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CultureAug 19, 2021

The Future of Work Part 1: Why Something Has to Change

James Alexander

Sunday December 6, started out like a typical Sunday during the pandemic. I grabbed some donuts to-go for my kids from our favorite bakery, attended an online church service from my living room, ate a quiet lunch at home and capped it off with a trip to our local bike park for an afternoon of socially distant outdoor fun. 

Little did I know that my afternoon outing would result in a severe concussion that would keep me from returning to work for two and half months and would create an inflection point in my personal and professional life that continues to reverberate to this day. But more on that later.

Change Fueled by Challenges

First, a little background for those that may be unfamiliar. A bike park is a piece of land that is groomed for mountain biking and typically includes skills courses, pump tracks, and big-air jumps designed to catapult you and your bike dozens of feet into the air. Most jump lines are structured from beginner, to intermediate, and expert so that as your skills grow, you can advance to larger and larger jumps.

The beginner and intermediate lines include jumps that range from two to four feet high and can be ridden continuously so that you don’t have to actually jump your bike. When you move over to the expert line, things get a little different. The top of these jumps are 6-8 feet off the ground and have 10–20-foot gaps that must be “cleared” in the air. 

I grew up racing BMX bikes as a kid, and as an adult, I became an avid mountain biker. So, it was no surprise that once our bike park opened, I gravitated toward the expert line. After a few months of practice, I learned to do each set of jumps and was having a great time doing it. Then, the inevitable happened. I crashed. Hard. In a moment of carelessness, I overshot the landing zone and hit the ground head-first after having been nearly 15 feet in the air. 

As I laid on the ground, it took me some time to remember where I was at and what had happened. I didn’t feel right. I could tell I was hurt and should probably go to the emergency room. Not liking the idea of spending the rest of my Sunday afternoon in a waiting room, I decided to pack things up and go home to rest. It was during the next 24-hours that I began to realize the seriousness of my injury. I had an unending headache, I was constantly nauseous, and sensitive to sound and light. And even though I was dead tired, I could not fall asleep. I just laid there, staring at my ceiling. 

One night of insomnia was enough to get me to the doctor, so I called our local concussion clinic and was able to get a same-day appointment. As a part of my evaluation, the doctor asked me a bunch of questions, performed several scans, and then put me through a series of balance and hand-eye coordination tests.

“Please stand on one foot and touch your nose with your right hand.”

I couldn’t do it without losing balance and putting my other foot down. 

“Close your eyes, and touch your nose, alternating between with your left-hand and your right-hand.” 

I hit my cheek on the first try and my chin on the next try.

I began to feel sick at the realization of how hard I’d hit my head. I had no idea my coordination and balance were so far off. The doctor paused for a moment and said that based on my symptoms and deficits, I was lucky to be up and around. He confirmed that I had a bad concussion, had broken a rib and, sustained few other ancillary injuries. 

His initial treatment plan called for two weeks of strict rest. I was barred from using my laptop, my iPhone, my television, or anything with a screen. I couldn’t play with my kids, lift heavy objects, work, attempt to solve problems, or exercise. The best thing I could do, he said, was to rest and take the occasional walk. I needed to do everything I could to let my brain heal. If I tried to do too much, too soon, I risked elongating my recovery or even worse, suffer permanent deficits. Best case scenario, he expected my full recovery would take three to six months. Ouch.

Confronting Burnout Through Boredom Isn’t Bad

Feeling shaken, I went home and parked myself on the couch, stared out the window and attempted to settle in for two weeks of boredom followed by a long recovery. I attempted sleep but my brain wouldn’t allow it. So, I listened to classical music and stared out the window at the foothills outside of my home. This was going to be hard. I’m used to going nonstop from one thing to the next. I’m never bored, always finding some way to fill my time, even if that means mindlessly scrolling on social media for three minutes, while I wait for the traffic light to turn green.

After a few days of intense boredom and anxious discomfort, the withdrawals from constant stimuli began to subside. I noticed a sense of clarity I hadn’t felt in a long time. I began to think and reflect on my life. I thought of my wife and two young kids. How much I enjoy them and how thankful I am to be a husband and father. I began to think about the richness of my friendships and how much they’ve impacted my life. I began to think about my career as a management consultant and how I get to solve complicated problems with some of the most amazing people I know.

The work I do often has a positive impact on hundreds or even thousands of people across entire organizations. Yet, I began to realize that I often don’t feel a sense of enjoyment in my work. What I usually feel is hurried, stressed, anxious, fatigued, and behind. 

