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How to embrace the superpower of the 21st century and succeed at work

Going deep and getting to the bottom of things has become an essential skill to combat AI and automation that is driving a wave of restructuring. A wave with many potentially severe career implications for professionals in business. If you think this is alarmist then check out the latest at where their open-source API for GPT-3 provides a general-purpose "text in, text out" interface allowing uses to try it on virtually any English language task:

  • GPT-3 wrote this article in the Guardian newspaper

  • GPT-3 can already do this for web design

The changes this brings to knowledge workers in areas such as law, journalism, finance, medical diagnosis, design, and marketing are profound, and it is coming soon. We will need an edge to succeed or risk marginalisation, our skills and knowledge steadily losing value, resulting in potentially being replaced by software. It is no longer just manual work and repetitive tasks that are at risk.

In this article, we will explore some of the best strategies to stay ahead of the restructuring wave and reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits arising from the new age.

At a high level, we can break the skills and habits one needs to develop into:

1 - Soft skills

We can make some predictions on the types of tasks that will continue to remain in the human domain, at least for the foreseeable future. We know that, right now, machines are generally poor at understanding emotions, at sensing the situation and context, and at developing trusting relationships.

The World Economic Forum report on future skills argues that it is the human skills, the so-called "soft skills" that will become increasingly valuable. Skills such as:

  • Listening and communicating effectively

  • Empathy

  • Context sensing

  • Collaboration

The challenge here is how to scale soft skills as the industrial age that led to our educational establishments, has meant they have skewed away from the very skills that are increasingly important. I have previously covered this topic in other articles here, here, and here.

2 - Getting to the bottom of things

This article focuses on the ability to get to the bottom of things and to understand the topics and issues we face profoundly. Cal Newport, in his seminal book Deep Work, presents the hypothesis that the typical knowledge worker's ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable. Cal's description of deep work aligns perfectly with getting to the bottom of things and not only staying on top of things:

Deep work is activities, performed without distraction, so you have the highest levels of concentration possible that push your cognitive capabilities to the max. The reward for these efforts is to

  1. create new value,

  2. improve existing skills and develop new ones,

  3. work that is hard to replicate - especially by the coming wave of AI.

The risks of embracing the status quo, and doing nothing are severe. I discussed good versus bad risks in a previous article.

If you are too busy or not preparing and planning for the future, then these are examples of unconsciously taking bad risks. Whereas getting to the bottom of things, and going deep will attract good risks along with the core aims you have for your work. Examples of this type of risk could be:

  • A high likelihood of developing new transferable skills.

  • The opportunity to build new relationships that will aid you in the future.

  • The chance to learn things that you wouldn't know otherwise.

So are you staying on top of things or getting to the bottom of things?

Living and working in a world of distraction.

Donald Knuth has a certain notoriety for not having used email since 1990. The professor of Computer Science at Stanford has this on his Stanford homepage.

"I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don't have time for such study."

Knuth's point is that the less energy you put into keeping up with email, social media, and the news, the more you'll be able to put toward solving problems in your work. We should prioritise understanding difficult concepts and addressing complex issues in life and work.

The everyday distractions of busy work and busyness are getting in our way because many modern organisations prioritise doing visible things over the ability to do deep work. Nowhere is this more evident than the massive open floor offices that have become increasingly common in the past several decades. Another place that we see this at work is the expectation of rapid responses to low-cost questions fired via email or messaging apps. The need to be present and contributing to communication threads - this behaviour is visible and can be measured - can easily be confused with productive, maybe even confused with being effective.

There is another way, and perhaps the two approaches can live side by side.

Getting to the bottom of things and going deep.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

If you are to develop your ability to get to the bottom of things, and therefore thrive rather than survive, you need:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things. New technologies change rapidly, and the need to master hard things will never end. We need to do it quickly, again and again - we, therefore, need a system and habits to be in place. If you can't learn you won't thrive - we need to create a continuous learning environment for ourselves and our teams.

  2. The ability to produce at an elite level (in terms of speed and quality). Which means we need to be able to transform this learning into tangible results that people and organisations value.

Being able to do #1 and #2 depends on your ability to perform deep work. Deep work, cannot exist alongside interruption and that instead, it requires blocks of uninterrupted concentration.

This deep focus is the polar opposite of inbox-zero for email or the popular multi-tasking idea pervasive within the modern business environment. We should instead focus on the crucial tasks and not switch from one to another, to another. It is almost impossible to perform deep work and get to the bottom of things if your work reality is going from one meeting to the next, to the next, to the next, with little to no time in between.

"It is not a proxy for your seriousness that you fill every minute in your schedule."

