I started working when I was thirteen years old, washing dishes at a very large banquet center. At the beginning of my shift, all the dishes were clean and ready to be plated. When it ended, normally late at night, all of the dishes were back where they started, after being used and washed multiple times throughout the day. This pattern gave my work a sense of closure, an ending of sorts.
In sales, the reason you feel like you’ll never be able to complete your work is because you aren’t: as soon as you finish one task, it is immediately replaced by another (or two, or three). Every progress report will be met by new assignments, especially when you give that report in a meeting.
The once trendy idea of achieving “inbox zero” by processing every single email is an exercise in futility, like lining up to run a marathon and discovering you are on a treadmill. No matter how fast you run, you can never reach the finish line.
Think of this never-ending series of tasks, along with the sense that nothing is ever really done, as the curse of the knowledge worker. Beating back that curse means treating everything like a project, letting go of small things so you can focus on what’s important, and saying no to the things that prevent you from getting the right things done.
One of the very best ways to recognize your progress and obtain a sense of completion is to treat every outcome you need to create, from the smallest thing to the most critical, as a separate project. Projects have distinct beginnings and endings, and they all follow the same pattern: you start the project, you do the work, and you complete it. With that project completed, you can move on to another project, stacking up your accomplishments.
So, what makes something a project? David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done and Making it All Work, describes a project as anything that requires you to complete multiple tasks. For a salesperson, that might be a prospecting block.
For a sales leader, it could be reviewing your sales reports from the prior week. And for an entrepreneur, it could be drafting and producing a pitch deck for potential investors.
Throughout your day, you can increase your sense of accomplishment by spending ninety minutes starting and completing projects, or even just making enough progress on a single project that you can start on the next phase. The sense of accomplishment prevents you from feeling as if you are running in place.
The sense of overload that knowledge workers feel is the direct result of having unfinished work, especially work they know they are never going to complete. Everything is important, but only one thing can be the most important. Because this is true, the remedy for knowledge workers is to accept that they have the built-in constraints of having too many tasks and projects, too little time, too little energy, and unrealistic deadlines.
It can also help to recognize when you vastly over-estimate what you can do in a day or a week, especially if you would be the first person to tell a peer that they are trying to do too much.
More specifically, you have to let go of those things that don’t rise to the level of a personal priority. You cannot be effective without priorities, so let your constraints filter out all the tasks, projects, and asks that would prevent you from spending your time and energy on what is most important. More importantly, when you have to let something go, make sure it isn’t your most important work (a common pitfall of living in your inbox).
Knowledge workers often try very hard to create value for others. Because they are smart and good at what they do, they are continually being asked to participate in all kinds of projects and initiatives, including those with rushed deadlines and high standards. Even though it may sting a little to be told “we need you to do a good job on this,” if you are the type who wants to help, you are no doubt guilty of volunteering to help with whatever needs to be done.
You get a great sense of contributing and people always express how helpful you are and say nice things about you—sometimes even to your face.
Learning to say “no” is a tough habit to develop, especially if you are a people pleaser. But think of it this way: it’s not impolite to say no to projects, tasks, and work that pulls you away from the most important outcomes you need to produce to be successful.
You can always say no diplomatically, even if it means being (in)credibly apologetic. If you feel the need to explain why you are refusing to help someone, tell them about all your other projects and your deadlines, then ask them to forgive you.
As a knowledge worker, you are mostly in charge of what you do, when you do it, and how you do it. In fact, autonomy is one of the defining factors for knowledge workers. But when you have autonomy, you also have agency. You can decide what you are willing to commit to doing—and what you are not going to do right now.
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