The big (hidden) problem with knowledge work
Over the past 30–40 years, more and more jobs have evolved into knowledge work jobs and involve working in front of a computer or some sort of a screen.
While this evolution has been a big positive shift and heralded our transition into a technology-first era, it suffers from a few significant drawbacks that other types of work don’t.
First, your work is largely flowy and invisible and hence, amenable to multitasking. You could be writing a piece of code and responding to slack messages simultaneously. Can you imagine a lumberjack, welder, or even a dentist doing that? I don’t even want to think about my dentist responding to the IMs on her phone while doing a root canal procedure on me
Secondly, because your work isn’t visible, you wouldn’t typically know when to stop and when to take on more work. Compare that to a manufacturing unit. Each manufacturing unit has an optimum capacity at which it operates. Based on the raw material and the work in progress, it can indicate whether it can take more load or not. On the other hand, knowledge workers rely on some vague and primarily qualitative metrics to suggest whether they can take on more work or not and end up doing a horrible job at it.
In this article, we will delve into this second problem and see if we could bring in some best manufacturing practices to optimize knowledge work in a bid to its output.
The book Phoenix Project is an excellent starting point to understand how we can visualize our work and use that to deliver the right outputs. While this book is primarily focused on IT and development, the principles highlighted in it can be widely applied to every type of knowledge work.
Think of your work as a manufacturing warehouse. At any given point in time, you have outcomes to be delivered (finished goods), projects in flight (WIP), and projects to start working on (raw material). The biggest difference is that these projects and workflows are hidden from your plain sight and present in a) your calendars, b) your to-do lists, c) email inbox, d) Slack or IMs, and many other places.
The steps outlined below will help you get this hidden work out from these nooks and crannies of your brain and your digital systems and make them visible to you.
The first task is to get all of these projects and tasks in one place. These are some of the options where you can bring these together
b) Notion (What I use)
d) Google Sheets or
e) Any other task management software that you’re familiar with.
I generally avoid promoting paid tools and subscriptions. However, I think a small investment in any of these tools will go a long way in helping you manage your work and life. You can also use google sheets, but it isn’t as intuitive as the other ones in the list. I use a paid version of Notion. However, you can start by using the free version.
The next step is to create a Kanban board in the tool that you’ve selected. If you’re not familiar with Kanban, it is a fancy term for a workflow management dashboard with columns where you group tasks into buckets. For our exercise, these buckets could be a) Yet to begin b) Working on, and c) Completed.
You can modify these terminologies and add more columns depending on your work type and stages involved therein.
This is what a typical dashboard would look like.
Once you get all your tasks and projects together, analyze each of them carefully. Categorize your tasks in one of these three categories
a) High-value tasks: These are tasks where you can have the biggest impact. If done and executed well, these tasks will have the most significant influence on your work and growth. Not more than 20–30% of all your tasks will fall in this category. Some examples of high-value tasks are prospecting (sales), coding (developers), filling the talent pipeline (HR & Recruitment), etc. Once you’ve identified those tasks, add them to the appropriate buckets on your work dashboard (step 1).
b) Supporting tasks: Once you’ve identified and organized the high-value tasks, move on to the supporting tasks. These are tasks that support the high-value tasks. Eg, in the case of sales, the research that needs to be done for effective prospecting will fall into this category. Add these tasks to your dashboard as well.
c) Other tasks: Any task that is not a core or a supporting task needs to be questioned. Does this task even deserve to be addressed or completed? Are tasks like these pulling you away from your core activities? More often than not, these tasks are great at keeping you busy but can be a complete drag on your time and effectiveness. Figure out how you can automate, delegate, outsource, or cut these tasks out completely. Try not to get them on your dashboard.
Once you have all the core and supporting tasks in front of you, divide them into three categories.
a) Projects: A project is a group of related tasks that need to be completed to deliver an output or achieve an outcome. Eg,) Website development is a project that involves many tasks like design, content, development, deployment. Do not confuse projects with tasks. Arrange these projects as a single card on these Kanban boards and add their constituent tasks to that card. Check the example below
b) Recurring tasks: These are tasks that you need to do regularly and have no start or end date. Think about prospecting in sales. You do it regularly to get client meetings. Arrange these recurring tasks under a separate column on your dashboard and embed a calendar tracker in those cards.
c) One-off tasks: These tasks come to you randomly throughout the day. A simple example could be responding to a client’s email. Again, arrange this task under the appropriate category (column).
Make sure to put the timelines in front of each task or project. That will give you a great idea of where you stand in terms of your current and future workload. You can visualize it and make decisions accordingly. Not only that, but you can also extract the deadlines calendar from this and make sure that things aren’t falling through the cracks.
At this stage, your dashboard is ready and will give you a great visual representation of what your workload looks like. Find below a sample work dashboard.
Creating this dashboard will give you some fantastic insights into your work and help you stay on top of what needs to be done. However, this is just the beginning. It is crucial to use this as your primary mode of operation. I can’t remember the number of times I have created this dashboard and forgotten all about it a week or two later. Don’t make that mistake. You’d have spent a ton of time developing this dashboard, and if you abandon it now, you will have to spend an equal amount of time recreating it the next time.
Make sure to update it at the end of the day and move things around as appropriate. If you’ve begun working on a task or a project, move it from yet to begin to the WIP bucket. Not only will this help you stay updated but also give you a very good idea of where you are in terms of your workload (WIP) and how many ideas (raw material) are currently in your mental and digital warehouse waiting for you to act on them, and not to forget the satisfaction (and dopamine hit) that you get when you move things from WIP category to finished.
Once you start using this visual dashboard, you will realize that your dependence on your inbox and your memory to remember and execute tasks will go down time. Not only will it make you more efficient but also efficient with the right things.
You can also use this to manage the collaboration between your team members, so everyone knows and focuses on the right things and output.
The best part about this dashboard is that it gives you the right feedback regarding how occupied (or not) you are. Based on that, you can take more incoming work or say no to it.