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?


Some days, you’re just not going to get it done (and that’s ok)

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself staring blankly at my screen, occasionally pawing at my keyboard. I just couldn’t stay focused, no matter how hard I tried. I was nursing a migraine from the night before, but I had a bunch of things that needed to get done, and it was almost the weekend, so I kept telling myself I could get some rest soon enough.

But then I looked at my RescueTime stats…

Despite the fact I was making a really sincere effort, I was a solid 30% less productive than usual. I was trying to power through my headache, and I was failing miserably. The hard numbers opened my eyes to what should have been totally obvious in retrospect. I was just torturing myself for no reason. I wasn’t doing anyone a favor by being there in the first place, and the proof was staring me in the face.

Deciding when I’ve reached my limit is hard, especially when I’m not firing on all cylinders. For one thing, I’m just not that great at judging myself in a less-than-optimal state. But then there’s also this weird, very fuzzy guilt that I feel. Other people are here working, and I’m not in that bad a shape, so I should just suck it up, right?  Unless I’m dreadfully ill, something just feels sort of lazy to me about saying “Sorry everyone, I just really don’t feel like being here today.” Being able to put some numbers around it really helped to make a more rational decision.

Having a work ethic is fantastic, don’t get me wrong. But I think it’s way too easy for many people to fall into the trap of putting themselves second because it feels like an indulgence to take some downtime. As we move into an era where we can look at ourselves from a more objective, data-based perspective, hopefully we’ll see that the self-sacrifice often just isn’t worth it.


How social feedback loops are changing our workplace (for better and for worse)

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Reputation data, culled from social feedback loops, is playing an increasingly large role in our professional lives

In Cory Doctorow’s science fiction novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people don’t work for money. Currency, as we know it, has become obsolete as technology has created such abundance that the old models of scarcity fall apart. Instead, paychecks are replaced with a new currency called Whuffie. Whuffie is a measure of reputation, or esteem. It rises and falls based on a person’s actions. Be a jerk to someone on the bus, and your Whuffie falls. Help a little old lady cross the street, and your Whuffie rises. Write an amazing story, and your Whuffie shoots up exponentially as it’s enjoyed and shared by thousands of people. And there’s the tricky part. It’s not enough to just to be good, you have to also be recognized for being good. In fact, one of the major plot points is when a series of unfortunate events and a fit of rage cause the main character to lose all his Whuffie, effectively making him an outcast from society.

Ok, so that world may sound far fetched, and a post-scarcity economy probably isn’t coming along anytime soon. But the concept of Whuffie is starting to turn into a very real thing in our professional lives, and it’s only going to get more prevalent in the future.

One of the top ‘future-of-work’ trends predicted in the book The 2020 Workplace is that workers will be hired and promoted based upon “reputation capital”. This will be a combination of both the depth and quantity of an employee’s social and professional networks, as well as hundreds of smaller data points indicating the worker’s influence in those circles. This already makes sense today in sales or marketing positions, but in the future it will extend to all roles within an organization.

Social feedback loops in the workplace today

iStock_000017132931XSmallTwitter and Facebook have given customers of all businesses a vehicle for voicing opinions on interactions with employees.  This amplified message can make it easier for a worker to be recognized for her hard work and good service (unfortunately, it can also have some negative consequences as well).  But many services are going a step further and  formally baking their worker’s reputation directly into their business models.

Micro-outsourcing marketplace TaskRabbit matches workers with people willing to pay them for odd jobs. Workers are rated and reviewed at the end of each task and those rankings in turn affect the likelihood that a worker will get more work in the future. Your ability to put together an IKEA bookshelf is important, but it’s equally important that other people recognize you for it. Similarly, the private car dispatcher Uber uses rankings by customers as it’s indicator of driver quality and will deprioritize or let go drivers with low overall scores (which has caused some controversy).

It’s not just customer service jobs

Reputation capital is becoming important in other areas, beyond customer service. At a previous company of mine, one of the things recruiters looked at when hiring software engineers was their level of participation on GitHub. While it was never a requirement, having a presence and being a member of the community was a considered a huge plus. Doing a quick scan of software engineering jobs on various job boards suggests that this preference is becoming more widespread.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Examples of reputation mechanisms that employers are increasingly looking at.

Other niche communities where reputation is starting to matter more and more to employers include StackOverflow for software engineers, Kaggle for data scientists, and Dribbble or Behance for designers.

The rise of corporate social networks

For people already employed by a company, internal social network tools like Yammer and Work.com have features that allow colleagues to recognize an employee for a job well done. All those individual data points accumulate on the worker’s profile in the form of badges. This helps top performers stand out, and lets others in the organization easily identify experts on specific topics.

