Career Success in 3 Easy Steps – The first step is to Define what success actually looks like and decide what tasks, if performed regularly, will provide the greatest return on time invested. The second step is to Clear the Path; automate your workflow and reduce the amount of time that you spend focusing on low-value activities. The third step is to Do the Work that matters most. In this series we will examine each step in turn.
In this final installment of the series we are going to look at techniques for getting the work done that is going to give the greatest benefit to you, both personally and professionally.
Works that matter are not typically easy to complete. They require focus, and will stretch your capabilities. And if they don’t then you should choose something more challenging to do. Because the area of greatest advancement lies just beyond the threshold of your comfort zone.
The key is to choose projects that push you outside of your comfort zone, without going farther from your skill set than you can handle. Once the skill you are working on has improved enough it will eventually fall within your comfort zone and you will need to push out even further the next time in order to continuing to expand.
Repetition of tasks that are well within your comfort zone remains valuable for consolidating the knowledge learned and you can continue to improve at them, however the improvements now become more about efficiency than new learning. That is, until you focus on a select part of that work and push the limits of it outside your comfort zone again.
Choosing the Projects – A Systems Based Approach
The path towards continuous improvement in your profession is to choose the right kind of work to do. At first glance it may seem like this means that you need to do extra credit projects on top of your usual daily tasks, but that isn’t the case. The key is to build projects around your usual daily tasks that incorporate the new skills you are trying to practice or develop.
Remember in part 2 of this series where we discussed Systems Thinking? This is the exact area that this concept is directly applied. By focusing on the system, rather than the goal, you come out ahead in the end even if the project itself was unsuccessful. This concept was popularized by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.
An example of this type of approach is this very website. It takes a fair bit of time, and doesn’t return any monetary reward, so why do it? Because it allows me to improve my writing and my web design skills, both of which have cross over into other areas. And I am further improving my system this year by focusing on longer, multi-part articles (like this one), and developing them into presentations, which will further my presenting and speaking skills. So even if only one person ever reads my work (Hi Mom!) it will still be a worthwhile endeavor because I approach it with a systems based approach that makes it a guaranteed win.
The Value of Meta Skills
Each project that you do should incorporate some type of meta skill. What is that you ask? A meta skill is a higher order skill that enables other skills to occur. This means that it will help you do better at anything you do. A rising tide raises all ships.
The two most common and overarching meta skills are Writing and Speaking. These skills are used in every profession and improving them will only help you excel in the long run as they are transferable to any endeavor. Try to build in ways to improve these skills during your regular work.
Some examples of other transferable skills that can be rolled up into typical work projects are:
- Proficiency at Microsoft Office products
- Coding / Programming
- Organizational skills
- Math and accounting
- Leadership, influence, and people skills
Each of these will have a return on time invested that is greater than just the project completed.
Putting It All Together
With those two concepts firmly in mind, it is time to apply it to your own unique situation. It may be that you already work at your dream job and want to do the best work possible, or perhaps you feel stuck in a thankless career and want to find something better. This concept applies equally well to both situations.
The first step is to perform a Gap Analysis. All this means is that you first define where you are currently, then defining where you want to be. This is important because if you don’t have an end result in mind, you’ll never know when you’ve arrived. The difference in skill set and resources required to move from here to there is the gap.
With a general understanding of where you are deficient in skills, you can now examine this skill on the macro level; the 30,000 foot view. This is another form of gap analysis; this time focusing on the particular skill you wish to acquire. Where are you already pretty good? Where do you need work? When you’ve identified holes in your knowledge base you can finally drill down to the Micro level where you identify the specific skills required and reduce them to the smallest actionable unit possible.
Then you come up with a project, or impose a restriction on your regular workflow that will force you to practice that skill during the course of your work.
It is important to program the development of these skills so that they build on one another, which is why you examine them under the microscope and reduce them down to their base components. Use each small win as a stepping stone to the next and don’t try to take on too much at one time. Consistency is key and we can only learn so much on our own that is outside of our comfort zone. That is, unless you have some help.
