Figure It Out is the principle at work when most of our time is spent working on new problems.

When a problem hasn’t been solved before, when no one has the answer, when knowledge and experience and relationships must be relied on, when learning is occurring while working is happening too—it’s Figure It Out at play.

Figure It Out is as applicable to determining strategy as it is to leading a project as it is to performing a task for the first time. It applies to metawork, too. And it especially applies to self-work: the growth and development we all say we’re after.

At work, it’s worth considering change on (at least) three dimensions: beliefs, behaviors, and systems.

Changing behaviors is (usually) what we’re after. So that’s where most change efforts start. And often where they stop.

Yet just because beliefs and systems are (often) invisible doesn’t mean their influence is, too.

Take, for instance, your organization’s paid time off policy. Attempt to take more than your annual three weeks of vacation time and you can expect a phone call from someone prior to your trip or as soon as you return. The system in action.

On the other dimension, that colleague of yours who never takes a vacation day? Perhaps he believes his (over) dedication to the work is leading to a promotion that will validate his years of a beachless trudge. His behavior reflects his beliefs.

In practice, it’s difficult to separate beliefs, behaviors, and systems. There’s interplay and influence each dimension has on the others.

Beliefs guide behaviors at the individual level. Systems guide behaviors on a broader scale. Ignore them at your peril. Use them to your advantage.

Identifying how you get things done, your theory of change, and then improving your theory of change as a result of learning from experience is an example of metawork. 

Metawork is work about work. 

If work is all the stuff you do to advance an objective from here to there, then metawork is the stuff you do to make sure the work is appropriately considered.

If work is solving a problem, then metawork is considering if the problem is worth solving in the first place, whether the problem is appropriately defined, the context of the problem, and what might be an appropriate course of action given the unlimited possibilities that exist.

If work is managing others, then metawork is reflecting on the reasons for doing what you do in your interactions with an employee and identifying the role of the system in that individual’s performance.

If work is managing projects, then metawork is the strategizing you do before taking action on getting the project group to collaborate on shared objectives.

If work is consulting, then metawork is thinking about the tools you use and acknowledging and understanding how the use of any tool ultimately shapes the solution.

If work is facilitating change, then metawork is understanding your theory of change and deliberately improving it as you learn what works and what doesn’t.

It’s silly to need a different name to distinguish work from metawork, because metawork is work, after all. It’s just that there isn’t nearly enough deliberate and intentional metawork happening in most organizations.

Instead, we’re burdened with the check-the-checkbox mentality. Just get it done. But it’s worth asking “What for?” a whole lot more.

That’s metawork, too.

How do you get things done?

As in: How do you advance your agenda? How do you work with others to implement change? How do you deliver the project? 

The answers reveal your theory of change, your beliefs about how change happens. 

Those beliefs guide your actions.

Actions lead to outcomes.

Outcome + outcome + outcome + outcome … leads to the change we’re all after.

The best theories of change are learned. They’re improved by incorporating what worked. They challenge the assumptions behind what hasn’t.

Every theory of change starts with assumptions. Well-founded and considered assumptions help to ensure you get to where you want to go. 

Incorrect and unconsidered assumptions guarantee you won’t. That alone makes it worth thinking about how you get things done.

This pyramid of talent emergence exists in nearly every organization:

  1. Hiring talented new employees into the organization
  2. Helping employees who already work in the organization to become more talented
  3. Identifying how the organization is holding back talented employees from emerging naturally

Most efforts are dedicated to number one: it’s easy, it’s sexy, and there are open positions to be filled. 

Number two receives attention, though talent development investment and program quality varies by organization. The best are very good, the rest seemingly are not.

Number three is nearly universally ignored. 

What’s often missed in most conversations about “talent” is …  how anyone becomes talented. 

Talent isn’t something a person is born with. It’s a set of abilities developed by the individual through deliberate practice, experience, and learning. Another name for this process could be: work.

So organization systems, at a minimum, should not prevent an individual from developing their talent. 

And at their best, organization systems should actually, truly, meaningfully support an employee’s talent development. Those organizations are rarer than we might like to believe.

But they’ve already flipped the pyramid.

Micromanagement is a very effective system of management and an awful way to be managed. Its omnipresence is difficult to navigate because it isn’t driven by coherent theory, it’s driven by the desire to maintain (the illusion) of control. Micromanagement doesn’t serve the employee. It serves the hierarchy.

Micromanagement is an example of a limiting system. Limiting systems are everywhere in organizations; some with names equal in their negative connotation, some hidden behind accepted organizational practices, and many with no names whatsoever. 

Performance in limiting systems happens despite the system. Significant effort is required to overcome the limiting factors of the limiting system to achieve anything. And unless that effort is to change the system, any achievement is unsustainable. 

Overcoming the demotivating characteristics of micromanagement requires effort. That effort is wearing over the long term. Individual performance deteriorates. Some employees leave. Goals are reduced. The manager’s manager gets involved, which may make things worse. The system’s limiting effects cascade.