Instead of managerial performance reviews, software company Valve uses a multifaceted peer ranking system to get a better idea of each employees contribution to the company. Evaluations from multiple co-workers are aggregated in a way that forms a comprehensive picture of how the worker is performing, in a way that may not be evident by solely concentrating on traditional productivity output metrics.

Where should the line be drawn?

Part of the reason that reputation is becoming a big factor in our workplaces is that it’s now so easy to access all this new information about people, their accomplishments, and their impact on others. Data-points that would have been impossible to compile ten years ago are now cheap and abundant, either as a byproduct of existing networks, or due to technological advances that make giving feedback a frictionless experience.

But access to all this new data raises a lot of questions, and it’s clear that employers and employees are still struggling to find the proper balance.

Uber was recently on the receiving end of protests by some of their drivers. Among their complaints was the fact that drivers were being algorithmically dropped out of Uber’s labor pool due to low customer rankings. In a thought-provoking reaction, Om Malik refers to the potential for “data darwinism“, as some workers inevitably won’t be able to keep up with the ever-shifting emphasis around reputation, data and feedback.

Here in Washington State, a bill is in the works that will make it illegal for employers to request passwords for an employees personal social network sites. Other similar employee protections are already in place in many states. I personally can’t imagine ever asking an employee for that information in the first place, but the fact that bills are being passed prohibiting it is proof that the lines of what reputation information is acceptable in the workplace haven’t been clearly defined yet. I expect issues like this will receive much more attention in the future, and employers will have to ask themselves some hard questions about where their ethical boundaries are.

A reputation-based workplace could be really great, though

Despite the growing pains of social feedback loops in the workplace, there’s a lot of potential. Imagine a world where you never worry about your upcoming performance review, because you’ve had a constant stream of feedback from your peers letting you know exactly how you’re doing at your job. Imagine that feedback being multi-directional and transparent, so you are able to rank your manager on their performance and see how they rank compared to other managers at your company (or at other companies, for that matter).

What needs to happen to get us there?

Social feedback loops in the workplace are still in their early, prototypical stages. There are a lot of kinks to be worked out.

Both managers and workers need to become more data-literate (or, systems need to get more human-literate)

reputation-transistionAll this data is overwhelming, and most people don’t have a good sense for what decisions to make based on it. This will cause problems until decision makers become more skilled in integrating data into their processes. Used correctly, it can be an extremely powerful tool that empowers workers and scales really well across large organizations. Used incorrectly, it can be the source of a lot of really bad knee-jerk reactions. There will need to be experts to guide people through how to incorporate all these new streams into their thinking.

The flip side of this is that the systems aggregating and presenting this data will need to build in safeguards to encourage good data-based decision making. Social feedback loops can be terribly messy and lack context, so systems have a challenge of setting the proper expectations of how they should be used.

Raw data is generally really bad at giving context, and as such fails to paint a complete picture of the situation. Part of the solution may be even more data, presented in a coherent way that tells a more complete story.  Take Uber’s five star rating system, for example. How would those ratings changed based on some data about the passengers giving them? Should a 1 star rating mean less if it was clear it came from a person who consistently gave 1 star ratings? What if it was determined that a driver was mostly picking people up from an area that statistically gave lower rankings than usual? What if it was clear that a driver who received low ratings was new to the area? That may mean that instead of grounds for dismissal, it becomes an opportunity for some relatively inexpensive training that would remedy the situation.

Workers will need to start considering the role of reputation in their careers.

For sales people, journalists, and a handful of other professions, this is nothing new. But for everyone else, the idea that it’s not how good you are at your job, but rather how recognized you for being good at your job will be a bit of an adjustment.

What do you think?

Are social feedback loops part of the future of the workplace? And is that a good or bad thing? Do all these new data streams represent a better way for being recognized for doing a good job? Or is it just a bunch of irrelevant noise, a distraction from the work people are supposed to be doing in the first place?

Further Reading

Wired: Welcome to the new reputation economy

GigaOm: Uber, Data Darwinism and the future of work

FastCoExist: The Future of Work: Quantified Employees, Pop-Up Workplaces, And More Telepresence

TED: Rachel Botsman: The currency of the new economy is trust

Follow RescueTime on Twitter or Facebook for more thoughts exploring what’s in store for our rapidly-evolving workplaces.

