You Only Have One Job (And It's Not What You Think)
My phone buzzes and I see it's Steve, who I later find out has come up with a brilliant idea and decided I am the person to do it. It was for an article he thought I should write about the one job each of us has regardless of our industry or function.
He said with confidence in his voice, "Your one job is to make your boss's life easier." He went on to explain that this is what makes the difference between his best and average employees. Those who make his life easier are the ones who provide the most value.
In his mind, he had done his part, and it was now up to me to take his insight and turn it into written wisdom to be shared with you.
Unfortunately, I disagree with dear Steve.
If you want to create value for others, then your one job is not to make your boss's life easier, but rather to simplify it for anyone you meet. It may seem like an insignificant difference, but if you let me make my case, I'm confident that I can convince you.
The French origin of the word means "put within reach."
For instance, if you were working on a car, you would want your wrenches easy or somewhere you could quickly grab them—otherwise you would waste a bunch of time crawling out from under the car every time you needed a new size.
The opposite of easy is difficult or challenging. From an idea or work standpoint, easy represents what's familiar to us and well within our capabilities. If you're an accountant, then debits, credits, and balance sheets are pretty darn easy for you.
Easy is a relative measure. For example, the English language is a complex and challenging language to learn (although not in the top ten most challenging), but my eight-year-old daughter does it with ease. (Perhaps too easily!)
Complex is the opposite of simple, and it has several Latin-origin meanings, including “an embrace” or “to intertwine”.
So, for our purposes, we can think of it as a braided rope made up of several individual strings. It's braided so tightly that it is difficult to discern a single string.
The word simple can, then, mean one-fold or braid or twist. In early French, a version of the word was used to describe a medicine made from a single ingredient.
Picture yourself taking a braided rope made up of several strings and slowly unbraiding it so that you have many single strings. In doing so, individual strands become visible and understandable.
Simplifying something means replacing the complex with something more understandable or doable. The result of this can be more valuable than what previously existed. It’s expanding our capabilities and understanding of the world so that we can tackle even more complex problems.
Creating Value Versus Replacing Value
Making something easy can include doing hard work for someone, thus, replacing the value they could create with the same effort. It’s valuable, but it’s not enough.
If someone mows your lawn for you, it is valuable in the moment, but the grass will grow back again next week. Genetically engineering Kentucky bluegrass, which only grows to be 1.5 inches tall and never needs mowing just simplified my life and made it easier.
Aiming at EASY is too easy of an objective. It is too low of a bar if you want your work to have meaning.
Striving for SIMPLICITY is a much higher degree of value creation because it makes things easy for people now and in the future. It’s multiplication instead of addition.
Three ways to think about simplifying your work:
1. Develop a process where one doesn’t already exist.
If you’ve been paying attention lately, you have probably noticed all this talk about AI, machine learning, and how they will eliminate 30–40% of jobs in the much-too-near future. It's not just the Uber and truck drivers who are at risk; lawyers, doctors, accountants, and any other knowledge-workers will also be at risk of disruption. One of the reasons for this is process. Computers use algorithms to make judgments and apply the correct processes to problems.
Before this happens, you can do the same thing to stand out from the crowd. Ask yourself about the moments where you face the same type of problem (small or large) over and over again. If you or your team do something more than once, then investing in some form of process will likely benefit you. This can take the form of a checklist, a decision tree, or a step-by-step flow.
Try this: take a challenge that you or your team face, get some post-it notes or a whiteboard, and try to reduce it down to three to five steps. What? Jeff, you must be crazy if you think that we can take our work and reduce it to five steps! (Need help? click here)
That's the point. Using this rule forces you to climb up to the balcony and view the work at the appropriate scale. Once you've bucketed each major step into five steps, allow yourself to create three to five minor steps for each of the significant steps previously created.
2. Eliminate steps within existing processes
A man in a hat walks up to a porch where another man is sitting in a rocking chair, and a dog is lying near his feet.
The man in the hat notices that the dog is moaning in pain, so he asks, "What's wrong with the dog?"
The man in the chair says, "He's lying on a nail."
The man in the hat then asks, "Why doesn't he just move?"
To which the man in the chair replies, "It doesn't hurt that bad."
Most people make work way more complex than needed, and many won't invest the time to find a better way and to do something about it. Nope, they will knowingly suffer through the process waiting for someone else to fix it, because "it doesn't hurt that bad."
I'm sure you have asked yourself, "Why do we do it this way?" Unfortunately, this is where most people stop. Don't be that person. Think about the process and all of the unnecessary actions and suggest how steps could be combined or eliminated from the process. Being the person to shine a light on the flawed process and being willing to roll up their sleeves to make it better get called by a certain name — a leader.
3. Learn to do deep work
"Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It's a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep —spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and social media, not even realizing there's a better way." — Cal Newport
There are multi-billion-dollar companies built with one goal in mind — to steal our attention away from productive work. I won't rail on them because it won't do much good. What I will do is challenge you to turn off all your distractions, reply "No" to a few of the meaningless meetings, and close your door or go somewhere you can't be distracted once in a while.
Lots of people inquire about coaching because they want help with better managing their time or email. I'll save you the coaching fee. It's not your schedule or your emails that are getting in your way of being your best self.
It's you. (btw—coaching is great for working on you.)
If I could magically take care of your schedule and email challenges and give you four hours today to work on just a single idea or project, could you do it?
And before you say, "Duh, of course I could," I challenge you to give it a try.
I like to think of myself as someone at the higher end of GSD scale, but what I have learned through experiments with deep work is that once I remove the meetings, distractions, and email, I crave all of them because they provide instant gratification and attention, and they make me feel important.
The ability to do deep work is a skill that requires lots of practice, but the time investment and ability to focus on complex problems and make them more understandable or doable are where we can create the most value.
Final Thought for Steve
Easy is coming up with an idea and getting someone else to do the research and write about it. So well done, Steve, you made it easier on yourself by getting me to do your work. My challenge back to you is to ask what complex idea can you simplify for the rest of us that will grow our capabilities? I’ll send you off with a bit of inspiration from one of the masters of deep work:
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