If you can improve the activity of working itself, you mulitiply every other optimization in the process of producing new knowledge. You are the engine of your work, the singular connection between nothing and something new. How you work is the thread that ties the steps in the process together. We need to talk about how you work first, before we dive into anything else.
Why is it so important to talk about the activity of working before anything else? Knowledge work is vulnerable to being derailed because often there's a single point of failure: you. In industrial production there are many more points at which things can go wrong. A disrupted supply chain can wreak havoc, but so can the failure of a single machine, the discovery of impurities in the material, poor quality of a machined part or countless other things. When you sit in front of the computer and produce something new through mostly the use of your own brain, you drastically reduce the number of points of failure compared to industrial production. That has huge upsides, but it makes your ability to work well all the more important.
Even more so because you are (most likely) just another human, with all the complications that come with that, such as the need to see progress to keep going. That is one of my particular afflictions: I crave quick, nay, immediate feedback if something works or doesn't, if I made a step in the right direction or the wrong one. Which is why I love programming so much and why writing academic papers is often so difficult for me. And so for me it is important to manage my need for visible progress and to get feedback even where that's not naturally occurring if I want to keep going.
Your personal struggles in working might be different, though: keeping focus, fighting distractions, doing the right things, staying consistent...there are thousands of ways where we struggle to get the work done that we want to do.
But we can take each one of the ways in which we stand in our own way and improve upon them. So in this post I will dissect the process of doing work into its components and see where and how we can improve it.
The Elements of Doing Work
If you are a human sitting in front of a computer to produce work, you are part of a sociotechnical system. To quote Wikipedia, "a sociotechnical system is the term usually given to any instantiation of socio and technical elements engaged in goal directed behaviour". If you look at your work through this lense you see a never-ending rabbit hole of interlinked system and subsystems that in the end lead to some form of output (or lack thereof).
Doing work is one of these subsystems, but we can take it further apart. What elements interlink when you work on something? I see the following:
- Starting and ending work The basic delimiters of work: the time and place where you start and stop doing things that qualify as work.
- Knowing the work Knowing what to work on, how to start, when you are done and why you are doing it.
- The environment in which the work happens Outside influences that are either conducive to focus and work or distract you.
- Available energy directed towards the work How willing and able you are to do the work you want to do.
- Feedback Whether you receive feedback during and after the work that allows you to improve.
In the following I'll take you through my thinking regarding each of these elements and some best practices I have been taught and discovered. Where possible I have also provided concrete steps to implement such practices. I also share suggestions for integrating them into a cohesive systems that in my experience greatly improves work output.
A Best Practice Baseline
1. Starting and Ending Work
You go to the office, you work, you leave, and go home. You started to work, and you stopped working. Simple. But is it, really?
Starting to work requires a place and time where we consciously or subconsciously start to do tasks that qualify as "working". Most people do this subconsciously: they start their computer and then start doing things that are (hopefully) related to what they want to accomplish, often in semi-random sequence and selection of tasks.
To consciously starting to work means we not only start doing things, but start by deciding "I will work on xyz now" and doing tasks that are related, leaving others aside.
Ending work means a time where we decide: this work is over for now, or for today. And again, most often this happens subconsciously: someone interrupts us, we have to switch to something else, and then just don't pick up what we were working on before. Or we phase out of work because our brain can't concentrate anymore, drifting off into procrastination and doing nothing.
Starting and stopping to work subconsciously has major downsides: it makes it hard to see progress, and most often leads to the feeling of not having accomplished anything during the day, even though one was "at work" and is tired. It's also often a reason for procrastination. Because we don't have a starting points that offers easy entry into work subconsciously, we don't "suddenly" find ourselves working but procrastinate instead.
Implementation / Action Steps
One popular way of tackling this is taking any sort of timer (a kitchen timer, your phone's alarm function) and set it to 25, 30, or 45 minutes and start working. The Pomodoro Technique® is a well known and specific form of this, but the principle is the same no matter what your call it. Set a timer, start to work, take a break or stop when you are done.
