Working on the Right Things is What Makes Knowledge Work Effective

Peter Drucker_Effectiveness

“Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective,” says Peter Drucker. The subject of The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done is how we can manage our self for effectiveness. 

Half of the battle in managing ourselves is about deciding how we place value on our activities. It may seem productive to pursue all opportunities, for example, telling ourselves that any benefit is better than no benefit.

But that thinking, encouraged by technology and the illusion of access, hides a harsher reality —activity is not synonym with effectiveness. When it comes to quantifying one activity in comparison with another, knowledge work suffers from a metrics black hole.

We measure everything, and yet we fail to measure two critical things when it comes to the majority of our work today:

1.) We don't tally the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another;

2.) we are not so good at knowing the impact in lost productivity of making trade-offs with attention.

Answering dozens of messages throughout the day on Slack in between tasks hikes the cost of switching on cognitive work and reduces our effectiveness exponentially. Yet, communication is an important aspect of collaboration in knowledge work.

Part of the answer is creating expectations that respect the sanctity of uninterrupted work to effectiveness. Part of it resides in becoming more effective communicators —from understanding how to use asynchronous tools, for example email and even Slack are not the same has having a conversation, to learning how to articulate complete thoughts in lieu of sound bites.

The person initiating the communication is responsible and accountable for clear, simple, and direct language. Transmission is much easier when this happens. Part of the problem is that clarity of expression —in complete sentences— comes from clarity of thought. 

When we develop our knowledge we become more effective thinkers, and that enables us to evaluate and thus measure trade offs better from data. In The Effective Executive Drucker elaborates on the problem of the type of data we extrapolate to inform our decisions:

“The problem is rather that the important and relevant outside events are often qualitative and not capable of quantification. They are not yet facts. A fact, after all, is an event that somebody has defined, has classified, and above all, has endowed with relevance.


The danger is that executives will become contemptuous of information and stimulus that cannot be reduced to computer logic and computer language. Executives may become blind to everything that is perception (i.e. event) rather than fact (i.e. after the event). The tremendous amount of computer information may thus shut out access to reality.”

We expend little to no effort in understanding how to use knowledge to extrapolate information that gives us actionable data these days. Warren Buffett is a master at that process. The secret to his success is that he learns continuously. He does that by reading a lot of many different things.

When we make learning a habit, we fine tune our ability to find material to satiate our curiosity —we quickly graduate to better writing and more diverse topics because we develop our point of view by exercising our thinking muscle.

Our effectiveness depends on our ability to think critically, to do the hard work of learning how to think about things. Doing things right depends on making sense of the right things.


Effectiveness, how we use our energy for well-being —ours and that of our organizations— is the main reason why almost a year ago I started writing more about making learning a habit, so we can make sense of our work and make our lives more productive.


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