When learning a new skill, it is important to have immediate feedback so you know when a correction is required. It can be hard to assess yourself honestly so this is a great place to get some help.
A mentor doesn’t have to be a wise old sage in a robe. It can be the lady in the office who kicks ass at Powerpoint presentations, or the yard foreman that knows what everybody is doing at all times, or the welder that stacks dimes all day long. People get hung up on finding a mentor to guide them through life, when the fact of the matter is that anyone who does a skill better than you can be a mentor.
By utilizing the skills and experience of these people to further your own, you’ll be building your knowledge using theirs as a scaffolding; allowing faster improvements.
Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky pioneered the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. The idea (originally used in childhood development, but applies to any type of learning) is that there is a zone within which the learner can perform tasks on their own, then a zone where they can learn with guidance (this is the ZPD), and finally a zone where they cannot learn – no matter how much help they get.
The takeaway is that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The fastest path to improvement is within the Zone of Proximal Development – and this requires some assistance. Fortunately for us, this assistance is all around us in our careers. We just need to ask for it.
Back to School and Permission Culture
One point I’d like to make during this discussion is that it is common for people to work towards secondary education in their free time in order to get ahead in their current field. I’ve attempted this myself. The conclusion I’ve come to is that this is nothing but a delaying tactic and provides minimal value towards your stated end goal.
If you are working one job while studying to get another job then I see the validity. But if you like your job and intend to stay within your field, and just want to gain the skills needed to ascend the dizzying heights, then I believe the ROI of further secondary education is minimal. The reason for this is twofold:
- You won’t use half (most?) of what you learn. That’s just how school is; you’ve got to finish with a certain number of credit hours, so there is bound to be some filler.
- You have access to the true skills required right in front of you. Letters behind your name won’t make you better at something. Practice and getting better will make you better. The people who have the skills you need are sitting right next to you in the lunch room.
If you want something, then go after it. Provided you have a base level of experience to build on there is nothing stopping you from moving ahead. Too many people wait for permission from somebody else, be that in the form of a degree or promotion, to actually do something.
Just do it.
There is always an exception. Any type of extra training that you can take that is specific to your field or desired skill set is always worthwhile. Many companies will pay for certain courses; all you need to do is ask.
Another great option is Udemy or similar online platforms. If you are a programmer that needs to build proficiency in a new language, or an Excel user who needs to learn Macros, then a short focused online course is a great way to get started. I am a big proponent of training courses that drill down into a specific skill and provide a certification at the end.
The final step in the whole process is to reflect on what you’ve learned at the end of each project, and identify ways you can improve next time. This is performed during a simple exercise called an After Action Review (AAR).
Developed by the US Military, the AAR differs from a debriefing in that it doesn’t just review what happened, but it clearly identifies the gap between the intended result and the actual result. It requires answering three simple questions:
- What was supposed to happen?
- What actually happened?
- Why was there a difference and what can we do to improve next time?
By incorporating an AAR into every project cycle it will provide the focus needed to accelerate your results, rather than just shooting in the dark. This serves to consolidate the lessons learned and examine areas for improvement, so that the next cycle or evolution works better.
Doing your best work first requires that you identify what tasks are the most important, and will provide the greatest value to you, your clients, and your organization.
Finally, do the important work. Incorporate it into your core tasks by designing projects within your work, that will push your boundaries and increase your skills with every pass.
This process takes some work to implement but the reward is worth it. Your time will be used in a more productive manner and your skill set will improve in all areas. This is not a quick fix though; this is the long game. But by structuring your work in this fashion you’ll continue to develop throughout your career, while also building transferable metaskills at the same time.
Consistency, time management, and choosing projects (or restrictions) that allow you to improve both at your core tasks and stretch goals is the key. Productivity isn’t about getting more done in less time; it’s about getting more done in the same amount of time.
Do you use any of these tactics now? Do you have something in your toolkit that works better? I’d love to hear about it!