A colleague recently suggested that I write about how I get so much done. Which is amusing to me, since I don’t think I get done much at all! Still, her point is that I turn around requests for posts the next day, generate webinars quickly, etc. So, I thought I’d talk a bit about how I work (at risk of revealing how much I, er, goof off). It’s all about not working harder! It may be that I’m not doing a lot compared to folks who work in more normal situations, but apparently at least perceived as productive.
So, as background, I have a passion for learning. I remember sitting on the floor, poring through the (diagrams in) the World Book. My folks reinforced this, in a story I think I’ve told about how the only excuse for being excused from the dinner table was looking things up. Actually, while I did well in school, it wasn’t perfect because I was learning to learn, not to do well in school. That was just a lucky side effect. I went on and got a Ph.D. in cognitive science, which I argue is the best foundation for dealing with folks. (Channeling my advisor.)
So, I’ve been lucky to have a good foundation. I do recall another story, which I may have also regaled you with. This is about my father’s friend who succeeded in a job despite having stated to the effect that if it appeared he was asleep, he was working, and he’d still do the work of two. (He did.) The point being, that taking time to learn and reflect was useful. I did the same, spending time reading magazines with my feet up on the desk in my first job out of college, but still producing good work.
That’s continued. Including through my graduate school career, academic life, workplace work, and as a consultant. The latter wasn’t my chosen approach, it was involuntary (despite appearing to be desirable). Somehow, it became a way of life. (And I’ve realized there are lots of things I wouldn’t have been able to do if I had had a real job). What I do, regularly, are two major things which I think are key.
The first is that I continue to learn. I read (a lot). Partly it’s to stay up on the news in general, but also try to track what happens in our field. I check in on LinkedIn, largely through the folks I follow. I’ve tried to practice Harold Jarche’s PKM, as I understand it. That is, I update the folks I follow (on a variety of media), as well as media (for instance, Twitter is dwindling and I’m now more on Mastodon).
I also allow time for my thoughts to percolate. For instance, I take walks at least a couple of times a week. I can put a question or thought in my mind and head out. To capture thoughts, I use dictation in Apple’s Notes. I also read fiction and play games, to allow thoughts to ferment. (My preferred metaphor, you can also choose percolate or incubate. ;). I even do household chores as a way to allow time to think. Basically, it looks like I’m spending a lot of time not working. Yet, this is critical to coming up with new ideas!
I also take time to organize my thoughts. Diagramming things is one way I understand them. I blog (like this), for the same reason. These are my personal processing mechanisms. When I do presentations and write articles for others, they’re the result of the time I’ve spent here. If you look at Harold’s process, I set up good feeds to ‘seek’ (and do searches as well), I process actively, through diagramming and posting, and then I share (er, through posting) and presentations and workshops and books and…
Note that it’s not about remembering rote things, but it’s about seeing how they connect. That takes time. And work. But it pays off. I’ll suggest that turning the ideas into models, connected causal stories, helps. So, it’s about understanding how things work, not just ‘knowing’ things. It’s about being able to predict and explain outcomes, not just to tout statistics and facts.
With this prep, I can put together ideas quickly. I’ve thought them through, so I have formed opinions. It’s then much easier to decide how to string them together for a particular goal. The list of things I’ve thought about continues to grow (even if I’ve forgotten some and joyfully rediscover!). I can write it out, or create a presentation, which are basically just linear paths through the connections.
How do I have time to do this? Well, I work from home, so that makes it easier. I also don’t work a regular job, and have gotten reasonably effective at using tools to get things done. For instance, I’m now using Apple’s Reminders to track ‘todos’, along with its Calendar. (I’m cheap, so I’ve used fancier tools, but have found these suffice.) Needless to say, I’m quite serious when I say “if a commitment I make doesn’t get into my device, we never had the conversation.”
Thus, it’s about working smarter. I don’t have an org, so it’s just my practices. If you saw it, you’d see that it’s bursts of productivity combined with lots of ‘down time’. That’s hard to see, as an org, yet that’s the way we work best. As we start having tools that automate more of our rote tasks, we should retain doing creative things like painting, music, and more, not relegate that to AI. Then we can start working more like the creative beings we are, and start recognizing that taking time out for the non-productive is actually more productive. That’s how we work smarter, and are not working harder.