The useless class has arrived

I read an article recently about how humans are becoming the useless class. Historian, Yuval Noah Harari, reckons we are not too far away from a future in which the technology we've created to assist us will put us out of work.

This isn't a new concept, but the reality of it actually happening has become much more prevalent than before.

The article states the jobs we do are all just algorithms – algorithms that are easy learnt, and in turn easily replaceable with technology (because – think about it – most jobs are pretty straightforward).

However, Harari also states that ancient hunter-gatherers had to perform a shit-ton of skills in order to survive – ranging from tracking and hunting animals, to knowing which berries to eat, and to making fire and cooking said food. Making it a much harder algorithm to figure out.

Today, we're "specialised and professionalised" in one career only, so when the machines learn – we're out in the cold.

Although it's good to specialise in a certain craft, it will be necessary for us to specialise in multiple streams. Don't get me wrong, specialisation is needed (doctors, engineers, psychiatrists), but the majority of jobs in our society are easily replaceable and will efficiently and effectively be done so with technology.

We've heard all this before, yet there was a very interesting point I took out of the article:

"Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly."

Having undergone a few mini "reinventions" through my own career, I can totally relate to this statement. I've realigned myself, learned new skills, new habits. Learned that there are different ways to solve a problem and that we are just one peg in a big-ass machine.

By reinventing yourself you learn how different areas of business work. You learn how to deal with situations that can't be solved with a hammer and duct tape. You learn new skills that add to your repertoire and can only benefit you when the going gets tough.

"But I'm good at what I do!" I hear you say, "Why do I need to change?" Because you become better, stronger, more versatile, and less replaceable by an algorithm.

Yes, it may be outside of your comfort zone to learn a new technology. It's damned stressful when you are now responsible for a group of people. You will feel out of place when you move to a new role in a new team.

There is nothing wrong with feeling any of discomfort.

Just push through, keep plodding, and be open to learning. Before you know it, you will be drawing on your multifaceted previous experiences in order to counteract whatever is in front of you now.

It's a scary world we're heading into, but I truly believe if you are adaptable enough and continue learning and changing, you'll be ok.

On a side note, the study to which the article refers to predicts that archaeology is one of the least likely professions to be replaced by technology (1% chance). Maybe I should follow one of my dreams and become an archaeologist (haha).

The 3 Worst Pieces of Advice I’ve Received About ‘Focus’

During my journey of learning how to be more productive and efficient, I have come across many websites containing some excellent advice, as well as colleagues having also given excellent tips. There are, however, many times where the advice has simply been awful, quirky, or downright stupid. Here are my top 3 worst pieces of advice I received on focus.

1. Keep a cluttered workspace

’A workspace, cluttered or not, does not affect focus.’

I laughed when I saw that statement. Clutter creates tension, anxiety, and a sense of non-clarity. You might be working on your desktop or laptop, not requiring anything from your actual workspace, but humans have this thing called peripheral vision.

We see our piles of papers strewn across our desk, the post-it notes, the coffee cups (and probably coffee stains too). These all form a picture in your sub-conscious that simply does not conform to applying focus when you need it.

2. Remove all distractions

’Close all other applications (including email), move to a quiet spot, put on noise cancelling headphones.

In today’s world of being constantly up to date and available, it is not feasible to disconnect from everything.It may be possible when you are by yourself at home, but at the office it is a different story. In an open plan work area, with a job that requires you to monitor emails or alerts, it is not conducive to remove all distractions.

We cannot close our email applications. We cannot put on our headphones. We certainly cannot disappear for hours on end to ‘focus’.

I say work with these distractions.

3. Focus for long periods of time

’Knuckle down, sit tight, and go for as long as you can, until you have completed your task.

No, that’s not how it works. The basic understanding is that humans focus best for small periods of time, with small breaks in between. The optimum time for any given period of work being between 90-120 minutes.

You can always try the Pomodoro technique, or the hack job that I work with every day.

My advice: Do what’s right for you

At the end of the day, there are so many techniques and suggestions on how you can work best. So many people promising they have the one-size-fits-all technique that will turn you into a productive ninja – focusing and judo-chopping through your tasks all day and all night.

