You know the feeling.
You’re sitting at your desk as the clock ticks toward 5 pm. There’s a half-drunk, lukewarm coffee on your desk and a blinking cursor on the computer screen in front of you.
As you get ready to pack your bag and head home, you think to yourself:
What did I actually accomplish today?
But the answer eludes you.
You sent some emails. You attended some meetings. You shuffled some slides around in a PowerPoint deck. You had lunch with a colleague. You made some phone calls. But there’s little trace of tangible achievement.
You go home, only to return the next day to rinse and repeat, ending the day with the same nagging feeling of, I’m not sure what I accomplished today.
This is the plight of the modern knowledge worker. It stems in part from a false expectation—that the output of a knowledge worker should resemble that of a manual worker.
If you’re a manual worker on an assembly line, you’re producing tangible goods. Your outputs are the steel rods, the appliances, and the widgets you help assemble. In manual work, input translates to output, often in a nice linear line.
But the output of a modern knowledge worker is hard to measure. Knowledge workers assemble decisions. They sell influence. They make change happen.
There’s often a long lag between the input of a knowledge worker and the output. They may work for days, weeks, months—and even years—without seeing anything that can be quantified.
Despite these fundamental differences, we try to fit the square peg (the knowledge worker) into the round hole (the manual worker). Businesses treat knowledge workers like manual workers on assembly lines, mistakenly believing that innovation will magically happen if employees repeatedly perform the same processes and routine tasks.
Consider writing. Creativity requires connecting the dots, and connecting the dots requires allowing time for my subconscious to consolidate my ideas and make associations. This means that, from time to time, I need to just stare out the window and do nothing.
This doesn’t feel productive, even though it is. But when I measure my output by the number of words I moved down the assembly line, I don’t feel like I accomplished anything and feel lousy as a result.
Stop treating knowledge work as manual work. Instead of measuring success by irrelevant or arbitrary metrics, ask yourself, Did I contribute today?
Did you advance the conversation? Did you solve a problem? Did you come up with a good idea? Did you help a colleague or a client?
These may seem like small things.
But as Bruce Springsteen reminds us, from small things, big things one day come.