2. Knowing Your Work
Even with an alarm clock that allows you to focus and consciously start to work when it goes off, you still need to decide what to do in your session of work.
To do useful work, you need to know what you want to accomplish. Most of the time, we don't know explicitly what we want to achieve. Instead, we jump into work with something we think leads into a useful direction. This makes it hard to see progress and easy to stray from useful work into only semi-important or irrelevant work that leads nowhere. Whenever you start working, take the time to make a note on what you want to accomplish.
Apart from knowing what you want to accomplish it's equally important to know when you are finished, when you have accomplished what you set out to do. This might seem to be the same thing, but it is not. Take this post as an example. When I set out and say "I will publish a blog post on academic process management" I have not decided what it means to be done. Yet this is important for the end product, and for each session of work where I outline, write or edit.
Putting down into writing what means completed work helps you plan the steps to reach your goal. It also gives you a feeling of accomplishment and progress when you check things off. Do pay attention to how you formulate this: don't be ambiguous. Someone in your line of work should be able to judge whether you completed the task.
As an example: this article is done when I have published it on my website and you can read it. For every work session until then I can now formulate steps that allow me to see if I made progress. So during one session I focused on outlining the content of this post, and considered the outline to be complete when I had a) at least six paragraphs in one section outlined as bullet points, b) felt that the structure was good, and c) I had written the content of one paragraph.
Anyone who can read can check this easily, and even though b) is ambiguous, it still provides me with a check mark to confirm to myself that I'm happy with the current state. And when I am finished with my work session and the alarm goes off, I can say: I did a), b), and c) and made progress, even if the article itself is not finished yet.
To summarise so far:
Start your work consciously, decide explicitly what to work on and make concrete what is necessary for something to be considered done.
With this in place, the question is: how are you going to start? Friction leads to procrastination, and the easier it is for you to do the first step into work, and then the next and the next, the less often your will waste time. Often, deciding on the first tiny step is enough to get you going. "I will open the document with my paper draft and write one sentence" is often all the activation energy you need to start a productive work session.
Knowing the first, next step is both important in the immediate short term, when you take a break, for example, as well as when work stretches over days and weeks. This is because of the cost that context switching, switching from one unrelated task to another, creates for your brain. As the APA writes1, some research shows that "even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time".
To reduce this danger, write down what you were doing before taking a break and before ending the day. In these notes also write down the next action you need and want to do when you pick up the work again.
Even when you know what you want to accomplish, having concrete criteria for completed work, and what small next step to take you will occasionally find yourself procrastinating and not starting to work or giving up before you are finished. Sometimes you have to do tedious or unexciting work and there's nothing you can do about it.
Recent research by Hennecke et al. (2018) has investigated how to stick through such work and found a couple of strategies that help: "focusing on positive consequences, focusing on negative consequences (of not performing the activity), thinking of the near ﬁnish, and emotion regulation increased perceived self-regulatory success across demands".
For me personally, focusing on positive consequences and thinking of the near finish are very helpful. Thinking of the near finish is easy when you do your work in 30 minute increments and then take a small break. If you get annoyed ten minutes into such a round and your countdown timer says you have 20 minutes to go, that's usually something you can work with.
It also helps to quickly write about why you are working on something every time you start the work. What are the positive consequences of completing a particular task? I find this helpful in two ways. First, it allows me to connect my short-term goals and my long-term vision, which in turn gives me a sense of purpose for the small step I am taking and it gives me a feeling of progress. Second, by thinking not only of the immediate positive consequences for myself ("I am done with this work", "I'll advance my career") but also of the positive consequences this will have for others ("stable future for my family", "help people do better research") I get an additional boost in my sense of purpose to pull through.
Implementation / Action Steps
When starting a work session:
- Write down what you want to accomplish
- Write down what success looks like:
- what are the criteria for something to be considered "done"
- make sure to make this very concrete: a third party should be able to verify if you succeeded or not
- Write down the first step you need to take
- this can be very simple: "Open Word document and write one sentence"
- Write down why you are doing something
- what positive things will result from doing the work?
