A Mental Toolbox For The Future of Work

The most important skills you’ll need when we say goodbye to the 9–5

Photo by J. Adam Fenster (1)

You have probably seen the marshmallow test: a video displaying a Stanford study on delayed gratification. Children are given one marshmallow and told that if they wait to eat it, they will get another and have two. Most kids can’t help themselves and eat the first marshmallow. Some, like Hilary in this photo, exercise self-control and wait for the greater reward.

The job market is becoming more fluid than ever. Like the children in the study, the ability to resist instant gratification and instead exercise self-control, prioritize, and self-motivate will be invaluable tools in the new economy. The 9 to 5 hour workday, created during the Industrial Revolution to maximize daylight hours, is outdated. The structure is no longer relevant to the way we work in a knowledge-based society. As technological developments further transform our job market, we need to change our mental models to align with a new paradigm of work.

The Current State: 2017

Sarah is the CEO of a small environmental consulting agency, Altius Inc., with 25 employees. The company specializes in environmental research, working with governments and large enterprises to develop sustainability policies and strategies.

Altius has a variety of employees, all knowledge-workers. They works on tasks such as research and project scopes, creating financial reports, and developing policy recommendations.

Altius Inc. Org Chart 2017

Hilary, from our marshmallow video, is now 26 with a Master’s Degree in Environmental Science. She works for Altius as a Senior Research Analyst, working on client research projects assigned by the Director of Research. While she often would like to leave the office at 3pm when she’s done most of her work, she knows its taboo. So Hilary tries to appear productive from 9–5 because CEO Sarah values team players.

Flash Forward: 2027

Flash forward 10 years. It is 2027 and most routine work is automated. Artificial intelligence and automation have supercharged employee productivity and output, people work fewer hours. The economy is largely a gig-economy, with most work outsourced to contractors. Employers have both replaced and augmented their workforces.

Altius Inc. Org Chart 2027

Altius Inc.

Sarah is still the CEO of Altius, but the business has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. A few years back in 2020, there was a rapid and dramatic technological shift when many jobs and routine tasks began to be automated. Altius no longer needed the Bookkeepers, Executive Assistants, or Research Analysts. All of their skills had been replaced by intelligent software. The full-time Engineers and Project Managers were replaced by contractors. A few Account Executives and Account Managers were kept on full-time, the company relied on their consistent and personal touch when dealing with clients. Altius now employs 150 people, 15 full time and 135 contractors for various roles. Everyone’s role is much more fluid, employees float between teams and spend their time on whatever major project or initiative needs to be completed, then move on to the next.


When many of Hilary’s routine research tasks became automated, she became bored in her job. She still needed her income and enjoyed the sense of purpose being a Senior Research Analyst provided, however, without a constant stream of assignments and tasks, she was lost and unmotivated. She didn’t have a clear path to take initiative at Altius. Eventually, Hilary left her full-time job at Altius in an effort to make some major life changes.

So what’s Hilary up to now? For the last few years, she has taken up a freelance role as an AI-algorithm monitor. She works for mid-size companies monitoring their natural-language processors and language translators to ensure algorithmic output is creating meaningful and accurate research insights. While the transition from Altius and learning new skills was tough, she now likes the flexibility that her contractor roles provide her. She only works about 4–5 hours a day, but is paid well by her clients, who care only about her output, not the number of hours worked.

When Hilary found herself without a full-time job, she had to learn how to get up and motivate herself to get the best gigs, do her best work, and provide maximum value to her clients to maintain her income. She had to learn to take more responsibility and separate her wants from needs, freeing herself from the old way of thinking. Rather than being assigned work by her boss, she had to learn to be a productive and contributing member of society without being told what to do and when to do it. She had to learn to remove herself from wanting validation from her superiors, learn to be motivated enough to maintain economic stability, learn to spend her time in more productive ways, and learn to do new things that made her feel happy that contributed to her sense of identity. Her work was no longer her primary identity, it was something she did, but not who she was.

The Ingredients of Implementation

What have we learned about the future job-market transition?

  1. Outdated Systems: Current societal structures from, grade school, to college, to 9–5 job life, are outdated, they teach us to do what we’re told when we’re told. It is a system that supports the need for validation from others.
  2. Gig-Economy: The gig-economy contractor model will be one potential prevailing future state where technology will supercharge human productivity. People will work fewer hours. Employers, large and small, will find it more efficient to hire for the skills they need based on fluctuating projects and workloads. The gig-economy model will allow contractors more flexibility over when and how they work.
  3. Work & Identity: Our current mental model of how we value the importance of work is aligned with the old paradigm. We associate our job with our identity. In a fluid job market where people work fewer hours and for a variety of companies, we need to change this association of identity.
  4. Self-Regulation: To be successful in the new paradigm, we need to learn to train more than our skills, we need to train our state of mind. We need to learn to be self-motivated, self-regulating individuals who can exercise willpower, prioritize, take initiative, and create our own sense of identity, rather than seeking instant gratification and validation from others.

The Future State of Mind

Typical recommendations on how to prepare society for the future of work include policy proposals to enact free continual education courses, better job resources, entrepreneurship training, social benefits, subsidies and so on. While new skills, more job opportunities, and better benefits will be important elements, it’s a bit like mixing a bunch of ingredients up for a cake but forgetting the baking soda, the cake never rises.

A key ingredient in preparing for the future of work is helping individuals change their state of mind to manage new economic norms.

What could Altius have done to help Hilary improve her personal motivation and take more responsibility of her work and everyday life? In retrospect, CEO Sarah realized that her workforce would have been better prepared for the changing economy had she enacted more project-based work in small, dynamic teams, teaching her employees the value of output, not input. This would have encouraged more productive, self-regulating employees, rather than employees who came to work from 9–5 only to fill their days with needless tasks until they could leave.

On the flip side, what could Hilary have done to free herself from the old mental model? First, by not constantly multitasking with emails, texts, social media, she would have been able to be more focused and self-aware. This constant buzzing of notifications trained her mind to enjoy instant gratification. It made her less interested in thinking deeply, less interested in thinking long-term and more distracted by the constant tasks she could be doing. Second, Hilary always sought validation from her superiors, she always wanted a gold star from Sarah that she was doing well. Her job was the greatest part of her identity so validation from work, validated her as a person. A simple yet effective experiment that Hilary tried was wearing a rubber band on her wrist and snapping it every time she identified that she wanted external validation from her boss, her partner, her friends. Yes, it was a bit Pavlovian, but this method helped serve as a reminder to not need constant validation from others. It taught Hilary to get more in tune with how she validated herself as an individual creating a stronger sense of identity.

Goodbye 9–5

No matter what the future state of society, it is necessary to adjust our mental models as we shift to a new paradigm of work. A paradigm where we work alongside technology, and where we work less because our productivity has been supercharged. Employers and employees need to disassociate from the old 9–5 model and instead focus on employee’s output, not their input. We need to get away from the notion that our job is the largest part of our identity.

Employees must learn to self-regulate, prioritizing what is important now and what can be left until later. We have to disassociate from the old system of doing what we’re told, when we’re told, and looking for validation once a task is complete. Employers must understand that in order to create a successful future work force, you have to encourage these behaviours in employees, push them outside the 9–5 box, allow them more freedom to take responsibility, to create, to be flexible, and to allow them to show their value to the business in unstructured ways.

This is just the beginning of the conversation. Let me know what you think about the importance of training not just our skills, but also our state of mind and adding to our mental tool box, in order to better prepare for the future of work.

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(1) Photo by: J. Adam Fenster. 2012. University of Rochester. The Marshmallow Study Revisited. http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=4622

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