Bill Gates.

Are they mutually exclusive?

Time for a reality check. It just isn't possible for knowledge workers, and professionals within business to completely cut themselves off from their day jobs. Whether it is the many meetings, responding to incoming questions from your global team, tackling the pressing matters that came in overnight, chasing that client or supplier, reacting to a regulatory request for information, the list is endless.

So while it is not possible to perform deep work and be performing shallow (distracting) work at the same time, we need practical ways to help them co-exist. That way you can continue delivering the more visible, more readily measurable work but at the same time carve out precious time and energy for the more valuable, more future proof, and likely more rewarding work.

Before we cover some of the ways you might do this, the how to carry out deep work as a busy, stretched knowledge worker, let us remind ourselves why we should be doing so.

What could happen if you don't continuously learn, get to the bottom of things, and go deep?

Remember the HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Odyssey. The famous line:

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

HAL 9000 | 2001: A Space Odyssey

It might not be HAL that replaces you in your role. But it could be a piece of innocuous software that plugs into the next version of GPT-3.

And if you don't fear the future world of friendly AI's then perhaps it is worth highlighting and reminding ourselves how easy it is currently to communicate, interact and work with people around the globe. This universal accessibility brings the peak market to our doors as potential competitors. The superstar programmers, lawyers, consultants, designers or coaches to name but a few are after your work. It is increasingly difficult to hide ordinary, commonplace work - and if all you have is shallow work, then it may be time to start being worried. The AI or talented knowledge worker in another country, at the end of a highspeed, reliable broadband connection, could be your future replacements.

So how can you go about developing the tools, techniques, habits and discipline to succeed?

Here are just a few ideas to help you make the necessary changes. We each need strategies and habits that will increase the probability that we can succeed in embedding deep work within our professional working lives. Different approaches will suit different people - no one way will work for everyone:

"It is only process that saves us from the poverty of our intentions."

Elizabeth King. American Sculptor.

How deep, when, and how often. How much time can you carve out from your work and family commitments? Cal Newport describes several approaches such as:

  • Monastic - cut yourself off entirely from inevitable distractions. This is the Donald Knuth approach to email.

  • Bimodal - dedicate clearly defined periods to deep work, while leaving the rest open to your everyday life. Bimodal could take the form of batching your work. Set aside and protect defined periods each month to exclusively focus on research or creative thinking.

  • Rhythmic - get into the habit of regular periods of deep work. Perhaps this takes the form of writing for 1-hour a day, every day. Or it could be you get up early and do 2-hours of deep work before your typical day begins.

Measure how much time you are spending getting to the bottom of things - mark in your diary, calendar or journal each day and week. Keep the scorecard visible and hold yourself accountable. Being busy is not a valid excuse for why you are not continually learning and going deep. Remember that AI or superstar breathing down your neck.

Reduce distractions:

  • Quit or at the very least, reduce your time on Social Media. Pick which one(s) provide the most value to you. Set a high bar - does spending hours a week on FB or Pinterest improve the quality of your life? If not, then take a sabbatical (but don't tell anyone) - you can always sign back in, it's not like those platforms are going to disappear.

  • Audit the emails that you receive and messaging threads of which you are a member. Ask yourself, "What is the purpose of me receiving this and being on the distribution?" If you don't know then remove yourself, you can always get added again at a future date should it turn out to be necessary.

  • Remove the popups and notifications on your devices and screens - make them invisible. You don't need visible distractions - schedule specific times for when you will check each one.

Coaching can help you.

An independent, strategic coach - someone who is outside your line management will be able to:

  • Be that independent and confidential sounding board that you need.

  • Tell you things that others cannot say, and challenge and hold you accountable.

  • Provide an outside perspective to help you see yourself as others see you.

  • Help you identify and develop new habits and skills to be more effective.

It can be impossible to get this time and support from those around you, and yet this helping hand may be essential for your enduring career success. Coaching will be able to assist you on the path to cultivating the deep work skills and making them a core part of your working life, so you produce real value in an increasingly distracted world.

Often busy people struggle to make sustainable change. This isn't because of a lack of intent or the will to make things happen. We often have to change ourselves to implement changes in how we work successfully, so ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What actions might I be taking that prevent me from doing deep work and achieving this goal?

  2. What potentially competing commitments do I have that hamper my efforts to make this change to how I work?

  3. What limiting assumptions do I have that are getting in the way and preventing me from making this sustainable change?

Should you need help answering these questions, please get in touch to explore how coaching might help.

Imagine what you could accomplish if you weren't focused on being busy all the time.

"Change before you have to."

Jack Welch


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