Mastering the Tools of Knowledge Work: A Craftsman's Approach

I received a great email from Jörn Meyer in response to my article on living with dignity in which he described living with dignity as doing your work to the very best of your ability, no matter what. Whether that means arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court or flipping burgers at McDonald's -- both jobs can be done with and without dignity. This ties in with the theme of Read & Trust's latest issue on craftsmanship. I'm fascinated by the idea of knowledge workers treating their work as craftsmen (and women). Is it even possible to be a craftsman when you aren't creating something physical like a piece of furniture or some other lovingly crafted physical object?

I think knowledge workers can approach their work in the same way a craftsman approaches theirs and it starts with the attitude taken toward tools. A craftsman's livelihood relies heavily on their tools. At the same time, a craftsman's livelihood does not rely on endlessly tinkering with their tools. There is a delicate balance between mastering tools and tinkering for the sake of tinkering. While I think most expert woodworkers understand that distinction pretty well, I wonder if the average knowledge worker has the same level of understanding? People have been crafting beautiful physical objects for hundreds of years but the phenomenon of knowledge work, or working with information instead of physical material, is a relatively new one. Perhaps the same ethos that drives craftsman has not yet reached its way to the knowledge workers' collective consciousness?

The Tools of Knowledge Work

Make no mistake about it, though, the tools knowledge workers use to do their job are just as complex and important as any traditional craftsman's. The effectiveness of the knowledge worker is limited by their understanding and skillful use of the tools at their disposal. Your tools may be different from mine depending on the nature of the work you do, but some examples probably include both software and hardware:

  • Word processing software (like Open Office, or MS Word, or Write Room)
  • Task management software and systems (like Things or OmniFocus)
  • Reference management software (like Evernote)
  • Email and other communication/scheduling (like Gmail or Mail.app or Skype)
  • Project management (like Basecamp)
  • Laptop/desktop/tablet
  • Cell phone
  • Desk chair
  • Pens and notebooks
  • Desk and other physical organizational components

These are the tools that allow us to do our work efficiently and effectively. However, how much time have you taken to truly master the tools you use for hours every day? Do you even like the tools you use?

Mastering your tools shows respect for the work you do because it allows your attention to transcend the actual using of the tools in favor of focusing on the true task at hand. A skilled woodworker does not focus on the plane when using it on a piece of wood. His utter familiarity and mastery of the tool allows him to focus on using the plane with full awareness on what he is trying to create. Are you familiar enough with the software and hardware you use every day to let it fade into the background?

A Thought Experiment

Let's run a quick thought experiment: Let's say you are working on typing up a memo and you have an idea for another project you're working on. What do you do? Do you try to hold it in your mind because you know it's annoying to have to find your task management software, click whatever button you need to click to add a new item, type in the item, and then get back to what you were originally working on? Or, even worse, can you not even really decide where that piece of information should go? This is an example of a lack of mastery of the tools at your disposal.

Since this is likely an occurrence that happens many times a day (let's face it, if you're a knowledge worker it behooves you to make sure you capture good ideas you have for other projects throughout the day) you need to be able to handle it in the swiftest way possible. True mastery would be able to recognize immediately where that information should go in your system, open the required software without ever having to take your hands off the keyboard, quickly type in the idea or piece of information, and return to your original task again without ever touching the mouse. With a minimum of effort and thought you have efficiently captured the idea to use later and returned to your original task. Like a master craftsman.

The Craftsman Knowledge Worker

Craftsmen take pride in their tools not because they are the flashiest or most expensive but because of what they allow them to create. They do the research necessary to make sure they have high quality tools but once that decision has been made there is a minimum of tinkering and fussing with alternatives. The ability to adeptly and skillfully use the tools at your disposal is much more valuable than constantly using the latest and greatest tool available. For a knowledge worker, that means not tinkering with every new list management app that's released or downloading yet another distraction free writing app. It's about picking one and learning its ins and outs to the point where you know everything about the app. Every keyboard shortcut, every feature and ability, and inevitably, every shortcoming (which then allows you to identify when you need a new tool to fill a specific gap).

You probably don't go into a workshop every day and it's unlikely that you're regularly producing beauitfully handmade objects for other people to enjoy at your day job (and if you are, you have a cool job). However, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't approach your work with the same care and consideration as those who do. Learn keyboard shortcuts. Wipe down your computer screen every week. Make sure your software is up-to-date and you've learned how to use it as efficiently as possible. These seem like small tasks but they can truly make you feel more professional and more likely to produce better work.

The craftsman mindset is complex and multi-faceted, but I think it starts with a healthy respect and love for the tools that let you do your job. Taking pride in knowing how to use your tools as a knowledge worker and taking pride in the work they help you produce go hand-in-hand and are key ingredients in a happy and healthy professional life.

Photo via inhabitat