Systems for knowledge worker excellence
Todd Henry and Cal Newport regularly post on developing systems to use as knowledge workers to help you develop a creative rhythm and consistently deliver better work.
As a process engineer I deliver value to my organisation through the development and application of novel ideas. I find it a constant struggle to manage the competing interests of shallow busy work and sitting back to spend the time on the really big items that move the needle significantly. I have found setting up systems are a good way to ensure that you can be more deliberate about moving to the latter and developing a creative rhythm. Two systems I like are outlined by Cal Newport and Todd Henry.
Cal Newport regularly posts about the value of systems to develop your skills:
If you want to do something interesting and rewarding — be it writing a novel, becoming a professor, or growing a successful business — you have to first become exceptional. As Study Hacks readers know, I think Steve Martin put it best when he noted that the key to breaking into a competitive and desirable field is to “become so good, they can’t ignore you.”
In other words, there’s no shortcut. If you want the world to pay attention to you, you have to provide a compelling reason. It doesn’t care about your life goals.
In his book “So good they can’t ignore you”, Newport outlines a systems process to:
Become “craft-centric.” Getting better and better at what I did became what mattered most, and getting better required the strain of deliberate practice. This is a different way of thinking about work, but once you embrace it, the changes to your career trajectory can be profound
Top Level: The Tentative Research Mission
My system is guided, at the top level of the pyramid, by a tentative research mission — a sort of rough guideline for the type of work I’m interested in doing…. In order to identify this mission description, I had first to acquire career capital in my field. ….. The real challenge, of course, is finding the compelling projects that exploit this potential.
Bottom Level: Background Research
We now dive from the top level of the pyramid to the bottom level, where we find my dedication to background research. Here’s my rule: Every week, I expose myself to something new about my field. I can read a paper, attend a talk, or schedule a meeting. To ensure that I really understand the new idea, I require myself to add a summary, in my own words, to my growing “research bible”
Middle Level: Exploratory Project
….., a little bet, in the setting of mission exploration, has the following characteristics: It’s a project small enough to be completed in less than a month.It forces you to create new value (e.g., master a new skill and produce new results that didn’t exist before).It produces a concrete result that you can use to gather concrete feedback. I use little bets to explore the most promising ideas turned up by the processes described by the bottom level of my pyramid. I try to keep only two or three bets active at a time so that they can receive intense attention. I also use deadlines, which I highlight in yellow in my planning documents, to help keep the urgency of their completion high. Finally, I also track my hours spent on these bets in the hour tally I described back in the section of this conclusion dedicated to my application
1. Focus: end with the beginning in mind.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day… you will never be stuck.” At the end of each work day, or when you pause work on a big, long-arc project, always consider exactly where you will pick back up next time. One of the greatest causes of procrastination is a lack of clear direction. If you define your next action at the end of each work session, you will set yourself up for success before you even begin.
2. Relationships: close an open loop.
Is there a decision you’ve been deferring, or an open-ended conversation that’s weighing on you right now? Over time, these non-actions accumulate. They cause undue stress and rob you of your ability to focus on what’s really important… Make a decision, provide an answer, or settle a conflict, and don’t let it rob your passion or focus any longer.
3. Energy: prune something.
Commitments of all kinds can accumulate over time and begin to strangle you. Make it a habit to look at all of the projects, tasks, and other commitments in your life and ask “which of these needs to be pruned?” If you’re saying yes to everything, you’re saying yes to nothing.
4. Stimuli: set time to get inspired.
What goes into your mind often comes back out again in the form of new perspective or fresh creative thinking. If you want great ideas, you must take the time to fill your mind with inspiring stimuli that will spark new thoughts and help you think more systemically about your work… Set an amount of time each morning, whether it’s just fifteen minutes or an hour, for study and personal inspiration.
5. Hours: engage in idea time.
Most of us are paid for turning our thoughts into value. We solve problems, we make things, we strategize, and we lead through uncertainty. However, few people actually dedicate time on their calendar for thinking about their most important problems. Instead, they expect great ideas to emerge in the cracks and crevices of their already bloated schedule. If you want to have great ideas, you must dedicate time to generating them. Set aside an uninterrupted block of time each day, or at least a few times each week, for focusing on your most pressing problems and generating ideas for them.
As author Gretchen Rubin wrote, “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” It’s the everyday practices that add up to big results over time. Curate your set of daily practices to help yourself stay focused, on-course, and prepared for whatever comes your way.