This article first appeared on my Medium blog
I work with many clients and students who go through their lives doing the same thing over and over again and achieve very little by way of personal success or recognition. They never set their companies ablaze with new ideas or new ways of doing anything. They are the workhorses, the people who do the heavy grind in the workplace, and they are often the forgotten ones. Well, they are forgotten until they leave, then their colleagues very quickly discover there’s a lot of work not being done. There is nothing wrong with this way of working, after all, many people are shy, many just like to get their heads down and get on with their work and not create a fuss and some do not want the pressure of expectation that comes with being an ideas person or high flyer.
When I talk to these people though, I discover a lot of them do not really want to be thought of as the ‘workhorse’, or ‘that person who does all the work’. Many want to be considered a star in their own right. They want to be thought of as a valued member of the team just like the other people in the company. This got me thinking why some extremely hardworking people miss out on promotions and opportunities to develop into stars within their organisations. Of course, there are many reasons why this might be the case, but as I looked in to this in more detail, I discovered one common habit many of these people had. They were very obedient and they followed their supervisor’s instructions to the letter. They never once looked at their work and asked the question “how can I do this better?” They never considered there might just be a better way of doing something they could try and if it worked, they could share with their colleagues. They just did exactly as they were told by their supervisors and predecessors.
While obedience is a good quality occupations, the military and the police force come to mind, in creative industries and knowledge type work obedience can be a problem. If you were never to challenge the rules in a creative workplace, you would never come up with anything creative. Creativity requires you to challenge the norms and to experiment with doing something in a different way. Without disobedience we would all be using Arial or Times New Roman typefaces for our documents and presentations, most brochures and flyers would still be in black and white, and the only coffee your local Starbucks would serve would be plain, black coffee.
Fortunately, the human race is full of people who will not accept the norm, and who will challenge everything. This means we have many different typefaces to choose from and we have many different types of coffee in Starbucks.
The good news is even if you are a shy type who do not want to cause any unnecessary attention to come to you, it does not mean you cannot change things for the better within your own work environment. You could create templates for the emails you have to send regularly, you could make the font bigger on the documents you work on so you and your readers can read it better or you could change the way you organise your work. You do have a surprising amount of freedom to do things a better way.
It all begins with the question “how can I do it better?” This question has been such a powerful question for me over the years. Every time I do my weekly review I will ask this question, looking for ways to make my work processes better, faster, more accurate and more importantly better for my clients and students. I even use the question to ask more personal questions such as “how can I be a better husband?” to “how can I be a better athlete?” I don’t ask these questions every day of course, but I do ask these questions every three months or so. The answers can be quite profound and lead to some significant improvements to my relationships, the way I exercise and the way I do my work. Such a simple question, yet a question that has had such a powerful effect on my life.
You can begin small. You can look at the way you process your email in a morning and ask “how can I do it better?” Think about what causes problems, what annoys you and what leads to stress. Then, think of ways that would take those problems, annoyances and stressors away. I did this recently with my email system and it resulted in reducing the number of folders I had from over fifteen to just four. (For those of you who are interested, I now have an “inbox”, an “action this day” folder, a “waiting for” folder and an “archive” folder) My reasoning for this change came about because the search functionality in email is so powerful, I really don’t need to have separate folders for each client or area of my life. This has dramatically improved the way I process email and allows me more time to get on with other, more important stuff.
Another example of this question helping improve my systems was with dates. I often found myself having to write the date on an invoice or receipt, yet I was always pausing to think about what day of the month it was. In the short term these pauses probably didn’t have much effect on how long it was taking me to do my work, but over a longer period of time it was. After a little investigation I came across an application called TextExpander and this dramatically improved my work efficiency. Now I use a simple code to trigger the right date in the right format and I no longer have to think about what day of the month it is. TextExpander has led to me creating many more shortcuts for text I write regularly such as file naming and standardised emails I send regularly. A simple app, yet an app that has saved me so much time.
The “how can I do it better” question is very powerful and can take you from being a forgotten also ran, to a star within your organisation very quickly. Once people see that you find ways to improve workflows, relationships and other areas of your own life, they will take notice. There will never be any undue expectations on you, you are doing it for yourself, but the quality and quantity of you work can improve dramatically and this is what leads to promotions, better pay and, on a personal level, better relationships.
So go on, start today. Begin looking around your environment and ask the question “how can I do it better?” you may be surprised just how much improvement can be found in even the most mundane things in your life.