Yes, systems can create a floor for performance. Systems can place an upper bound on success, too. 

The latter is more of a problem in modern organization’s than the former. Working on systems isn’t only about sustained performance; working on systems can also be about identifying what’s preventing performance to begin with.

Goals are fine. They set a target for where you, and the department, and the organization desire to arrive.

Systems are far more interesting. And more useful. They’re the how of any goal. Outside of luck, systems are what turns the wish of a goal into the reality of achievement.

“Goals are about the results you want to achieve,” writes James Clear. “Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”

People working for organizations spend a fair amount of time setting goals. They spend time talking about how they will achieve those goals, too. They don’t spend nearly enough time working on changing or developing the systems to support the achievement of those goals.

A goal to increase demand (volume!) by 10 percent is a good example. The goal is easy to set. It’s easy to describe the how. But without reorienting your processes for finding new patients, forming new relationships, and improving operations to serve those new patients … well the goal becomes more of a wish than a target.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals,” Clear also writes, “You fall to the level of your systems.”

Of course this process work, this systems work, is being done, it’s technically the work we’re hired to do. But it rarely receives the same ritualistic treatment that setting goals gets.

Systems set the parameters for achievement. With adequate systems, goals are more likely to be achieved. Insufficient systems lead to the continuation of the status quo.

Working on systems—creating, optimizing, altering, innovating, dismantling, aligning, realigning, and, among other activities, improving the processes of work that lead to performance—is the work worthy of ritual.

“It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions,” writes William Bridges. “They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, a new CEO replaces the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, and new technology. 

“Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.”

The transition (psychological) is where we deal with the change (situation) and what it means to our situation specifically. It’s the component of change that is often labeled resistance. And no wonder, because the first phase of every transition is where we process what we’re losing.

Your transition, which accompanies any change, depends on when you receive information that a change is happening (planned) or a change is occurring (unplanned). In traditional command-and-control organizations, like the ones we work for, your place on the org chart largely determines when you receive that information.

If a plan for change is created at the executive level, then revealed to the management layer, then shared with the rest of the workforce—just by way of how we do things—a transition lag occurs.

A transition lag is the interval between when a transition begins (information is received) for employees at different levels.  

The danger of a transition lag is in not allowing those who receive information last (the workers) the same opportunity to complete a transition as those who received the information first. It’s easy to forget that something you’ve been thinking about, strategizing on, and planning for weeks is still new information, and often to the people it matters to most.

They deserve the opportunity to transition, too.

(And, by the way, transitions can be managed. Better yet: Go through transitions together.)


William Bridges’s transitions framework is a helpful mental model for change. Read more about it over here.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes to do creative work (post three).

A man named Hermann Ebbinghaus attempted to illustrate what we’re up against in our battle with remembering with what has become to be known as the forgetting curve. Various academic studies have attempted to quantify the rate at which we forget, yet I believe it’s sufficient to know we’re good at forgetting, and we’re good at forgetting quickly.

It’s natural for our knowledge to degrade unless we give it attention and that natural forgetfulness has certain species-adaptation benefits. But forgetfulness in the workplace can be inefficient, frustrating, embarrassing, perilous, and generally disadvantageous: To be forgetful is to be ineffective.

When we don’t take notes, we forget. Actually we’re likely to forget whether we take notes or not, so it’s more appropriate to say digital notes transfer the burden of remembering to a software application such as Evernote. 

Along with our best ideas, digital notes make more accessible the knowledge we’re responsible for knowing, such as what was discussed at last month’s meeting, where the last conversation left off, important deadlines for the budgeting process, and the long list of “working memory” responsibilities all of our jobs include.

As I’ve written elsewhere: “Amid overflowing inboxes, packed-to-the-hilt calendars, and lists of priorities all of equal priority, the healthcare administrator’s job is the same as it ever was: keep things running smoothly, and as different as it will ever be: make change happen.” 

It’s a dichotomous reality pulling us in contradictory directions. That’s the challenge of working in complexity

And digital notes help to make it possible through strategic forgetting. 

Have you been in an interaction (meeting, 1:1 with the boss, annual review for an employee, etc.) and have limited memory of something you wished you recalled more completely?

A note would have helped.

Have you found yourself searching Google for a resource, something you know exists because you’ve used it previously, and found no luck in finding it again? 

Have you had a thought during a meeting, in the middle of the night, or in the shower only to forget an important point when it came time to use it? 

Has your memory of an influential series of events differed from someone else’s memory of that same series of events?

Strategic forgetting is the practice of transferring the burden of remembering to our digital notes because digital notes are memories stored outside the brain.

Transferring this burden of remembering, writes Building a Second Brain creator Tiago Forte, “allows us to outsource our memory, instead of trying to keep every detail of our work and lives in our heads. It is like having a brilliant collaborator, thought partner, and personal assistant always available, ready to serve up our best ideas at a moment’s notice.”

