September 11, 2020

Meta-Skills

Knowledge work is inherently difficult to practice. It doesn’t clearly support deliberate practice as defined by Anders Ericsson because feedback is late, unclear, and difficult to assign to any specific behavior. Given that constraint, how do we practice and become better at our jobs?

I contend that we can improve our abilities by focusing on the meta-skills of our jobs and turning them into habits and muscle memory. Some meta-skills that meet this criteria would include:

  • Knowing how you best learn and having a way to synthesize what you learn into new products and insight.
  • Having a good system of organizing your tasks and commitments.
  • Understanding how you best manage your attention and energy.
  • Using a consistent set of tools.

Let’s discuss each of these, beginning with learning and knowledge application. It’s long accepted that different people learn best from different methods - I, for one, learn well from reading and then writing the material in my own words. The next step, taking what you’ve learned and applying it to a new context, is often skipped. As knowledge workers this step is what separates “meets expectations” from “exceeds expectations” or “exceptional”. If you know how you best learn and the process you best use for taking that knowledge forward you can repeat that process in your work.

Having a good system for organizing your daily work and your commitments is frequently overlooked, but is one way to set yourself apart from others. It allows you to be seen as a reliable partner and builds trust. People want to work with people they trust.

Next is managing your energy and attention. I’m not a believer in “time management”. Time is going to progress at the same rate no matter what you do or how you respond to it. We all have the same 1,440 minutes every day. What can be managed is how well you can apply your focus during those 1,440 minutes. Underpinning your ability to apply that focus is how well you manage your energy. Don’t mistake this for a philosophy of operating on a caffeine and sugar induced rage and living some hustle lifestyle - what I’m talking about here is a manageable, long-term strategy that considers how you will be operating days, weeks, months, and years from today.

Lastly are the tools we choose to use. Frequently we fall for what author Cal Newport calls “any-benefit tool selection” in his book “Deep Work”. In this mode of tool selection we will pick up and use any tool that brings some benefit while ignoring the cost side of the cost/benefit equation. This sits opposed to a craftsman approach to tool selection, where you have one tool for any given job and you know that tool intimately. Any new tool will be evaluated over time, and must be able to prove its worth compared to the cost of acquiring it, learning it, and becoming an expert at it.

All four of these domains are practicable in ways that provide fast and quantifiable feedback and support our ultimate work, making them excellent candidates to improve our effectiveness. They’re also broadly applicable to our careers and our lives. I would suggest that you each take some time to determine if you can answer each of those four questions. If you believe you have a system then ask yourself if you practice it well. If you don’t have a system I would recommend trying to identify one.

© Eric Biven 2020