The simple 5 step system I use to complete knowledge work tasks

If you are a labor worker the tasks you are required to accomplish are typically well defined. Shovel X amount of dirt into container Y. Move unit A from point B to point C. Deliver package W to customer Z.

The same cannot be said for most of the tasks that knowledge workers are required to accomplish. Improve metric A. Solve problem B. Develop product C that delivers result D. Whenever I need to complete a knowledge work task (which seems to be more and more often these days) this is the simple 5 step system I try to use.

  1. Stop doing everything else you are doing. Effectively executing knowledge work requires focus and concentration. If that means you need to go for a walk to clear your mind before beginning by all means do so.
  2. Write down what you are trying to accomplish. The first step towards solving any problem is defining it, and knowledge work almost always centers around solving some sort of a problem.
  3. Write down the steps that someone might take to accomplish the task. Break down the task into actionable parts. Define the labor work required.
  4. Iterate. Shoot holes in your plan. Play the devil’s advocate. Try to understand what could cause your plan to fail at every step along the way.
  5. Take action. Execute each step that you have defined in sequential order. If you run into a road block or an unexpected problem simply return to step 1 and start the process all over again.

Even with this system executing knowledge work is hard. It is frustrating and confusing. It requires patience and focus and discipline. You can try to avoid knowledge work, but if you do it’s important to understand that it is the only type of work that cannot be effectively automated my machines.