But the truth is, there is no single solution. We are all different, and in turn, work differently. You have to find what works for you. This will probably be a hybrid of what you have found online, read in books, or seen your colleagues do.

Putting a piecemeal technique together, from experience and research, is how I got to where I am today. My colleagues often comment on how productive I am, but there is no secret to my methods. All I have done is learn from them and integrate it into my way of working.

I have read, watched, learned, and adapted my working style to suit me. This has meant that I can achieve a lot more in any given day. Not superhuman typing, not delegation, or even super speed (as some people might think). Just simple, effective management of my emails, prioritisation, and focus of the tasks demanding my attention.

[image source: Alex Trukhincc0]

Say No To Be More Productive

I like to be busy. Many tasks constantly taking up my time, so that I can immediately move onto the next one as soon as they complete. I am pretty sure you feel the same way too. We love the thrill of being ‘busy’. Being busy shows that we are working. We are doing many things for many hours. This model, however, cannot sustain us for very long. It drives us to stress, tiredness, and finally burnout.

Previously, if someone asked me to perform a task for them, I would try fit it in as best I could. I didn’t like saying no. Over time, I would find myself stretched thin, and not providing quality to the task at hand. I was a ‘Yes Man’, the ‘Go-to Guy’, the person who ‘would do it for you’.

No more. It took me a few years, but I came to the realisation that this simply wasn’t good enough. Yes, it felt good to be the main man who could solve all your problems. All I was doing, though, was hampering my own workload.

No matter how efficient, meticulous, or productive you are, there is always a limit to the amount of work you can perform before the quality takes a dive. It is a slippery slope once this starts to happen. People start losing trust in you. They start doubting the value you have previously provided them. And they will lose respect for you and your work ethic. The very things you have worked so hard to attain by saying ‘yes’ to everything.

Trust and respect are extremely important. Everyone is your client. You are serving them by acting on their requests. In the same breath they are serving you. You want them to come back and request more service, and we all know that a returning client is the best client. By continuing to serve and provide for them, their trust and respect for you will grow, and so too will their loyalty. All these factors combined will get you a long way when something doesn’t go right, or the shit hits the fan. Always try to maintain trust and respect in all your encounters with your clients. (But I have deviated, let’s carry on)

Before letting your quality take a dip, try saying ‘no’ to the next person that asks you to perform something for them. Ok, not ‘no’ outright, but in a way that resets their expectation. Something that I’ve found that works well is; “Sorry Beryl, I’m quite snowed under at the moment, but I could get this to you by Friday?”; or “How urgent is this, Drew, I have some other things I’ve got to finish first, then I can get this to you?”.

By aligning their expectations, you can then slot the new task in to the list you currently work with. You don’t sacrifice the current task you’re on. You won’t lose respect. You’ve set the expectation with the person that asked you for the task. And everyone is a happy family.

It is vital to understand your own workload. It is no use setting the expectation with Beryl that you will have her request done by Friday, when you know full well that you will only be able to finish it next week Wednesday. Doing this is just as bad as saying ‘yes’ all the time.

Be honest with your clients. Although some might get irritated or disappointed, they will all appreciate the honesty in the end. In future dealings, they will know that when you tell them ‘Friday’, it will be Friday. And if you don’t deliver what you promised, there will be a damn good reason for it.

What I’ve told you here, is from my personal experience. And to re-iterate, I believe the main factors are;

  • treat people with respect, and they will return it
  • be honest when setting expectations
  • keep true to your word
  • if you can’t meet those expectations, reset them earlier rather than later
  • and be friendly at all times. Having a bad attitude will reduce the respect people have for you.

Don’t be afraid to say no!

Footnote: If you are looking for some guidance on how to manage your tasks and workload, try using your most used tool during the day – your email application. I explain how to do this in my book, as well as here, and here.

Get Tasks Sorted With These Proven Tactics

In a previous post, I described the 3 core methods I use to manage my email. I described an efficient system I use to manage and file my emails.

