Every day for the past few months I’ve been driving by a construction project near my home. Watching just a handful of workers turn a patch of bare ground into an impressive building is exciting to watch. It struck me how tangible the results of a day’s work are for those building this new structure. Every day the walls rise further and the building is visibly more complete.
This tangibleness is a stark contrast to what I do each day as a “knowledge worker”. While the results of my efforts must ultimately be tangible (money in the bank, new features in software dev projects, improved customer metrics, or valuable advice given in a meeting) the day-to-day results can be hard to identify. The lack of tangible progress can be frustrating and discouraging. As we’ve discussed before, ambiguity kills joy.
Why Tangible Achievements Matter
Even for those of us working in the realm of bits and bytes, tangible achievements are incredibly important for a few reasons. Here are just a few of them:
1. Value – Everything we do must ultimately translate into some sort of real value. In the digital world, it is easy to lose sight of this all-important fact because the cost of getting distracted and focusing on things that don’t truly matter is so low. In days of old, distraction could mean that you might starve or freeze to death. We are so far removed from these realities that we’ve become a society of lazy procrastinators.
2. Personal Achievement – We humans are designed to improve the world around us and to make progress. If we aren’t doing this – if our daily life has little tangible effect on our life or those we serve – it is easy to become depressed and discouraged. Tangible results are monuments to our achievements that encourage us to keep pressing forward, to continue to improve and work. Without them life becomes dull and meaningless.
3. Reality – Tangible results, when we can look and see what it is we have accomplished, act as an incredible reality check. Is what we are doing worth it? Is it creating value? If everything we do is invisible vapor it is difficult to know if our efforts have meaning.
How Knowledge Workers Can Create More Tangible Results
Here are a few of the ways I’ve found to give my work more tangible meaning.
Clearly Define Tasks
Each week my team and I establish clearly defined tasks. These tasks are translated into story form and written on a physical notecard (and a virtual card via Trello) and placed on a SCRUM board. Each day we move the card or cards we are working on into the “active” column. This gives a specific, tangible representation of the work I am doing. If I find myself working on something that is not on a card, I know that I am off course. The agile/SCRUM method is rooted in software development, but it can be useful for any type of work.
1. Daily Gut Check
Each day my team and I answer three questions in a 15 minute meeting:
1) What did I accomplish yesterday?
2) What am I going to work on today?
3) What obstacles are standing in my way?
These three questions act as an honesty meter. Is what we are doing on track? Did I actually accomplish something?
When you finish a project it’s so powerful and encouraging to collect specific, written feedback from the customers or people that benefited from the work you did. Collecting this feedback is a discipline I’m still working to develop more fully. Ramit Sethi has written about collecting praise extensively and has useful ideas on how to go about asking for and storing it.
3. Sharing Knowledge
Research is a big part of my daily life. I read constantly to stay on top and to discover solutions to the problems my team is encountering. Instead of letting everything I consume go in and out of my mind, I work hard to store and catalog what I read. I use Pocket to save every article I read. Pocket allows me to tag things so I can easily refer back to specific topics.
I work to curate and share the best material I come across with my friends on social media. This sharing is value-adding for others, and a tangible byproduct to all the reading I do.
Blogging is another form of tangible knowledge sharing. Taking the lessons I am learning and distilling them down into a blog post is helpful for me and hopefully for others as well.
Knowledge Must Translate into Value
Our knowledge-economy makes it easy to hide behind intangible busywork. The bottom line is that everything we do needs to translate into a solved problem – into increased joy in someone’s life. Don’t let the intangible nature of knowledge work stand in the way of making a tangible difference in the world!