- what negative things will result from not doing the work?
3. Managing Your Environment
The third component that impacts you while doing work is your environment. Depending on your career you have varying degrees of influence here, but it pays off considerably to take control of your environment as much as possible.
External distractions are the obvious starting point. We already discussed the cost of switching context, and responding to phone calls, people coming over to "just chat", or having to go to meetings all impose this cost. Paul Graham's famous essay Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule is well worth a (re)read here. In short: if your job is to create, try to increase the time where nothing interrupts or distracts you.
For me, that means starting work really early in the day, for others it means working deep into the night or working in a cabin in the woods. Find whatever works for you and stick to it as much as you can.
The cabin in the woods is a good example for other factors in your environment that are important: it can be ideal because no-one disturbs you, but if it makes you feel lonely which leads to you not working, that's not good either. Some people like working in Cafés or with a movie on in the background. The one location though that everyone agrees on is counter-productive is your bed. Never work in your bed. It blurs the lines between work and rest and your posture is horrible. Don't work in your bed.
It also pays to minimize the hassles of daily life: have a toilet as close by as you can, have water or tea ready to drink, and minimize the effort it takes to eat healthy food. The less you have to think about these things, the better.
Finally: consider whether you work better in an environment that is completely silent or what sounds help you focus. I know people who need absolute silence; even working on the balcony in summer doesn't work for them because birds chirping is too distracting. For me, I like listening to brain.fm, because their soundtracks help me focus and are useful to drown out background noise when working on a train, for example. One thing though: some people claim they work better when listening to music or talk radio. No, you don't. Listening to one track over and over might work, but Spotify on shuffle will not help you focus.
Implementation / Action Steps
Closely examine your environment:
- are there distractions in your environment?
- do you have everything you need close by?
- do you have water and food easily accessible?
- do you need to be alone or do you need some feeling of company?
- do you need to drown out external noise, is your environment silent enough?
4. Managing Your Energy
As I write this section, my body reminds me of its importance. I am getting a little tired and my thoughts are starting to wander. But I have only five minutes left in this 30 minute cycle, which helps to keep my mind on task.
One reason that my energy is declining right now is that I didn't listen to the advice I will give you regarding breaks: make them frequent, actually rest during your break, and get up and move a little. Do squats or push-ups or stretch. I didn't do either of those for a while, and now I'm paying for it.
To harp on the context switching costs point from above again: checking Instagram, Reddit or Facebook during your break is not resting. Don't do it. It takes you completely out of your work and taking in the thoughts and opinions of hundreds of people within minutes when scrolling through your feed is not conducive to resting your mind. Seriously.
Probably the biggest factor impacting your energy is your sleep. Everyone likes to talk about it, but few people take it seriously and pay attention. Do you know how much you slept the last five days? Are you sure it's enough?
I'm sceptical of giving anyone a number for how many hours of sleep they should get; both the "sleep as much as possible" and the "RARA YOU CAN SLEEP WHEN YOU'RE DEAD" factions are not helpful in my experience. The most important thing is that you pay attention to your sleep over time. Sure, everyone knows they will be less productive when they only sleep four hours a night2, but sleep deprivation accumulates over time, so you need to keep a log to make sure you get enough.
Some people, when the discussion turns to sleep, complain that they have to get up early and can't sleep longer. Well, no. The problem is not that you can't sleep longer; the problem is that you have difficulties going to bed early enough. Sure, "early to bed early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealth and socially dead", and you need to find a balance here. But focus on going to bed early enough to get enough sleep. I set myself an alarm for when I should go to bed, roughly an hour before I want to be in bed and sleeping.
