Human Controlled Output
Independent from technology
As knowledge workers, we depend on technology to accomplish our jobs. It is the main tool we use to do "the work". We sit at our workstations in an office building, co-working space, or at home – mainly interacting with a computer. We use project management tools, task managers, and specialized software to do our work. When a tool is not working, we are dead in the water. We cannot accomplish our next task, or even worse, we cannot remember it.
Just 10 years ago, we would have said differently. While the outputs were largely created on a computer, we were able to do some of the work without one. Now we depend on our tools so much, we forgot how to do the work ourselves. This problem is getting worse by the day, with the rise of AI tools and AI-like features.
The root of the problem
Knowledge workers have used computers for the better part of 30-40 years, but we didn't depend on them. Imagine trying to schedule a meeting with 5-10 people without a meeting poll tool. What about juggling 3-5 concurrent projects? Could you remember the 30 tasks you need to accomplish this week? Could you have a meeting without recording it and have the recorder transcribe the whole meeting and extract action items? Probably not.
We have become dependent on technology to think for us. We have created solutions to problems that were not actually problems. Why did we do this? Simple – to be more productive. As I talked about last week, productivity is lore. Do we really need to juggle so much? Is the technology helping or actually hurting us? I do believe in offloading some of our work to a computer, but how much is too much? When do the returns start to diminish?
Most people never think of this as a problem. They feel like they are doing more and the computer is doing all the grunt work. That is until a website is down, an API is not working, or AWS has an outage. Then your work comes to a halt. You don't know what to do, never mind have the capabilities to actually do it. It's our version of a snow day.
We live in a do more, do it faster, do it publicly society. While these traits can be helpful in small amounts, building a society on them is destructive. How can we offset our dependency on tech, how can we control our own output, and do some of the work without a tool?
This is such a counterculture statement and probably unachievable for most, but hear me out. What if we did less varied work and more focused work? Instead of juggling 5-10 projects with dozens to hundreds of tasks, how about working on one until completion? If not to 100% completion, at least to a stopping point. Rather than taking 5 meetings today and depending on meeting recordings or transcriptions, maybe take fewer meetings. This will be blasphemous, but how about scheduling your own meeting, rather than bestowing anyone the power to add a meeting to your calendar? Having to do this will force you to schedule fewer meetings, due to the friction of getting one on your calendar.
By doing these things, you are forced to do less. You need to think more. Sure, some of it is mundane. Some of it is energy-draining. But, you are in control of your time. You are not dependent on a tool.
Use more analog or offline tools
Most of our work is done in front of a screen, with a keyboard and mouse. This is expected when most of our outputs come in the form of pixels, but what about offsetting some of that with analog, offline, or single-player tools?
The dawn of Google Docs and Figma started a revolution of collaboration. The idea of doing work live, auto-saved, and synchronous – regardless of proximity, was a game changer. While I love the tech, what happens when the tech isn't working? What if you want to get something done without a co-worker or boss popping in?
Personally, I am anti-analog, as I think using paper and ink is wasteful. But, I do think using analog-like tools is great. I love using my iPad with Goodnotes or Freeform to think out the early stages of a project. Both of these tools save to the cloud but are not dependent on it. They can be used 100% on device, without any connection to the web. This means I am only dependent on its battery life.
Speaking of offline, you could use other offline tools. You don't have to use an iPad and Apple Pencil or even pen and paper, you can use a myriad of other device first tools. You can still use your keyboard and mouse to think, to make, but do it without the internet and in privacy. You can write out a first draft, work through your to-do list, or take your meeting notes without the dependency on an online tool. Yes, you might have to copy and paste some things, but the friction of working in seclusion can be welcomed. It forces intentionality. It makes you think deeper.
When doing a client audit or system design, I try to do as much of it with my iPad and Apple Pencil as possible. Not only does this give me the freedom to work offline, but it also forces me to write things twice and allows me to do things messily. I find this helpful for my memory and thinking process.
I also do a lot of my writing using offline tools, like Obsidian and iA Writer. Whether it's the first draft of this letter, an email, or a long Slack message – I generally write it there first. I do this for a few reasons. Firstly, no one sees my output until I am ready. Secondly, I can write without anyone knowing I am typing. You know that annoying "Thor's typing" dialog or bubble with the three dots. Lastly, I can format it to provide more texture to my writing – links, bullets, etc; then simply paste it where I plan on sharing it.
Controlling your output is counterintuitive to the way that we are expected to work. I think this is a good thing. Just because society has told us that work is supposed to be done faster, using certain tools, whilst collaborating live – doesn't mean it's right. We shouldn't be dependent on a system working 100% to do our work. We should be able to think in privacy. We should have control of our output, independent of the tools or services.