There is definitely some immediate gratification felt after answering an email. Filing that email means there’s one less thing on my to-do list. Look at how productive I am!
Am I really, though? It’s often not challenging me or making the best use of my skill set. I want to be more than just a task manager. How can I add value to my company?
I was struggling with this feeling of stunted growth when I came across an interesting solution. What caught my attention was the title of the article, which starts: “Knowledge Workers are Bad at Working…” As a knowledge worker, I had to know where I was presumed to be failing.
Cal Newport, author of the above article, proposes that “unlike every other skilled labor class in the history of skilled labor, [knowledge workers] lack a culture of systematic improvement.” Hmm. Does that ring true to anyone else? The proposed solution is that we engage in more of what he calls deep work: “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve”.
The piece that stood out the most to me was the idea of tracking the amount of time you spend doing deep work. Here at XL, we track all of our activity every day. What I first needed to do was pay better attention to what it is I’m recording. How many things do you think you do at work in a day? One day, I touched 35 different tasks. Over an 8-9 hour day, that’s an average of 15 minutes per task. I remember how frustrated I felt at the end of it because I wasn’t able to make significant progress on any one thing.
After reviewing that day, I made more of an effort to really dive into a task. I followed Cal’s advice to get set up for success: I found a long break in my schedule, got some tea, turned off my email, and dove in. The task was to get ready for an upcoming presentation. I took the time to think through what XL needed to get out of the presentation and what I wanted the audience to get out of it. I was able to turn that into an outline of the important talking points which continued to evolve into a more detailed script. In doing so, I was able to identify potential issues and work through appropriate solutions. This was all made possible by the fact I allowed my mind to focus on this one task.
Later that day, I met with my team to continue preparations. Being able to kick that meeting off with a well thought out plan undoubtedly made that time more productive. I wasn’t asking 4 people to start from a blank piece of paper. (Doing so can often result in aimless debate and few useful outcomes.) Instead, I was able to focus their attention on the problems and get the decisions I needed to move forward.
I spent 38% of my day focused on this one task – more than a third! The best part? I felt great at the end of the day. I was able to focus. I was able to maximize the time of my team. I was able to produce something of value.
I would encourage you to try a similar exercise. Write down what you’re doing. Be more mindful about how long you get to spend on a single activity. Get off the rocking horse and make forward progress. See how you feel at the end of that day.