Observations from a few months with a standing desk

standing desk illustration

Late last year, after seeing one too many studies and infographics about the dangers of sitting all day, I decided to push back my chair and give a standing desk a try. It was a little rocky at first, but once I got used to it, it actually feels pretty great. I initially tried to hack together my own standing setup, but eventually I went all-in and got a GeekDesk adjustable height desk. It was pricey, but luckily we were moving to a new office and I had to get a new desk anyway.

Here are some things that I’ve learned during the process

The first few weeks were a roller-coaster

The first week I worked totally standing up felt great. I couldn’t figure out why everyone wasn’t doing this. I couldn’t see a downside. Well, maybe my tendency to pace back and forth a bit, which lead to hilarious situations like this:

The second week, however, was a nightmare. My legs and lower back started hurting really bad, and I was completely wiped out by the end of the day. I wasn’t really prepared for it, and started wondering if I had made a huge mistake.

Things sort of evened out in the third week. I didn’t feel quite as rickety at the end of the day, and it slowly got better over the next few weeks to the point where it started feeling pretty natural.

A good mat is super important

One of the things I did to make standing easier was invest in a good mat. I got a Wellness Mat, the thickest one I could find, and it made a huge difference. Pretty much all the discomfort I was experiencing went away within a few days after getting the mat.

I’m focused, more alert, and I’ve been sleeping better at night

I never have to fight off mid-afternoon drowsiness anymore. I’m alert and energetic pretty much all day. It’s a pretty amazing shift. I feel great when I get done with work, and according to my FitBit, I’ve been sleeping on average an extra 20-30 minutes a night. Also, my RescueTime productivity score has never been higher, but I’m doing a few things to boost my productivity, so I’m not sure I can pin that entirely on the standing.

I found I do some things better standing, and other things better sitting

This was interesting, and something I hadn’t expected. It turns out coding, writing blog posts, and email all feel really natural standing up, but doing any design work just feels wrong. I have to sit down for that. That’s great though, because it presents the opportunity for a pretty neat mind hack. By raising and lowering my desk, it’s just enough of a physical change to get my brain to switch gears and fully get into the zone on what I’m now working on.

Verdict: It’s awesome (but a little expensive)

All things considered, I love my standing desk. The biggest drawback was the price. That made me really nervous about it. I mean, what if I spent all that money and ended up not liking it? Luckily, I love it, but I really hope the price comes down. I see that being a pretty big barrier for people who are curious to try a non-sitting workstation. That said, there are several lower cost options, but they’re not adjustable.

If standing all day doesn’t seem right for you, consider some other ways to reduce the amount of sitting you do at the office. Maybe get up from your desk to check emails or take phone calls? Or, consider trying walking meetings? There are lots of ways to get creative.

Have you tried a standing desk? Are you considering it?


Show and Tell: My super-productive Gmail inbox

Your email client should support good habits, especially since email itself can lead to so many bad ones.

Over the past few months, I’ve been tweaking my Gmail inbox trying to find a configuration that makes it easy to stay focused and productive while I’m using it. Here’s what I’ve come up with. The best part is, it ended up being really easy to set up.

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

My lean and mean Gmail inbox

Here’s how I did it

Set up Gmail’s priority inboxes: I followed the instructions described in this comment (the instructions are in the comment, not the actual article itself.) If that’s not clear, here’s a screenshot of what my Gmail inbox settings look like. Basically just divide your inbox into three sections; one for unread email, one for starred email, and one for “Everything else” that will stay collapsed by default.

Use a Google Apps Script to deal with Starred email bloat: I fell into a bad habit of letting starred emails linger in an expanding “I’ll deal with it later” pile. I ended up fixing this by writing a Google Apps Script to automatically label any starred email in my inbox older than two weeks with a big red “DEAL WITH ME” label. It gives me an extra push to not let things pile up for too long. When I’ve unstarred or archived an email, the label gets automatically removed by the script.

The Google Apps Script was pretty easy to write. If you want to, just copy and paste mine. I’ve posted detailed instructions here.

I think this setup is great because…

It reinforces good habits. It’s now more work for me to keep an email in my inbox than it is for it to disappear after reading it. That automatically keeps things tidy. No willpower required.

It doesn’t break other displays. I can have this display in my browser, but my phone still gets the “everything” view. That fits the way I use email on my phone a little bit better. There is nothing automatically removed from the inbox in a way that might make things difficult to locate on other devices.

It’s easy to set up (and easy to undo). Once I had everything like I wanted it on my work email, applying the same settings to my personal Gmail account took about 2 minutes. If I ever decide to switch to something else, or go back to the Gmail defaults, it’s really just a matter of hitting a “reset settings configuration” button to get things back to the default state. I don’t think I’m going to do that, but it’s good to know I can.