However, it is all well and good having a system, but that is all it is – a filing system. In this post I will expand on the foundation previously mentioned, and go over an additional 3 methods I use to efficiently and effectively read, prioritise, and action incoming emails. A lot of things we read about ‘productivity’ tell us to “use this application or that one”. “Use a notepad for your to-do lists”. “You have to use something else to manage your time”.

Stuff that.

I’m a huge fan of keeping things simple. Why use multiple applications and trinkets to achieve something, when one application will do? Email applications – especially Microsoft Outlook – are premium task management suites that contain functionality in order for you to fully optimise your tasks, in addition to the usual email functions.

Right, enough time wasting. Let’s move on to getting stuff done.

1. Read

Read as they arrive

Many productivity tips tell you to only read emails once or twice a day.

Again, Stuff that.

In some industries, it is just not viable to close your email application. Services rely on it, systems rely on it, deadlines rely on it.

For me personally, I hate opening my email after a number of hours (as recommended elsewhere), only to find 20-something unread emails that I need to attend to. My heart sinks, my stress spikes, and it seems like I have too much to do.

A much simpler option is to check when you need to, or after a focus period (I will expand on this in another post).

What I do recommend, though, as a substitute to closing your email completely, is to disable alerts. I don’t have any alerts, but simply check email only when necessary. This can range from a few minutes to half an hour, but never more (unless of course I’m in meetings). Yes, some of our job roles require emails to be attended to as soon as they arrive, but this is rectified as simply as configuring desktop alerts to appear only for those emails required.

TIP: Use your smartphone to check emails during downtime while away from your desk. Read, delete, or file as necessary. This will reduce the amount of reading required when returning to your desk.

Once you’ve read all the email, what next?

2. Prioritise

We have no unread email in our inbox now, wonderful! But how does this help with task management and getting things done? Prioritisation.

Microsoft Outlook has functionality to assign Categories to your emails and tasks. Create a simple list of categories according to priority. I personally use the following four:

  1. !Next
  2. <5 Minutes
  3. A
  4. B

!Next – This means an email is of the highest priority, and needs to be dealt with after your current task.
< 5 Minutes – A task that will take less than 5 minutes. For those times when you have a few minutes to spare.
A and B – Lesser priorities than !Next.

Every, yes every, email must be assigned a priority. Without a priority, how do we know if one email is more important than the next?

TIP: Adjusting the view to show a Category column, will draw attention to the associated priorities of the emails.

Delete anything that you know is not needed. Seriously. Newsletters, notifications, nude pictures. Anything that you know that will not be queried in future. Why clutter your folders with unneeded information?

Archive anything else that does not require your attention. Remember, the objective we’re trying to achieve here is ‘the less you see, the more focus you can give to what is there’.

3. Set a deadline

Wow, our inbox is starting to take shape now. Only email requiring our attention can be seen. We also know which emails are more important than others. But now which one do I attend to first? This is where deadlines need to be set.

Microsoft Outlook has a nice feature whereby we can assign a follow-up date on emails. This is handy, because now we can assign deadlines to our prioritised emails.

Go ahead and do that now.


Your inbox should look quite content now. Everything you see should only be emails that need attending to. Every email should have a priority and a deadline. Without deadlines, they’ll never get done.

One other thing I highly recommend, is to keep your email list as short as possible. Preferably to a number short enough so that there is no need to scroll to find emails. The scrollbar is a dangerous thing. If there is a scrollbar, emails will get missed.

By using these methods, I have a constant handle on what tasks I need to do, how important they are, and when they need to be done by. My inbox is my task hub. I’d be dead in the water without it.

3 Ways To Immediately Manage Your Inbox Better

How many emails do you have in your inbox today? 3, 30, 300, 3000? Every day we have to deal with the constant demand of email. Constantly streaming into our account, constantly distracting us from our real tasks at hand. Below are 3 sure-fire methods that I have found to maximise my inbox manageability. I use these methods every day, and truly believe they help me manage my email quicker so that I can get on to bigger and better tasks. Read more »

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