Examine (and re-examine) your work

Socrates stated: "the unexamined life is not worth living". In the broadest sense, this statement has significant meaning. We must explore the human condition in order to live a life of maximum value. In a much less serious corollary, I proffer the following: "work that's unexamined is not worth doing". When we go to work, we spend our time in the service of many goals. Three of which are the following: to earn an income to pay for our livelihood, to grow socially and personally, and to achieve something worthwhile. We need to take a more serious look at how we work as it relates to the latter aim, though, in the fullness of time, the others tend to follow. When we set out to complete a particular task, we complete the work along the spectrum of total focus to total distraction. We always fall somewhere between those two extremes. Unfortunately, we tend to be distracted more often than not.

At one point, I read about an interesting application of this idea (from author Cal Newport's book How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less) where work accomplished is a multiplicative combination of the investment of quantity of time and intensity of focus. When you have a high level of focus, your single hour study session may be multiple times more productive than when you are unfocused. This idea reminds me of a situation related to space travel; if we were to set out toward the nearest star today, we'd likely arrive after a ship that left later because technology had advanced so rapidly in the meantime.

Put in more practical terms, it's advantageous to do hard things when you're focused, so they get done as quickly as possible. It's a nice idea and really quite powerful in its own right. However, if we take it one step further, we can dramatically increase the results we generate. Anything we set out to do should be done with care, for as Steve Prefontaine is quoted: "to give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift". Now, you may argue that striving for perfection is terribly inefficient. To that point I'd counter that learning to strive provides benefits in areas other than the one in focus.

So, while cleaning a particular room in a way that's "good enough" will tend to be sufficient, the fact you spend your time doing it necessitates that you to do it well. In fact, any improvement in efficiency allows an opportunity for quality improvement since you now have more time available. In systems thinking, this is referred to as a virtuous cycle. It's fair to say, that something like cleaning has few major consequences in our lives. How we work, however, has disproportionate impacts on our well-being. Improvement begets improvement, and improvement is not a miraculous occurrence.

Take the common experience of those who have a long, driving commute to work. If you leave a short time earlier than most you often find that your commute shortens by a larger amount. There's an incredibly important lesson here: minor changes to your daily routine can have significant impacts on your daily experience. When you arrive early at work you have less stress, you have a quiet workplace and can begin your day in peace. The resultant benefits are obvious when compared to a day where you arrive just minutes before your first meeting. If you take this idea and apply it to everything else, you'll tend to find places where a small shift in behavior can have a major, positive impact. This leads to the purpose of this article: if you don't regularly observe what you do with an objective eye then you may be sabotaging your ability to live a peaceful, productive life. The person who never finishes his/her work at work will rarely change if they don't examine what causes them to fall into that cycle. Of course, I'm not opposed to putting in the hours, but you must do so intelligently or you'll lose time for other important activities.

How does one examine their work?

The key is to always work with an objective measurement. Time is the simplest - how long does it take you to complete a task? A result in a fixed amount of time may also provide value - how many words did I write in 30 minutes? As the task becomes more significant, you may substitute days for the time period - it took 17 days to complete the sales cycle. Let's say you have some task that take two hours each week. If you actually get a stopwatch and time it, you may notice that the estimated two hours is actually closer to two and a half hours. Alternatively, you may realize that your competitive nature makes that normally two-hour task take only an hour and a half. Whatever the case may be, it's useful to get out of your subjective belief and hold it up to objective scrutiny. When you start to see how long it really takes then you can begin to manipulate your behavior to improve the result.

One simple example of behavior manipulation might be breaking up that two-hour task into 30-minute chunks, rather than doing them all in one shot. This alone might reduce total task time since your ability to avoid distractions and focus deeply for 30 minutes is much more likely than over a longer stretch. You might come to realize that the work is actually made up of three distinct parts. One of these parts might be so similar week-to-week that creating a template can save you ten minutes a week. Another chunk of work may be able to be delegated or changed so it doesn't need to be done at all (by you).

When you start to examine the objective truth you can use your creative mind to find better and better solutions. Those little wins require no more effort than larger, significant wins from a conception perspective, but neither are likely without examination. Once you've strung a few of those together you'll be generating significantly more value for yourself and/or your employer. This ever-increasing cascade of results leads to better skills and, if desired, monetary rewards. Without taking a deep look at what you do each day, you'll have a harder time producing results that increase year-to-year. Any work you do that doesn't have an objective measuring stick cannot be intelligently improved on a consistent basis. Start right now! Whatever you plan to do today, think about how it can be measured, so when and if you need to do it again you can determine if you're better than you were before.

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