this first study stated: “while both groups were given the chance to buy the same product, those who assembled their own box valued it more than those who were given the chance to buy an identical pre-assembled box. We observed similar effects for subjective ratings of liking for the IKEA box, with builders reporting greater liking than non-builders.” In a follow-up study, they performed the same thing but had the “control” group build boxes as well instead of merely inspecting, but didn’t give them enough time to complete the task. The finishers bid more on their boxes than the non-finishers. We feel satisfaction and worth when we see a project through to the end and can see the tangible rewards. When we only work on part of something or do not finish it, we do not value it as much. 
  • In a separate study, 118 participants were given a small Lego set with only 10-12 pieces that made a helicopter, a bird, a duck, or a dog. The first group was given their set already built, the second group was asked to build it, and the third group was asked to build it and then disassemble it. Each of the groups was asked to bid on their set vs. another person’s set. Adjusting for the fact that people liked helicopters more than animals (!), only the group that built their own Legos and didn’t disassemble them valued their own Lego set over the others. Researchers concluded: “labor leads to love only when that labor is successful.”

Mr. T and I are creators. We love to turn an idea into something tangible. We find immense satisfaction and value in doing so. We don’t find the same value and motivation in our jobs for the same reason. Our work is not connected to anything tangible. Doing our own work around our home has saved us a considerable amount of money. (We saved $3-4000 just from installing our own windows!) It is a lot of work, but because of that work, we value our home so much more. I love my windows so much more because they are a tangible reward of our efforts. Successful work feels good. If we always avoid the work, we also forfeit the rewards. Consider that next time you have an option to work for something tangible. If you’re successful, you’ll value the product so much more than if you had paid someone else to do the work. If someone says “that looks like a lot of work,” you’re doing something right. You can tell them “Thank you. It is a lot of work. And it feels good.” They’ll definitely be speechless.

work

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20 Comments

  1. I’m a cyclist, but I always used to hate climbing hills. One year, I decided that every time I came upon a hill, I would repeat “I love hills” to myself. I soon discovered that not only was I saying it, I was actually feeling it. I found that the same conditioning of positive attitude could be applied to real life– I taught myself to love saving the same way. Though I realize it’s not exactly your point, it reminded me of that experience. I think that enjoying “the hard stuff” is due in large part to our deciding to do so.

  2. Yes, this is wonderful! I’ve always liked to try tinkering around with things, or attempting to build/fix things myself. I can’t say I’m engineer, but I like to try to really learn how something works. As far as building goes, one time my mom received a new patio set that was disassembled for shipping. I remember sitting in the backyard on a hot summer day for hours, attempting to put the whole set together. Those hours were incredibly worth it, because every time we enjoyed the backyard I felt that much more pride. Yeah, the table may have wobbled a bit, and the chairs might not have been assembled entirely correct – but it functioned well & allowed us to enjoy the patio furniture that much more! We don’t own a home yet, but I can see us attempting to DIY & put in the work for any projects based off all the points you made. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      Somehow, we fill all of our free time with building and creating. Most of our evening date nights are in the garage (crawl space most recently, but I’m happy to say we’re done in there!). The satisfaction is always worth it.

  3. There is a special satisfaction that comes with accomplishing something for yourself with good, old-fashioned hard work. We were so proud of the vegatables that we harvested from our garden this summer. Mr. Smith takes a lot of pride in being able to fix our vehicles by himself. And the neighbors all seemed to be really confused but impressed when he was up on the roof, fixing it, instead of just “calling someone.” I just finished crocheting a Ninja Turtle winter hat for Goofball. His excitement over the hat meant so much more because I made it for him, as opposed to buying it in a store. More and more, it becomes clear why the standard lifestyle is such a melancholic existence. Plentiful returns require meaningful investment.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes! I love to garden. Not great at it, but anything that comes out of the garden tastes so much better! I wish we knew ANYTHING about cars – that’s the one field in which we feel like we can’t DIY. I’m sure we’re paying a pretty penny for lack of knowledge there. And I LOVE to crochet. I just finished pumpkin hats for my nieces! It’s a great, inexpensive gift for baby showers and other occasions. Glad I’m not alone there!

  4. So many things in this that I want to agree with! The labor force devoid of product — boy, do we feel that one. We think that’s a huge part of why so many of us are dissatisfied with our careers — because we don’t actually make anything. We just basically launder money. And the DIY urge — we are there with you! Our first instinct with any job that needs doing is “we can do that ourselves.” Our recent and expensive house staining was a humbling reminder that we can’t do everything, but it gives us bigger goals for everything we’ll do ourselves once we have more time. The satisfaction that comes from doing something yourself — that is legit! We DIY renovated our old condo top to bottom, and I loved every inch of it as a result. Even the little mistakes that only I could see didn’t bug me the way they would have if a contractor had made them!

