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What is real work?

Written by Justin on March 4, 2012

“Hey kids, don’t bother daddy, I’m working.”

“But dad, you’re watching YouTube!”

It should be obvious, but we’ve all rationalized work activities that aren’t real work.  Furthermore, we get caught up doing too many maintenance tasks that don’t earn revenue. What we need to do, on a regular basis, is realign ourselves with work that provides value for our customers.

For me, it’s been helpful to sort my work into 4 categories:

  1. Immediate work (keep existing customers happy)
  2. Exploration work (learning, thinking and dreaming about improving your business)
  3. Development work (create future happiness for customers)
  4. Admin work (maintain the company)
  5. Diversions (not real work)

Immediate Work

Normally, Immediate Work is about keeping existing customers happy. It includes things like answering phone calls, replying to emails, and fixing software bugs. It’s not always related to customer problems; sometimes it means sending a thank you note, or asking for feedback on your service.

The amount of time you spend in this zone depends on your role in the company, and the type of business you’re in. However, you may be able to offset some of this work by doing Development Work (for example: fixing a reoccurring bug permanently so that it no longer occurs).

Exploration Work

Two brilliant folks (Amy Hoy, and Mike Bridge) reminded me that Exploration Work is an important component of work. In fact, it’s what feeds our time in Development.

Exploration involves learning, dreaming and experimenting. It’s the kind of work that generates ideas.

We have to be careful: we can’t spend all of our time generating ideas.  As my colleague Mike says: “generating ideas happens in bursts.” Once we’ve had some time for inspiration, we need to stop, and filter our ideas. This is where we decide which ones we can put into development. Ideas become valuable only when they’ve been turned into projects. And the criteria for a project is clear: it brings in new revenue or preserves the revenue we already have.

Update: Jason Fried just tweeted a link to this image that relates to Exploration Work.

Development Work

This is the work that should result in new revenue, new customers, or substantially improving the happiness of existing customers. Like Immediate Work, these activities are correlated with revenue. Examples: developing new software features, taking a sales trip, or purchasing inventory. These activities form the main economic driver for your company: it’s what brings in the bacon.

If you’re managing your time well, the majority of your energy should be spent in this zone. It should be the goal of every team member to add value to the company in this area. It’s here that we plan, build and sell products that provide value for our customers.

Admin Work

Includes: doing your taxes, paperwork, and performing server maintenance. These activities don’t earn revenue. It’s just the regular overhead that comes with running a company.

Minimize the amount of time in this zone, but don’t neglect it. If you’re a business owner, you should definitely look at delegating as much of it as you can. (By the way: if your main role is doing these activities, you need to see your company as your customer. In this case, it’s no longer Admin Work but Development Work)

Diversions (not real work)

Let’s talk about the mindless activities we do at work: reading blog posts, scanning Twitter, watching YouTube, telling jokes, etc… We need to think of these “at-work diversions” like we think about dessert. Dessert is wonderful, but it has 3 important characteristics:

  1. We only get it if we’ve finished dinner: get your real work done first, and then enjoy an at-work diversion.
  2. It’s small: don’t make diversions the main course of your day.
  3. If you overdo it, it’s unhealthy: having one latte a day is fine, but if you’re drinking 20, you’re going to get sick.

If we are eating more and more sweets throughout the day, it’s an indicator that something’s not right. It could be that we’ve simply become addicted to sugar. Maybe we’re not feeling well emotionally. When you eat sugar all day, it also loses it’s benefit of feeling like a treat: it’s no longer enjoyable.

That’s usually the key smell that I detect when I’m working on something I don’t really want to be working on. I check email much more frequently. I engage in chats much more frequently about things that aren’t related to the things I should be working on. On the flip side, when I’m working on something I’m really fired up about, I couldn’t care less about new posts on Twitter or whatever. I will work on getting whatever I’m working on done right now.

David Heinemeier Hansson

If you’re spending too much time in this zone it’s time for some introspection: is there a deeper issue you need to address? What needs to happen for you to get back on track, and doing real work? If you’re stuck in a rut, this could be a good time for a vacation, to change roles, or find a new job.

Let’s bring it all home

When you’re at work, are you really working? Are you developing new services or new features? Are you contacting new prospects? Are you keeping current customers happy? Are you increasing sales?

As workers, we should be able to draw a line between our current activity, and the bottom-line of the company. Likewise, we need to be able to prioritize our efforts so that they maximize customer happiness. Does a customer care if I’ve read everything in my Twitter stream? Or would they prefer it if I fixed that software bug they’ve submitted?

Despite what some people tell you, you do have to work hard. It doesn’t mean you have to work 15 hour days. But it does mean that when you do sit down to work, you need to really work. If you’re getting distracted every 5 minutes, you won’t get any work done. You really have to tune everything out, and just work. And you have to do that every single day.

Chris Nagele, Wildbit

And once you’ve finished your dinner, be sure to enjoy a little dessert.

Hope this is helpful! That's me!

Cheers,
Justin Jackson
@mijustin

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