How to do things at work (if you're starting out)

Danny Buerkli, 25 October 2023

This was originally an internal document meant to help out new joiners figure out how to be productive at work.

I. What this article is and what it isn’t

I occasionally get asked for advice on how to work, i.e. how to get things done at work. I claim no special insight into this. What I can offer, however, are a few things that have worked for me. If you are reading this, you are probably, like me, engaged in some kind of knowledge work.

What makes our line of work at staatslabor interesting are the almost infinite degrees of freedom. The downside is, that – unlike artisans – our tools and habits are less well defined.

This document offers a set of tools which, if you hone your use of them, will let you do more satisfying, more creative, more challenging, and – by virtue of all of this – more impactful work. My focus here is on individual contribution, not on management. Nevertheless it should all remain useful throughout your career.

Everything you are about to see I have been taught by others, either in person or in writing. Much of it I practice regularly. Some of it I aspire to, but might still be working on.

The usual disclaimers apply. Your mileage may vary. Keep what’s useful to you, discard what isn’t.

II. First, some general advice on how to be productive at work

What follows are a few principles that seem to work well in almost any context.

III. How to know what to do when

There are probably as many prioritization and time management methods as there are atoms in the universe. The one that has stuck for me comes from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”.

It can be summarized as follows:

Have one “to do” list. Everything you need or want to do goes on there.

That’s it. No categories, no colors, no order, no symbols, no intricate time allocation systems, nothing. Just a list.

I use the Notes app on my Mac (which will sync effortlessly between my laptop and my phone), though anything that can store text will do.

Knowing that every task I need to remember is on this one list gives me peace of mind. When I plan my week or my day, I simply look down the list and then do whatever is most important and/or urgent.

IV. Taking note(s)

Taking good notes and being able to retrieve them quickly is a superpower. It’s also indispensable.

There is no way you will be able to remember everything if you don’t write it down. And unless you can find your notes quickly, they will be of no use. You should be able to locate your notes for any given meeting or topic within less than 30 seconds.

All my notes go in one single Google Doc. The most recent entries go at the top. Every entry has a short title and a date. There are much more elaborate ways to take notes. This system works for me because it is incredibly simple.

V. Being responsive on Email and Slack

Here’s how I try to use Email and Slack:

The most important habit to develop is taking immediate action on things. Don’t delay. Unless you genuinely need time to think or gather more information. But for many messages that won’t be the case. Just respond right away.

Allen’s “Getting Things Done” has more on this, but that is essentially it.

VI. Using your computer efficiently

Your computer is your most important tool. Most days you are probably touching it for eight hours or more. Learn how to use it like the serious professional that you are.

The most important habit is to use keyboard shortcuts. It will make you a lot faster.

VII. Further reading

Here is a small selection of things I have found worthwhile:

David Allen, “Getting Things Done”: A classic, and deservedly so. The only productivity book that has stuck for me. It’s old and very US-American, read past that if need be.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, “The Eleven Laws of Showrunning”: Funny and poignant. Your job has more in common with Hollywood showrunning than you might think.

Robert Poynton, “Do Improvise: Less Push. More Pause. Better results”: A short and wise book on how to draw inspiration from improv theater at work.