At the end of 2016, I looked at my inbox to realise I had processed a total of 32,000 emails that year, with meetings, skype calls and a lot more coordination. One day, a senior asked, what have you done this year? Nothing significant came to my mind. Yes, I was part of some big initiatives, ‘part’ being the key work here. But I could not point my finger at anything specific. My LinkedIn profile was not getting a few more lines in the experience section. I felt a bit befuddled. I was confident about being very efficient throughout the year. I worked usually long hours, sometimes slacked off a bit, but I always felt effective, busy and the salary seemed to be handsome.
In this era of knowledge workers, a lot of young professionals like us spend most of the time processing information and relaying it. We gather, process, and convey information to different parties — we manage, we coordinate, we seldom create! Why is that? I will explore that below with some suggestions how to ease our way out of this scenario.
Absence of clear indicators: Some jobs have clear sales targets, production targets and others. But a lot of us do not have a job that clearly connects with such targets. We play a part in the grand scheme of things, and the end results are two more steps away from what we have done, leaving us with little attachment with the impact.
In the absence of a connection with the impact, we turn towards something that is a lot more easily measured. We talk about “how many mails I write” and “how many meetings I attend.”
It becomes easier to be visible, by being the first one to respond to the department’s group chat and the first one to initiate a chain mail. Setting up a recurring meeting for weekly reporting becomes an alternative to organising work and priorities properly.
We keep telling everyone about how many calls we had to attend and how busy we were, at every chance we get.
Absence of focused effort: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, who gave us books like Panther Panchali, and Chander Pahar… he had a strict routine of walking for miles each day, with only his notebook to take notes as he explored wilderness and riversides, with nothing else to distract him.
Immanuel Kant was at the top of scholarly fame when he stopped publishing for 11 years, and returned to publish Critique of Pure Reason, considered to be one of the best works in the history of philosophy.
But now we are expected to be always online, always connected to the teams, with email, WhatsApp and what not. We are preferring the urgent over important. Looking at the incoming text instead of focusing on the person sitting in front of us, taking the call, saying “excuse me” to leave the room when something important was being discussed. We have made it harder to go deep into any topic at all. We want the headlines, not the analysis and tiny details that could carry nuanced meaning.
There are roles that require one to be always online, some of us are overdoing it. We look at our inbox looking for the one mail that can be replied immediately, with little thought or research, (and no, searching for a minute on Google is not research). And when we face a document that needs to be thoroughly checked and thought about, we flag it to do later. But that ‘later’ often never arrives, because the next day the inbox is full again, prompting five other urgent pieces of work.
“In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative—constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction.” - Cal Newport (Deep Work)
Problem: loss of relevance and meaning : If we keep acting like network routers, we will lose our relevance fast, as our capacity to hold onto information and the pace of processing becomes slower as we age.
CEOs can be decision-making machines, they are required to give snap decisions on a hundred issues a day, often taking just a minute to think about any of them. It makes sense for them to be bombarded with meetings, emails, they are at an elite level of processing information. Mark Cuban (Billionaire, ‘Shark Tank’ star) reportedly handles 700 emails a day and starts working on them at 6:30am. But he has 26 years of career behind him, starting as a salesman in 1982! You must work at the craft for a while to get to this speed of problem solving.
In our economy now, the most important ability is the ability to master new things, faster. The rapid pace of technological change is changing how things work every few years, and if we are not used to sit down and focus on one thing, we are going to have a difficult time learning something new. We will be outsmarted by the new kids for whom learning comes easily.
Yes, there is a place for wisdom in a fast-moving world, but that wisdom is not going to accumulate if we keep working like a network router. The snap decisions that a lot of seniors can give is because of the time they spent earlier thinking and working on these. For young professionals, with minimum focus used, rarely there is an output that stands out.
Another significant issue that arises with shallow work is it becomes harder to form a cohesive story about what we are doing. There are so many fragmented pieces of work, we have a hard time lining up to form a full picture. Have you ever gone through the Facebook newsfeed, and YouTube videos for hours without remembering anything significant about it the next day? Then you wonder if just reading one book or just watching one movie would feel better than the infinite scrolling. This is what our jobs have become like. We are browsing through the tidbits of work, not letting any of it get a hold of our deep focus.
The solution: Researchers from the University of California, Irvine cut off email usage for 13 civilian office workers and found that it significantly reduced their stress level and increased the quality of their work. (Harvard Business Review)
If you are someone who feels like a network router in the office, it will not be easy changing the habits. There are people who think sending emails at midnight is a sign of high dedication to work, and they are competing with you for the boss’s attention.
Although there are companies around the world who are practicing internal email bans or meeting bans on specific days of the week (fastcompany), you may not be part of such an organisation. If you are used to being always available for the quick work, your boss would not be willing to let you go from that. Without risking too much dissatisfaction, you should instead focus on filling up the time you usually slack-off with work of greater depth. Maybe you can get back to reading those long documents that needed more time for you to pass a feedback on. Maybe you can work on the system of follow-up you had been planning for so long. Initiate some conversations with selected colleagues to contribute to something together, some gap that everyone feels but no one has the time to work on. Start showing these work and you might be surprised to find how much demand meaningful work has.
Quality output stands out, anywhere, and your organisation may not demand it, until you show that you can produce it. Once you do produce quality work, you will find that you have more right to ignore the urgent text messages, and less liability of responding right away to everything on the very same day. You can instead work on these urgent matters in chunk, in your own suitable time.
Caution: However, I would warn about being obsessed with making big strategic planning document and detailed vision. Don’t become the person who is always thinking and rarely executing. At the end of the day, thoughts live and breathe in the real world, that takes hard work, team coordination and a lot of change of plans. Shallow work is not petty, it is what enable all the other ideas to be at work, so don’t stop getting your hands dirty in the name of pursuing meaningful work.
Radi Shafiq is working as a development professional. He has completed Master of Development Studies from University of Dhaka and BBA from IBA, University of Dhaka.
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