Also pay attention to what you eat and drink. Know how your food makes you feel. I know that when I have a carb-heavy lunch, I might as well go home and sleep or that when I eat chocolate too close to going to bed, I'll lie awake with too much energy. The most important thing here is that you need to pay attention to what works for you. Follow no diet or recommendation slavishly just because some authority figure said so. This also goes for drinking: keep water handy and drink frequently, but don't feel you have to drink X number of liters of water a day just because someone else says so.
Finally a note on exercise. We all know that exercise is good for you, and you should definitely find some sort of strenuous activity you carry out a couple of times a week to keep fit. "Mens sana in corpore sano - A healthy mind in a healthy body" is a true fact that the Romans had figured out thousands of years ago.
Also make sure your stay active during your normal workday, however. Just sitting for hours on end is very tiring, so it helps to do some air squats, pushups or stretches regularly during your day. Set an alarm for this if you have to.
Implementation / Action Steps
Monitor your energy over time:
- Take notes on how much you sleep and how well
- Take notes on your lunch and your energy level afterwards
- During work breaks get out of your chair and move
- Consider taking up some exercise if you don't do that already
5. Feedback And Continuous Improvement
"Awareness of one's condition and the state of one's surroundings allows top-level performance by allowing the mind to apprehend the actual situation and respond to it instantly" - Mark Twight in Twight and Martin (1999)
"Gnothi Seauton – Know Thyself" - Oracle of Delphi
The key to all improvement is awareness. Only if you are aware of what is going on with you, your work, and your environment can you adapt to the specific situation and keep your momentum.
This presents you two challenges: being aware in the moment and being aware over time. Both require training, mental effort, and good processes. While reading this article and going over the implementation suggestions, you might have thought "screw you Lukas, this looks like additional work and not like it will make my work easier". And you are right. If you'd just take all the action steps I listed and tried to implement them all at once with no guidance you would just introduce more friction into your workday. And the more friction you have, the less likely you are going to do this. That is also the reason the Pomodoro Technique and other isolated tactics often fall short. They introduce more friction without enough of the holistic benefits of an integrated approach.
Luckily, there's a better way. While I've learned many of the things I've shared in this post over the last ten years trying to improve my process of working, there's one person who has helped me the most. Sebastian Marshall has been a thoughtful writer on implementing and operationalizing productivity for years, and with his new company Ultraworking he has achieved what before no-one has: he's systematized almost all the best practices I shared above into one integrated approach to doing work called Work Cycles.
Sebastian and his crew have set up an Excel sheet that takes you through everything I described in Knowing Your Work and provides a scaffold for starting and ending work sessions as I outlined in Starting and Ending Work. It's a phenomenal approach I have been using for over a year and a half now (first recorded session: August 22nd, 2017) and it has gotten me through finishing my MA Thesis through the first year of my PhD. I highly encourage you to check out Work Cycles3.
If you don't like doing this digitally in Excel/Google Sheets and want this to be an analog endeavour, no worries though. I'm making printable templates you will be able to download and put them into your Better Bullet Journal (which I'll write about soon). If you want to know when the templates are ready, sign up to receive the occasional email from me and I'll let you know once they are ready.
Implementation / Action Steps
Implement as many of the best practices to collect feedback and stay aware of what's happening. I suggest you
- check out Work Cycles or
- download my paper based templates (when they are ready)
as a starting point. Keep what works, discard what doesn't.
Where To Go From Here
I started this post by saying that the benefit of optimizing the activity of working itself multiplies all other optimizations in the process of producing knowledge. I believe when you implement the tactics I have written about here you will see immediate and sizable improvements in your output at work.
But as I wrote in my previous essay, there are many components to the process of producing new knowledge and I want to work through them to see where we can improve. My next essay will start at the beginning and talk about reading and understanding what I read. Sign up for emails from me and I'll tell you as soon as it's out!
Marie Hennecke, Thomas Czikmantori, and Veronika Brandstätter. Doing despite disliking: self-regulatory strategies in everyday aversive activities. European Journal of Personality, 2018. ↩
Mark F. Twight and James Martin. Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast, and High. The Mountaineers, 1st edition, 1999. ↩