Do you have any good inbox hacks?

This setup is working really well for me. I’m really curious to hear what other people think of this approach. Also, if you’ve made any other productivity-boosting modifications to your inbox, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.


Automatically label lingering emails with this Google Apps Script

I try to keep my inbox clean, and for the most part I do a pretty good job at it. There’s one bad habit I have, though. I star emails in Gmail so I’ll remember to follow up with them later, and then I never get around to it. Emails just keep getting pushed further down the list and piling up. I can’t deal with all emails right away, but after a while they just stick around because I’m avoiding making a decision on them. What I need is a way to automatically to something give myself a little nudge after a certain amount of time. A little push that will remind me that those emails aren’t going to just answer themselves.

After looking at a lot of solutions (Gmail filters, IFTTT.com, etc), I finally discovered Google Apps Scripts. You can write javascript functions to do all kinds of automations in your inbox. You can then set the functions to run on a timer. It was exactly what I was looking for.

I was able to write a couple of functions to automatically add a label to any items that were in my inbox that also had a star label. When I remove the star, or archive the email, the label is removed. Here’s what the output looks like.

deal with me label-1

Here’s how I set it up

Go to script.google.com, and create a new project. I called mine “Add nagging label for old starred items”

Paste in the following code

[updated 4/23/13 to fix a bug that was causing un-starred threads to not have the label automatically removed]

Save the script, then test to make sure the scripts are working by selecting the “addNaggingLabels” or “removeNaggingLabels” functions from the dropdown in the script editor toolbar, then clicking the arrow to run them. You’ll be asked to allow the script to be run on your inbox before you can test it out. You should only have to do that step once.

When the “Deal with me” label gets created, it won’t be red by default. You’ll have to go find it in the left sidebar of your Gmail inbox and click the arrow next to it to manually change the color to red (or some color you really hate. Whatever will be the most motivating).

Finally, click the “triggers” icon, and set up the following triggers so both functions run every hour.

Deal with me gmail label

That’s really all there is to it. Now, I get a nice big red label automatically added to any stale starred items. It doesn’t totally prevent things from piling up, but it helps give me that little prod to make an effort to keep things tidy.


Cultivate a hacker mentality to improve your workplace productivity

“Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.” – Robert Heinlein, American science fiction writer

In the course of doing our day to day work, we have to spend lots of time doing repetitive tasks. Over time, the inefficiencies can become really obvious (not to mention annoying). Usually, we put up with it. But there are a bunch of good reasons not to. Many processes evolve organically, and you shouldn’t assume that there’s a rational reason for why you’re doing something the way you are. Sometimes a small change will make a big difference, and you, as the person having to put up with the painful tedium, are the perfect person to think of it.

One of the best pieces of professional advice I ever got was:

“Get good at looking for ways to get 80% of the work done in 10% of the time. Not to drive company efficiency, but to preserve your own sanity.”

That may sound like cultivating laziness, but it’s actually the opposite. There’s always going to be more to do, and that mindset that encourages you to be protective about your time, which is a really strong motivator to minimize the things that feel like a bad way to spend it.

So, learn to look for the simple and clever hacks in your day to day routines. Here are a few links to help inspire you.

Employee driven innovation

This slideshow from Prachi Gupta at LinkedIn does a great job of illustrating why a hacker mentality is important, and showing how LinkedIn nurtures the habit on a company-wide level. They have monthly “Hackdays” where everyone in the company gets to work on anything they want. They even take the best hacks and give people months to work on making them a more solid, scaleable solution.

Among many gems in the presentation is this definition of what exactly is meant by the term “hack” in this context:

“A ‘hack’ is a quick and dirty solution to a real world problem. It’s never perfect or complete, but it’s almost always clever and insightful.”

A “Kaizen” Improvement at a Wine Bar – Is it “Lazy” or Smart?

This post focuses on the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or “change for the better”, and explores the sometimes blurry line between “lazy” and “efficient”. He makes the good point that laziness can get a bad reputation, and should be looked at as a more positive attribute. He also provides some great examples about how the person doing the day-to-day repetitive tasks is often the best person for innovating on the process.

A culture of lies and laziness

Don’t get too carried away with the shortcuts, though! It’s great to find novel and clever solutions to problems that save you time, but be careful you’re not doing it at someone else’s expense. This explores where the line is and what happens when you cross it. In short, hack, but have a conscience about it.

99 Life Hacks to make your life easier!

Finally, here are a bunch of ridiculous, and ridiculously clever life-hacks for making everyday tasks a little bit easier. How can you apply that type of thinking to the things you do every day?