What you work on is more important than how well you do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re great at cutting your way through the jungle if you’re going in the wrong direction. It’s even worse if you’re in the wrong jungle. So be intentional about what you work on.
Being intentional about what you work on means different things for different
- Day-to-day: deciding what tasks to work on each day (and in what order)
- Mid-term: thinking about work 3-6 months ahead
- Long-term: the life-long story of your career
If you’re in early days of your career, you should worry about mid-term first, nail day-to-day second and not worry too much if you don’t have the long-term plan figured out.
Start with mid-term plans
Think of your career in 3-6 months increments. At a typical company it will mean projects: something with a tangible outcome that you work on for one or more quarters, ideally collaborating with others. If you’re working on a multi-year project, you’ll want to break it down into milestones that you can think of as individual projects.
It is crucially important that you get very good at mid-term planning of your work. This starts with understanding the work itself:
- What is the problem we’re trying to solve? Beware of jumping to a specific solution without understanding of the underlying problem. Even if someone very senior and smart asks you to do-a-specific-thing, you will do a better job (and have a better time doing it) if you understand the underlying problem.
- Why solving this problem matters? The universe (including the universe of your organization) is vast and there are many problems to solve. Why should we solve this problem, and not a different one? What would go wrong if we just do nothing? Beware of projects that keep people busy, but noone can explain why they need to happen now or why they’re important.
- What will I learn from this project? You shouldn’t pick projects based solely on how they advance your career. But you should consciously pay attention to learning opportunities as they present themselves and maximize the learning you can get. If you think you have nothing to learn from the projects in your current job, you either need to change your job or be more flexible (and humble) in thinking about what there is to learn.
If you get to pick your projects, you’re lucky! These three questions will help you pick the right ones to work on. Even if you don’t have a say in what you work on, asking these questions about your current and upcoming projects will help you be more effective and enjoy the work more.
Nail the day-to-day
Start with what’s most important. Avoid the antipattern of task snacking. You show up at work to work on the BigTask. You see that the BigTask is important but it’s big, will take weeks to finish and it’s a bit unclear where to start. You also have a soup of smaller errands that are not that important but they’re immediately actionable and you know how to get started on them. So you spend the day snacking on other work, and never get to the BigTask. You go home thinking you will get to the BigTask tomorrow. Repeat.
Tip: when stuck in this pattern, it’s helpful to stop and very precisely define the first 1-3 steps of the daunting BigTask. Make them very clear and very actionable. Then get started on the first one. How to find the motivation though?
Don’t wait for motivation. If you believe that you need to be motivated to
get started on the BigTask, you’re fuelling the procrastination with the
unhelpful idea that effectiveness follows motivation. It’s the other way around:
motivation follows effectiveness. Once we get started on a daunting task,
the resistance melts and we feel motivated. Get started and let the motivation
Reframe productivity. If you want to be productive because you think that your productivity determines your worth as a human being, or that being effective is your ultimate purpose in life, you’ll feel very frustrated when things don’t go well. This attitude makes bad days at work (and everyone has bad days at work) worse. Instead, strive to be effective because it feels good to be effective. Mastery over a task feels good. Mastery over a task you find meaningful feels amazing.
Long-term plans are nice, but don’t get too attached
Don’t worry if you don’t know what to do in the long term. If you have a decent amount of autonomy in your work, you’re working on projects that make sense to you, you’re learning new skills and you like your colleagues, you’re probably doing the right things. If not, you may need to fix that regardless of your long-term plan.
Beware of arbitrary long-term plans. It’s good to be ambitious, but if you focus too hard on some long term idea of a milestone you’ll have a worse time along the way (because you keep obsessing about TheGoal) and may miss beautiful opportunities that present themselves but happen not to be related to TheGoal.
Instead, reframe your long term goals as aspirations. Pursue them with passion, but be flexible in letting go of them and picking new ones as your perspectives and interests change.
Work (and life) happens in short time increments. A long and fulfilling career is a sum of short and fulfilling projects. Make sure to work on projects that make sense to you, be effective day-to-day and let the long-term story of your career write itself.