Three Essential Kinds of Work

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In a quest to become more efficient, organized and productive, I’ve come to understand that achievement requires more than just “buckling down” and “cranking it out.” Lasting success in complex, creative work takes three distinct kinds of effort.

Productivity guru David Allen demarcates work into three distinct categories: unplanned work, pre-defined work, and defining work. Once I understood and utilized this distinction, I realized I was trying to do more than one of these activities at the same time, and it was making me slow, confused, and discouraged. Once I understood Allen’s “threefold nature of work”, I could consciously engage each part with full attention, helping to keep me mentally clear, flexible and on-task.

Unplanned work

Life happens. None of us can predict when our tire will go flat, when our trusted coworker will call out sick, or we’ll suddenly be asked to take on a new and urgent project at work. When “getting organized,” one natural but erroneous impulse is to tightly plan and schedule life down to the last detail. Yet unplanned work, because it comes as a surprise, won’t allow for this level of structure. In this case, the tired old saw “expect the unexpected” actually means something. If we admit that unplanned work will happen to us, paradoxically, we can plan for it, not through scheduling per se, but in the amount of scheduled work we give ourselves. Unplanned work demands us to allow space and time in our plans for things we can’t name until they show up.

It pays to figure out about how much unplanned work you have in your life on a week-to-week basis. Some people have a lot of unplanned work, perhaps because they live or work in a chaotic environment that thwarts planning. (Emergency medicine would be my exemplar for this kind of work.) The proportion of unplanned work can also balloon when we don’t do enough prevention and maintenance in advance. Letting tasks slide until they become critical often turns a minor time savings into an acute crisis, as anyone who’s chronically neglected to change their motor oil can attest.

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The suddenness of unplanned work has a way of pumping us full of adrenaline. To some, this is a problem; to others, an attraction. Most of us know someone (perhaps intimately?) who seems unwilling or unable to work on a project until the very last moment, then goes into a frenzy.

While most of us would breathe a big sigh of relief to have less unplanned work in our lives, and to some degree this is an achievable goal, unplanned work also comes in the form of unexpected opportunities and areas for growth. If we don’t allow room for unplanned work, we force ourselves to ignore these opportunities, and keep on doing what we have already committed to doing. Without the chance to attend a lecture, research the next big thing, or dream up new ways to raise our game, we are trapped in a rut of our own design.

Pre-Defined Work

Often, pre-defined work is the work we wish we could be doing while fighting through unplanned work. As a broad generalization, unplanned work is the work we “have” to do, while pre-defined work is the work we want to do.

Having a plan is encouraging for the most part. We gain a feeling of control and autonomy that motivates us to apply ourselves and reach a goal we set for ourselves.

Pre-defined work need not be complicated. David Allen likes to say that any outcome requiring two or more actions is a project. As soon as you write down some steps, schedule something on a calendar, or add something to a to-do list, you’ve just pre-defined some work.

Indeed, unplanned work (if it’s not critical) may be shifted to the pre-defined work side of the aisle simply by refusing to do it “right now” and adding it to your organization system for processing and planning.

Defining Work

At the risk of being obtuse, pre-defined work requires definition. Unfortunately, most of us were poorly prepared for this task. Growing up, many of us had parents and then teachers micro-managing our every action. Defining work is a skill like reading, mathematics, or riding a bicycle. It is not instinctive for most people, but can be learned through good instruction and sustained practice.

People avoid defining work because they are not used to it. But they may also avoid defining work because the act of defining work may not seem like “real” work. Thinking about your work rather than doing your work may come across as navel-gazing, and in some cases it is, yet failure to define work leads to one of two outcomes. In the first case, no definition of work happens at all and we wander around aimlessly doing something, anything, that we think might be productive. For very simple work, this might be enough. You could, for instance, do a passable job of cleaning your house by simply wandering about and fixing any messes you find, although this approach wouldn’t be very fast or efficient. In the second case, defining work and doing work get mashed together, dividing our mental energies between two demanding tasks. As we’ve learned from the legions of studies on multitasking, divided attention almost inevitably leads to poor performance on all tasks.

One at a Time

There are two key insights I would like to leave you with. The first is that you will inevitably have all three kinds of work in your life, whether you acknowledge them or not. By knowing that unplanned work will arise, you can leave space in your plans. By recognizing the value of pre-defined work, you can take control of your days for your own purposes. By taking the time to define work, you make sure your efforts are truly taking you in the direction of your goals.

The second insight is that each of these three types of work deserves your full attention. If you’re doing unplanned work, then admit that your planned work will have to wait until the crisis situation is resolved. Hopefully, you’ve built space in your plans to allow for this surprise. Then, while performing pre-defined work, avoid getting sucked back into unplanned work unless it is critical. Similarly, avoid defining work and doing it at the same time. If you’re cruising along and you find the existing plan won’t work anymore, make a full stop, switch into planning mode, and revise the plan with your full attention before carrying on. Single-tasking each of the three domains of work helps ensure you truly give them your best effort.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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