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  • The value in discarding valueless work

    I still remember browsing the internet before ad blockers were a nearly standard offering on all my devices. It's almost nostalgic to borrow someone else's device and watch the page load in what appears to be slow motion; an ephemeral and passionate dance. A rivalry between layout engine and bytes over-the-wire. Your attention flickering — a candle in the cold, dimly lit hallway — between the lines retreating shyly below the fold and the ostentatious and jarring animations forcing their way into your limited FOV. Captivating, curious, and insulting.

    I've questioned my use of ad blockers before. I'm a Developer, and I owe a lot of my successes to what the web is and has become. Though that thought holds little weight in my mind because I know that I am objectively and completely justified in choosing what consumes my limited time, attention, and focus.

    Working with intent

    For years I have struggled on and off with a (tangentially) related concept during my day-to-day work and that is choosing with intent what I work on. What consumes my attention. In some companies, especially large enterprises, work simply manifests from the seemingly empty flurry of confusion and it's only too easy to get caught up in the ensuing chaos. One finds oneself working diligently on veryImportantTask() only to forget why one is there in the first place. An uncountable number of urgent, time-sensitive emails stream into your inbox completely preventing you from exercising that habit you tried to form of only checking your email twice per day. The speed of all work becomes directly correlated with the mean TTR (Time to Reply). I'd wager that you could have a measurable uptick on throughput over the entire company if you worked to drastically reduce latency on your email exchange servers.

    Competence, in these workplaces, can also have the unexpected result of creating a negative feedback loop. And if you let it, it will extinguish your ability to continue delivering. If others see that work that is sent to you is completed, then you will be continually sent even more work until the system reaches capacity. It's crucial that you see this approaching and are able to control the inputs to your attention (And for leaders: controlling or at least helping to control, the inputs to your team).

    How do you decide what work is important?

    This is where it's likely that one of two things will occur:

    1. Accept defaults: You reach a natural equilibrium

    If you stay within the position for long enough, you'll reach a point where the system will approach an equilibrium. The quality and reliability of your output, once lauded by your colleagues, reaches a level that is acceptable (not optimal) but certainly doesn't leave you feeling happy, enthusiastic, fulfilled, or proud of your work.

    You will likely be fine. You might find that you feel overworked, but you'll take periods of leave to help you recover from your repeated burnouts. Sometimes you might even get to engage deeply with your work a few weeks of the year. Others will treat you like they treat everyone else in the company and you and your work (or lack thereof) will be tolerated.

    However, your learning will stagnate as the demand on you leaves you unable to focus on anything outside of the context of your immediate work. Long term goals are simply an idea, a concept, and there is no concreteness to your thinking or planning — time stands still. But before you know it, you're edging on your reader.getNextDecade()s, and you're not sure what's actually in store for you. Where did all the time go? And what have you got to show for it? Congratulations, you have become reactive.


    2. Enable Ad-block: You apply back-pressure and filters to the system early on

    You focus on what matters most to you and the customers of BigEnterprise, ensuring that the people that need your help in fulfilling that goal are prioritized. You actively discard work and identify noise, letting some things pass with substantial iffiness, or even fail. Most emails you ignore or politely dismiss. You don't engage with others unless they are part of your broader goal, and you find you must be disciplined in this approach or you risk losing weeks to a side-quest, the only reward for which is maybe a mention in an email blast from a higher manager or executive that nobody reads.

    The work you choose to do is engaging, rewarding, and you're able to learn deeply by approaching something with dedicated time and focus. Your team also learn from you and are more able to enjoy their work as the problems that you are solving are aligned with theirs, and you're solving real problems. Your customers, who are the ones you're really trying to help at the end of the day, are pleased and you have data to back it up. Your stop worrying about day-to-day interactions, because the long term outcomes you have already decided — because of this you can enjoy them more.

    You annoy some. You please others. Most importantly you're remembered because the change that you made is long-lasting, well constructed, and aligned with the goals of those that you worked with and ultimately BigEnterprise.

    Proactively protect your limited focus

    I've been in both situations before and while it certainly takes a more consistent input of energy and can cause more resistance, the adherence to your own values makes the second choice a much more rewarding and overall enjoyable experience. One that I can look back on with confidence that I was doing the right thing. I'd urge you to consider it yourself. If you feel like you are in a state of failing continuously in slow motion, then:

    • Decide what and who is important to you. Actively avoid work that doesn't correlate with those relationships.

    • Discard work that is low value (e.g. work about work) and work diligently on that which expresses value and aligns with your goals.

    • Don't allow yourself to be consumed by noise and learn to identify what can be left to succeed without you or simply left to fail in silence.

    • Competence attracts incompetence. Identify those individuals and the work they create for you and be liberal in ignoring this type of work as it can consume you.

    • Learn to communicate with intent and be cognizant of how you indulge others in their communications.

    • Uphold your values. There should be swords that you are willing to die on. That doesn't mean you have to, but you should understand deeply who you truly are and where you are willing to go. If you find yourself unsure about a decision or a place that you have found yourself in you need to immediately take stock and reflect on how it makes you feel.

    • Most importantly, develop deep trusting relationships with those that you care about. When you need help no one will come running when you're just that person who is OK at their job. But those that have worked with you closely and have seen you operate with intent, passion, and integrity will be there with bells on.