You know the feeling.
You’re sitting at your desk as the clock ticks toward 5 pm. There’s a half-drunk, lukewarm coffee and a blinking cursor on the computer screen in front of you.
As you get ready to call it a day, you think to yourself: What did I actually get done 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, 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, the widgets you help assemble. In manual work, input translates to output, often in a nice linear and predictable line.
But knowledge work doesn’t function this way. The output of the knowledge worker is far less tangible. Knowledge workers assemble decisions. They sell influence. They make change happen.
What’s more, 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.
For their part, many knowledge workers view their work in manual terms by attempting to quantify their outputs. Lawyers count billable hours in six-minute increments. Computer programmers count lines of code. Social media influencers count likes and retweets as evidence of tangible achievement. Many people track the number of zeros at the end of their bank account balance or the number of emails still sitting in their inbox.
We track what’s easy to track—not what’s important—and falsely assume that if we hit these metrics, we’ve accomplished something valuable.
Consider writing. Any good writer knows that creativity requires connecting the dots, and connecting the dots requires allowing time for your subconscious to consolidate your ideas and make associations. This means, from time to time, you need to stare at a wall and do nothing.
None of this feels productive, even though it is: My most original insights arrive during times of slack, not hard labor. But when I judge my output by the amount 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 trying to quantify what can’t be quantified, ask Did I contribute today?
Did you advance the conversation? Did you come up with good ideas? 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.