A theme I am drawn to is that of how, as a knowledge worker, I can deliver the most valuable work. Today’s “always on” workplace makes it increasingly easy to do busy work - filling your day with meetings and emails and phone calls that keep the wheels turning. To-do lists break up the day into digestable 10 minute tasks, open plan offices that allow free collaboration between staff who can debate and discuss - hard effort to move problems forward. But is this really making the biggest impact that I could be?
Increasingly, I find it clear that with so many distractions in the work place and even at home the space is not available to do the big and deep blocks of thinking that really move the needle. This work is not easy and requires hours of uninterrupted time to dive into the detail, hypothesise and iterate. Not only data analysis but also also time to truly learn skills, not a five minute hack but a true craftsman approach that requires in some cases years to perfect.
Cal Newport writes extensively on this theme of knowledges workers and the importance of Deep work (his book is excellent). His recent article summarises succinctly the concept by using Jerry Seinfield as an example
about why his show was so good. Seinfield writes:
“Let me tell you why my tv series in the 90s was so good, besides just an inordinate amount of just pure good fortune. In most tv series, 50 percent of the time is spent working on the show, 50 percent of the time is spent dealing with personality, political, and hierarchical issues of making something. We spent 99 percent of our time writing. Me and Larry [David]. The two of us. The door was closed. It’s closed. Somebody calls. We’re not taking the call. We were gonna make this thing funny. That’s why the show was good.”
Newport continues on:
A key idea in attention capital theory is that knowledge work organizations implicitly prioritize convenience over value production. It makes everyones’ life easier in the moment if you’re quick to reply to email, willing to hop on a call, attend one more planning meeting and join that internal committee.
But as Seinfeld’s example hints, it’s possible that many of these organizations might end up producing massively more value in the long run if they set things up so their cognitive talent could shut the metaphorical door, disengage from the logistical tangle, and decide, “we’re going to make this thing funny.”
The risk that is becoming increasingly apparent is that the shallow busy work that dominates our days as knowledge workers is also the very work that is going to be increasingly easy for AI and machine learning systems to automate. Not only is it necessarily a question of succeeding in your career but perhaps whether you will even have a career!
Newport’s solution is straightforward, if not exactly actionable:
“We need to spend more time engaged in deep work — cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results.”
Of course it is not so easy to ignore this shallow work with demands coming in from co-workers and bosses. A solo stand is very hard to take, especially when the long term results are unknown and it is a leap of faith that putting the time in will deliver results - results that by definition are not guaranteed if you are working on big, important problems.
Possibly more to the point is do I want to? It is very easy and comfortable to answer the short term demands, stakeholders stay happy and things keep ticking along. If I’m honest, I enjoy the distraction on my phone news feed, the latest post or comment from someone I am following. But where does this leave me? Often there is very little to show for it at the end of the week, and even less at the end of the year.
Across industry, organisations are in a a state of flux with less people to do more work - you can find administrative type tasks filling up your day. It is easy to say that this work should be dropped and would not be missed, but often that is not the case. Keeping on top of the accumulating small fires can help avoid much bigger disasters down the track. This balance is a struggle I have no clear answer to.
To be successful over the course of a career requires the application and accumulation of expertise. This assumes that for any given undertaking you either provide expertise or you are just a bystander. It’s the experts that are the drivers—an expertise that is gained from a curiosity, and a mindset of treating one’s craft very seriously.
And it is hard to treat seriously if you allow your day to be filled with busy fluff.
How we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives.
Are these days filled with busy work or the hard slog of original thinking that can truly change the script? How are we setting both ourselves and colleagues up to have the time and space to deliver their best work?
More like this….