The Promise of the Middle: Improving Knowledge Work Practices

Two years ago, I stumbled across Sonke Ahrens’ slim volume, How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. As a matter of practice, I am always on the lookout for potentially useful new ideas. The price of a book is a trivial cost and I only invest my time for as long as I’m learning something useful. I posted my review in March of 2019 [Unexpected Aha Moments \- Review \- How to Take Smart Notes \- McGee’s Musings). This is a bit of an interim progress report, although it feels more like a lament on just how hard change continues to be. Andy Matuschak’s recent observation that Note\-writing practices are generally ineffective hits way too close to home. 

Carving out an approach

Advice is always forward looking. The pretense is that you are starting from scratch. The reality for most of us is that we start somewhere in the middle. The problems of dealing with your existing bad habits and your existing body of work are left as an exercise for the reader.

One option is to pretend that you are starting from scratch. Ignore whatever artifacts and work in progress you’ve created to this point as well as whatever practices you’ve adopted. Start fresh with whatever your next project happens to be. Follow the proffered advice, practice new techniques, create new work products.

A second option—one that turns out to be a trap—is to believe that you need to fix or repair your history before you can move forward. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into. 

A middle approach that has evolved over time is to think of a knowledge work environment as a property that needs regular maintenance and remodeling plus occasional renovation. You do prefer to work with the materials already at hand, introducing new materials as needed. It’s also an environment that must support routine work; historic preservation is not the goal. 

Artifacts and Activities

My training and experience push me in the direction of organizing around projects and deliverables. I’ve begun reconsidering that (e.g., Deliverables and the downside of working backwards \- McGee’s Musings) and working toward a more nuanced view of knowledge work products.

There are some additional degrees of freedom to be found by shifting to more neutral terminology. I’ve started to think about what might be gained, besides alliteration,  if I start thinking in terms of “artifacts” and “activities.” 

Artifact encompasses deliverables but also extends to intermediate working papers. Anything that gets thinking outside of your head and into a representation that you can inspect and manipulate is worth considering. 

Some sequences of activity may be worth treating as discrete projects. But other sequences and patterns of activity may be worth incorporating into your repertoire and pairing with appropriate artifacts. 

Artifacts plus Activities Become Practices

The notion of “practice” has been floating around in my head for some time now. It isn’t something so structured as a process. Nor does it rise to the level of a project to be managed. But it does seem worthwhile to stay alert for stable patterns of artifacts and activities that yield insight. 

One implication here is that you should be attuned to two levels of thought. There is the ongoing work itself. And, there is a parallel level of the work of managing the work.In routine work environments, work and management are typically carried out by different players. In knowledge work, work and the management of work falls to the knowledge worker. I find it helpful to try to keep the two levels separate in my thinking. 

You never start from a blank sheet of paper

This train of thought appropriately brings me back to a piece I wrote some six months ago—Embrace the mess if you want to do better knowledge work. The trope about writing and writer’s block is the threat of the empty page or the empty screen. Unless you are at the absolute beginning of the path, this is an illusion. None of our work begins in the void; we’re always in the middle of one journey or another. Take advantage of wherever you are and start there.