How to Make Progress on Meaningful Work

Making Progress

“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run. Whether they are trying to solve a major scientific mystery or simply produce a high-quality product or service, everyday progress — even a small win — can make all the difference in how they feel and perform.” 

[Teresa M. Amabile]

We make the most progress on our work when we commit deeply to the task at hand. Having uninterrupted stretches of time where we can organize our thinking and do the work go a long way to make it happen. These two conditions reinforce each other and help us store creative energy.

The more creativity we use when solving problems, the higher an organization's performance. In The Progress Principle, Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer say that when managers create the environment for building great inner work lives the outcomes go beyond consistently positive emotions, strong motivation, and favorable perceptions of the organization. The impact informs everyone's work, and their working relationships with colleagues. 

It is small actions that can solve the “crisis of engagement” that plagues the workplace. And mutual helping is more vital for knowledge work, when positive business outcomes depend on creativity in often very complex projects. 

We make the most progress when we have a higher degree of control over our schedule. Thus it's important to negotiate the percentage of our time we should spend on shallow work, to understand how to measure trade offs by measuring the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another and knowing the impact in lost productivity from having to switch or divide our attention between different tasks.

Remote knowledge workers may seem to have a higher degree of freedom over the organization of their days. However, old interruption habits die hard and modern tools like Slack are quickly replacing email as the favorite medium for volleying questions and throwing links over the fence as a way to feel productive by asking others to filter and handle the information. Helpfulness can be detrimental if it prevents making meaningful progress. 

A link exists between attention and creativity and if our cognitive load is at capacity, we end up like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder uphill that keeps rolling back down — our mental effort from working memory will actively prevent progress.

In Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport examines a few myths about creative work:

  • don't work alone – means we should learn to leverage collaboration properly. There seems to be a misunderstanding about having to make an either/or decision between deep work and creative insights coming from serendipitous collaboration. This conclusion is flawed. Because it's based on an incomplete understanding of the theory of serendipitous creativity.

Newport's example to prove the point is the history of Building 20 at MIT — people believed that a temporary building that housed a combination of different disciplines in a large space that could be reconfigured created opportunities for chance encounters that then delivered breakthrough innovations.

But, it was at Bell Labs that director Mervin Kelly configured the ideal mix of long hallways suitable for chance encounters of scientists from different disciplines housed in the same contiguous building — hallways for bumping into each other, soundproofed offices for doing the work. The lab was responsible for a strong of innovations in the decades following WWII.

A hub-and-spokes model, rather than open space where the bulk of the effort is meant to be done in interruption mode. Distraction is a destroyer of depth, says Newport.

  • execute like a business – the division between “what” and “how” in business is crucial. Figuring out what needs doing is the easy part. It's creating the path for how we do it that matters. Building on Clayton Christensen's forward to The Four Disciplines of Execution, we should:

1./ focus on the wildly important – to build the organization's energy to drive results

2./ act on the lead measures – lag measures describe the thing we're trying to improve (e.g., customer sat scores). Lead measures “measure the new behavior that will drive success on the lag measures” (e.g., number of customers of get free samples.) But we need to make these measurement visible to track them. For example, how many hours of deep work / day

3./ keep a compelling scoreboard – “people play differently when they're keeping score” and it reinforces motivation

4./ create a cadence of accountability – for example, weekly reviews of the scoreboard. What went well, what we can improve

While strategizing is important, it's execution that is more difficult. Making progress requires more attention and creativity. In turn, progress generates higher levels of energy and renews commitment.


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