Real Work

I want to talk about real work and fake work.

Does this sound like your work culture?
Does this sound like your work culture?

We have 1:1’s, standup meetings, team meetings, check-ins, all-hands, and serendipitous meetings at the coffee machine. How long did you spend writing google docs, emails, slack chats, gchats, hipchats, and wikis? What percentage of your day comprised of tuning your vimrc/emacs/bashrc and organizing your trello lists? Are you patting yourself on the back for reaching Inbox Zero?

How many times today did a customer notice something you did?

Sam Altman writes about fake work for startup founders:

In general, startups get distracted by fake work. Fake work is both easier and more fun than real work for many founders. Two particularly bad cases are raising money and getting personal press; we’ve seen many promising founders fall in love with one or (usually) both of these, which nearly always ends badly. But the list of fake work is long.

I tell founders to consider how directly a task relates to growing. Obviously, building and selling are the best. Things like hiring are also very high on the list—you will need to hire to sustain your growth rate at some point. Interviewing lots of lawyers has got to be near the bottom.

So now we have rules for founders/CEO’s:
Real work: Building/Coding and sales, probably hiring.
Fake work: Interviewing lots of lawyers.

Does Sam think lawyers are unnecessary? No, but he realizes picking the 1st or 2nd best lawyer is indistinguishable from choosing the 12th best when it comes to your business. Finding the best employees is a better use of a CEO’s time.

But what about everyone else? How do we distinguish between real work and fake work?

Toyota’s legendary production system strives to eliminate waste everywhere. When talking about waste, Toyota’s Shigeo Shingo observed that only the last turn of a bolt tightens it.

"Only the last turn of a bolt tightens it" - Shigeo Singo
“Only the last turn of a bolt tightens it” – Shigeo Singo

That final turn in software engineering is shipping code. There are other activities so closely tied to deploying code that they are undoubtedly Real Work, such as programming and reviewing another engineer’s code. What about everything else?

I define Real Work as
A. Work that creates an immediate and positive change in your product/service
B. Work that is a direct constraint to the completion of A
C. Work you have been uniquely hired to do.

Type C has to be included because many jobs don’t touch A and B, but someone has to do them. Google famously hired a masseuse, Bonnie Brown, when they had only 40 employees. Was she improving our search results in 1999? Maybe not, but Larry and Sergei thought it was critical to their success. For Bonnie, she should be confident that shipping each great massage (type C) was Real Work as it had been identified by the business as type B work.

So why make the distinction between A, B, and C at all? Why not just say Real Work is what you were hired to do and leave the question of whether it’s valuable or not to the person who hired you. It’s because most of our jobs have a degree of autonomy in the the tasks we take on. We should prioritize type A tasks and have a high standard for B tasks. We should eliminate any B tasks that don’t enhance our ability to complete A tasks. Fake work is anything that doesn’t live up to that standard.

Things you can do tomorrow to minimize Fake Work
1. Skip a meeting you don’t need to attend
2. Turn your weekly meeting into a bi-weekly meeting, or even monthly
3. Be concise in communications. Be polite, but formality in email is dead.
4. Don’t jump into conversations just because you can. Comments can be useful, but they also add cognitive load to an issue.
5. Eliminate, automate, or delegate menial tasks.
6. “Table it!” Brian Sloane introduced this to me. If two people are having a drawn out discussion in a meeting, put your hand on the table (or in the air) and say “Table it” to indicate that this discussion should continue in another channel at a later time.

Things you can do tomorrow to maximize Real Work
1. Figure out what real work means for you in your job.
2. Schedule time specific tasks. Treat them like appointments.
3. Don’t check your email until you’ve been at work for an hour. This is an old Tim Ferris trick. If you’re feeling brave, forego Slack, too.
4. Observe the habits of people who get things done. Shamelessly steal them.

Minimizing fake work doesn’t mean you should eat lunch at your desk everyday. The advantage of focusing on Real Work is so you can perform at a high level and still live your life.

Active vs Passive Interruptions

In all work environments people have to communicate. Sometimes they are across the hall and sometimes they are across the world, but in every case someone initiates the contact and the other must decide what to do. The Initiator must first choose the method, whether it’s a phone call, text message, email, etc.

Does your question really require an immediate response?

What makes these methods different is level of interruption of the person being contacted. If you take my call, I am not just asking a question. I’m also requesting that you remove yourself from the context of your current task and prepare an answer for me immediately. If an answer is not available, I at least want a response with an estimated time of when it can be answered. A question spoken out loud and in person is an even greater disruptor, since the receiver has almost no choice to ignore the question. These interruptions can be powerful detriments to productivity if it takes a certain amount of time for the receiver to reorient himself into his previous context. A recent study said these transactional costs can be up to “28 percent of a worker’s day.

A potential interrupter should ask themselves, “Does a quick answer to this problem justify a disruption in someone else’s time?” If not, use a more passive method of communication like email or text messaging to get the information you’re looking for. That way the receiver can answer them with the least disruption possible to their productive time. The interrupter should use the least disruptive communication method that results in getting an answer in the appropriate time.

In order of most interruptive to least:

  • Active: Asking a question out loud
  • Active: Phone calls
  • Active: Paging
  • Passive: Physical note left on desk
  • Passive: Text messages
  • Passive: Emails
  • Passive: Memo left in mailbox
  • Passive: Other passive electronic methods other than Email

It’s partly for this reason I have stopped taking voice mail on my land line at work. It used to be a dump for solicitors and rarely contained messages I needed. It took time to sort through and delete them and I also didn’t have access to it remotely like email. My greeting now says I don’t take voicemail and to please send me an email.

Getting Things Done

I heard about David Allen’s Getting Things Done a long time ago and I procrastinated in getting it.? It sounded like a system I could use, since my day usually consists of handling (and keeping track of!) a thousand tiny tasks.? I got the book for Christmas and according to my wife it’s the best $10.00 she ever spent.? From time to time I might comment on how my system is working, so here is the gist of it:

You can’t trust your brain, so everything you need to do must be kept in a system outside your brain.
Some of these things you need to do may take more than one step.? These are projects.
Put every project in a list and from there, generate? a list of next actions for each project.? A next action is something that can be done right now or in a given context (an @hardware store list or an @phone list).
Mercilessly complete the next actions.

The revelation of how powerful this is for me came when I? realized my previous to-do lists failed because I’d have projects mixed up with next actions and single tasks.? “Make dinner reservation” would be right next to “Redesign website.”? Instead, making dinner reservations should be next to something like, “choose font for redesign.”

I still get stuck on some actions and in those cases I usually break it out to as tiny a task as possible.? Ridiculously so.

Software helps, so I’ve been using ta-da list.? Originally I used iGoogle, but their to-do lists looked bad on my phone.