Showing up to work each day often had the feeling of jumping headfirst into a raging river. You fight like hell to stay afloat and if you swim hard enough, and with enough skill, you’ll come out victorious on the other side. 

This daily experience often left me depleted and irritable by the end of the workday. The feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction only came after some major project milestone had been crossed or once the entire project was over. Since the bulk of my 261 workdays in a year are spent in the middle of a project and not in that magical period known as the project completion phase, the whole thing felt unsatisfying or worse, unsustainable.

Finding Clarity of Purpose and Workstyle

Suddenly it hit me, I love what I do, but I hate how I do it. I can’t keep working this way and expect to become the husband, father, friend, and colleague I want to be.

Feeling more than a little disconcerted by this realization and somewhat curious, I started scrolling through Audible (yeah, I wasn’t supposed to do that) for a book that might shed some light on what I had uncovered. I needed to understand why my workdays were marked primarily by stress and less by enjoyment. More importantly, I needed to figure out what to do about it. 

I won’t bore you with the details but in a serendipitous chain of events I was turned onto three different books with similar themes that helped to illuminate my experience of work and more importantly, they provided me with a path forward. Those three books are:

1. MarginThe author defines margin as the space between your load and your limits. Margin is important because it provides us with the space to relate, to reflect, to recharge, to cultivate creativity, and to focus on the things that matter most. Each of us carries a different load and we each have different limits. 

The author posits that many of us carry a load that exceeds our limits and it’s wreaking havoc in our personal lives. Rather than provide a paint-by-numbers approach to reducing your load and increasing your margin, the author provides a framework along with several prescriptions to help you restore margin in the essential areas of your life. This book was challenging and gave me a lot to consider. 

2. The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry: This book provides a compelling emotional and spiritual case against operating in a constant state of internal hurry and in favor of a slower, simpler way of living and working. It’s been seven months since I first read this book and its altered many of my daily rituals and habits so that I am now cultivating a slower and more fulfilling personal and professional life. 

3. Deep WorkThe author defines deep work as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task for long periods of time. The result is that it enables you to quickly master complicated information and produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of in less time. More and more research suggests that depth in work provides us with a sense of fulfillment. 

In contrast, shallow or surface-level work has the complete opposite effect. The problem according to the author is that most of our workdays are spent in the shallows responding to messages, organizing our inboxes, attending meetings, and moving information around. Indeed, many of us have lost the ability to focus on one thing for extended periods of time due to constant distractions and the frenetic pace of the digital age. 

While I learned a lot from each of these books, “Deep Work” in particular was especially resonate. It articulated how it was possible for me to love what I do but hate how I do it. In short, I had allowed the tyranny of the urgent to crowd out what was truly important.

I spent the bulk of my time doing urgent, shallow work in a state of semi-distraction. I pushed meaningful work that required depth and focus to the margins. That meant that the most important work I produced each week was done either late at night, or on the weekend. The result: stress and fatigue. That was the part I hated. Fortunately, there’s a better way forward. 

Exploring the Beauty of Working Effectively

At the writing of this post, it’s been six months since I returned to work from my concussion. In that time, Credera launched its Flexible Connection model which, in part, provides individuals and teams with the ability to adopt new ways of working that not only drive incredible results for our clients, but improves employee satisfaction. This shift in approach provided me with the chance to implement some of the concepts from “Deep Work” into my daily routine and experiment with their effectiveness. The results, I’m happy to report, have been staggering. 

Coming out of this post, I’ll explore some of these concepts in detail, and more importantly, talk about how to implement them into the day-to-day of your projects. 

Some of the concepts I plan to explore are: 

  • The Hyperactive Hivemind: What is it and how do you escape it? 

  • Deep Work vs. Shallow Work: How do you differentiate between the two and more importantly, how do you create structures to emphasize the deep while draining the shallows? Some shallow work cannot be avoided after all. 

  • Multitasking and Attention Residue: Multitasking doesn’t work. It’s shallow work by nature and diminishes the quality of your output. When you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn’t immediately follow—a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. 

  • Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

  • The Four Disciplines of Execution (4DX): A formal approach to operationalizing the concepts of deep work

If any of these concepts interest you, please feel free to reach out. I’d love to grab a virtual coffee and share more of what I’ve learned, and likewise hear about what approaches have helped you to produce your best work in a sustainable way.

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