The knowledge worker’s dilemma

When you get down to it, ideas and problem-solving are the products of people who do knowledge work of any kind. Sure, they may be wrapped up in a more tangible deliverable (shipping code, delivering designs, meeting a word count, closing a deal, etc..), but the real value being passed along is in the ideas and inspiration that drove those outcomes. And those ideas can be huge. A great idea can be transformative, a breakthrough with far reaching impacts.

But innovation is unpredictable, and that’s slightly problematic. Process work, as opposed to knowledge work, is linear, and incremental. If you put in X hours, you can reasonably expect Y units of results. If you put in twice that amount, the results double. Knowledge work, on the other hand, is non-linear, and that makes the expected output a much fuzzier proposition. For example, the steps of building a motorcycle can be an incredibly fine-tuned and optimized process, with highly predictable results. But designing that same motorcycle doesn’t follow a repeatable formulaic process. (if it did, breakthrough innovations would be easy.)

You may work on a problem for days and not make a dent in it. Or you may spot the solution right away. The level of time devoted to solving a problem doesn’t necessarily correspond to the quality of the output. That’s not to say that creativity doesn’t involve process. It’s essential. But the output can’t be as easily predicted, and it’s difficult to point to anything that works universally.

So figuring out how to “do” knowledge work can be tricky. Here are three common traps that people fall into (I’ve suffered from all of them at different times)

The “I’m an idea guy!” trap

Just because solutions can’t be mapped to linear time input, and that some people appear to be able to pull amazing solutions out of thin air, it’s easy to fall into the line of thinking that effective solutions don’t require long slogs of effort. While it’s absolutely true that some of the best ideas come away from my desk, that doesn’t mean I can just sit back and relax until something amazing pops into my head. Even though it’s fun to think otherwise, Don Draper is just a fictional guy on a TV show, and Steve Jobs actually worked really freakin’ hard.

The workaholic trap

On the flip side, it’s possible to work on something too much and think my way into a trap that’s really difficult to get out of. Part of this may stem from confusing the feeling of “being busy” with “being productive”. If I’ve been hammering away for a week on a project and feel like I’m not getting anywhere, what’s the likelihood that I’ll make a breakthrough by forcing it and pushing through the weekend?

The procrastination trap

Oftentimes, I’ll put off work that needs to get done until the last minute, forcing myself to have a tight window for working. Parkinson’s law states “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”, so this actually seems like an efficient approach, but I’m not sure it’s really the best approach (both for my sanity and the quality of my work). There’s some psychology about why this actually works, but it sure is stressful. I also find deadlines tricky because they tend to give way to a lot of rationalization about “arbitrary deadlines vs. actual deadlines”, “this was an unrealistic timeline given this or that new information”, etc…

It’s difficult to figure out the right balance, and I doubt there’s a universal answer. How do you figure out what works the best for you? How do you “think” about thinking?

3 Comments on “The knowledge worker’s dilemma”

  1. I like your point that procrastinating can be a viable strategy for harnessing deadline pressure (though not without its costs!). We included purposeful procrastination as an example of a commitment device in our poll here:

    Namely, “Starting a project close to its hard deadline to limit the amount of time you can spend on it. (Though more often this is a manifestation of rather than a remedy for akrasia!)”

    About 600 out of 7000 people said they do that.

    Of course you know what I’m going to say next! Beeminder is all about harnessing deadline pressure in a much more modulated way. You don’t just pick a single deadline, you force yourself to make steady progress each day. And our akrasia horizon means you can remain as adaptable as possible to new information.

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