    • MaggieBanks

      Exactly! This is the main reason Mr. T and I are looking to ditch the jobs. We just feel like we are part of a fake life where everyone does all these made up things for “work” to produce nothing. We want to create and do and feel satisfied!

  5. Beth

    I’m always so proud of the food that I make from scratch with produce from my garden. It’s great to know that I put in the work and grew this from seed. Plus the garden is my zen place….where I can clear my head and just play in the dirt.

    We are currently replacing the kitchen flooring in our rental house. A lot of hard work and DIY-ing as we ripped up the previous flooring and sub-flooring and put down new sub-floor and laid out the tile. We will finish up this weekend with doing the trim tile pieces and grouting. It’s looking good and I know we saved a bundle!

    • MaggieBanks

      Doesn’t it feel great? I also love to garden. Short seasons up here, but it feels great to see everything growing and know you started with a tiny seed. Congrats on doing your own work!

  6. I’ve been reading my son the Richard Scarry books also – and most of those jobs you rarely see nowadays…. it made me nostalgic.

    As to the IKEA effect – it is amazing how happy I am when I actually produce something. It feels so good! My husband and I both work at jobs that we never see a product from, and he tells me how he misses the feeling he got when he did geotech engineering at construction sites, and would drive around town thinking “I helped build that building”. There is something about creating order from chaos.

    • MaggieBanks

      That would feel great driving around claiming buildings! And yes, there is something amazing about creating order from chaos. I read something once about how creators can never, by definition, advocate war because they are creators, so they cannot destroy or advocate destruction. I liked that.

  7. I love this! There’s something so satisfying about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work yourself. I suppose an important caveat to that is knowing yourself well enough to know when you might be in over your head, too 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      I was thinking about adding something about that, but ultimately did not though I do agree. It’s good to learn more and try to be capable of something, but “in over your head” is an entirely different thing!

  8. Work has been on my mind this week, and your post is timely. Just this evening at a work-related event, someone asked what I would do if given a billion dollars; I said I would give it away to a deserving organization–I didn’t work for the money, so why should I be the beneficiary? Besides, with my hard work, I’ll be FI soon enough, enjoying the satisfaction that I worked hard to get there. Keep up with your DIY efforts! Self-sufficiency is priceless. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      I would probably take part of the money to start up many of the cool things we want to do for others. It would be so cool to start your OWN deserving organization and it would be a great transition into spending your FI time doing something worthwhile for someone else. And I do love your closing line. Self-sufficiency is, indeed, priceless.

  9. This post could not be more perfectly timed. I’m asked just about every week by a coworker, family member or friend about how our kitchen remodel is coming along. And, every time I answer with what part we’ve just completed and what’s left for us to do, I get the same responses:

    “You’re still not done?! How much longer do you think you’ll have to work on your house? It seems like you’ve been working forever…”
    “I don’t think I would ever have the patience to do what you’re doing.”
    “That doesn’t sound worth the effort, I’d have given up by now.”
    “Your life sounds exhausting.”

    Very supportive and inspiring comments, wouldn’t you say? 😉 Despite the fact that we’re quite proud of ourselves for all the work we’ve put into our house this year, others are suffering from what I can only categorize as “sympathy exhaustion” on behalf of Mr. FI and myself. It’s like they WANT us to be tired and upset about how long and difficult this process has been instead of proud and understanding of the fact that projects like these cannot always be completed as quickly as one would hope. Our view of work is considered “weird” and “unnaturally optimistic” in comparison to most people we know, so they’d much rather say things like “that sounds terrible” then “good for you” it seems. Luckily, our optimism and budget are keeping our spirits up and allowing us to build something we know we’ll love, despite the haters out there!

    • MaggieBanks

      Seriously! Keep on working! It feels great when you’re finished. My favorite is my neighbor who actually came over and spend two days working with Mr. T on the windows and then said “I could never do something like this.” you JUST DID!

  10. While we haven’t done much renovation in our current home, we renovated our old city condo top to bottom, and I would absolutely assert that we loved it more because we did most of the work ourselves. (Not to mention that we spent boatload less cash that way!) I think the work is what makes things worthwhile, and the things that have come easily to us are rarely the things that we value most — we feel most proud of and value most the things we’ve worked hardest for!

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