Imagine arriving at a meeting well-prepared and well-informed on the topic because you’d been collecting information, stored in notes, for the past two weeks, six months, or even ten years—and reviewed that information before the meeting.

Imagine taking notes on the interesting things you read related to your job, or the job you might want to do in the future, and having that information available in the moment you need it.

Imagine taking notes about the thoughts you have, as they come, on whatever it might be, comprising thousands of notes, and then being able to consult them as they’re useful in support of your creativity.

The thing about taking (and collecting) notes is the value notes bring in having them. We (almost always) don’t know what information is going to be valuable until we’ve realized we don’t have it. Then we’re lucky if there’s a trace of a memory at all. 

So if you read something and it captures your attention—why not take a note? If you’re already attending a meeting—why not take a note? If you have a thought in the shower—why not take a note?

If you’re already doing the work—why not take a note?

While the details of the February 17, 2016 department staff meeting may or may not be important to you right at this moment, there’s a heck of a good chance that the blog post you read and have been thinking about all day is something that should influence your thinking in the future. Because that’s work, too. 

And in my estimation, if you’re already doing the work then it’s worth knowing what you’ve already learned. You just have to remember it.

It’s easy to get started with digital note taking. Here’s a guide to get you set-up.

Once your set-up is complete, you can create little systems to make note collecting easier. “Your job is to collect good ideas,” writes artist Austin Kleon in his book Steal Like an Artist, “The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” Here’s a guide to do just that.

The point of taking and collecting digital notes is to use them, something we’ll do more and more as our jobs continue to shift toward creative work. So here’s a guide to using and improving notes for the creative (and tactical, too) healthcare administrator work you’re already doing.

Tiago Forte is the closest person to a digital note philosopher—if such a philosopher can exist—as there is. His philosophy on note taking is worth adopting:

Notes are personal, informal, quick and dirty. They are not for public consumption, but for your own personal use, like a leather notebook you keep in your backpack.

Notes are open-ended and never finished. “Taking notes” is a continuous process, in which you can noodle on ideas without an immediate purpose in mind.

Notes have low standards for quality and polish. They are easy to jot down, because it’s fine if they are messy, incomplete, or totally random.

Notes naturally mix diverse types of media. Just like a paper notebook might contain drawings and sketches, quotes and ideas, and even a pasted photo or post-it note, notes naturally combine different kinds of media in one place.

This post is one of a series: Get started with digital notes (post one), Create little systems to collect digital notes (post two), and Use digital notes and strategic forgetting to be more effective at work (post four).

In many ways, at least for me, notes have become a primary work activity, perhaps even the primary work activity. 

That’s because our jobs are changing. This Harold Jarche visual representation gets to the point in a straightforward manner: our work is steadily becoming creative work.

It’s creative work in the sense that creativity is required for solution finding when working in complexity. Applying creativity to solve problems in complexity requires skills like intuition, empathy, curiosity, and sensemaking.

Creativity has always been valuable in organizations; but it wasn’t necessary for everyone to be creative because business context changed so infrequently. 

Now we’re realizing context, the conditions of a business decision, is always shifting and depending on the setting it has as much to do with an interaction between employee and boss as it does with changing market dynamics.

Responding to market shifts caused by competitors, regulators, cultural shifts, innovation, yes even pandemics, and especially in response to the response of a pandemic, among a multitude of other examples … requires creativity. So does, on an equal level, organizing a team to do their best work, leading a project, navigating bureaucracy, creating a financial model, conducting a training session, leading a staff meeting, and on and on.

This importance of context requires creativity from everyone in order to respond to all the contextual changes happening across the organization, at any given moment, and in any given moment. 

So it’s good news that we’re all capable of creativity. And a foundational element of my creative (healthcare administrator) work, and now perhaps becoming a foundational part of yours, are digital notes because digital notes store what’s at the foundation of the creative skills on the right (up above) until we’re ready to use it: input.

Using and Improving Notes

The point of having notes is to use them.

That seems an obvious statement, but using notes, at least for me, has been more of a challenge in changing habits than collecting notes was in establishing one. I’m very good at collecting notes. I’m getting better at using notes. 

It sounds trivial, but after decades of starting every knowledge-seeking activity with an innocent search engine search, reminding myself I likely already had what I was looking for was difficult. For certain, there are resources on the internet better than what I have in my notes, but what I already have has been curated for my interests, is likely to meet my contextual needs, and doesn’t contain all the flim-flam of a search-engine-optimized Google search result. 

So if you find yourself having the same problem, here’s what worked for me: change your browser’s default search engine to something more useless than Google. That should do the trick. 

Once you establish the habit of using your notes, there are at least three reasons to use them: in consultation, in preparation, and in creation.

In consultation is to rediscover what I “know” about a subject. This is as much about reminding myself what was discussed in the committee meeting two weeks ago as it is about refreshing myself on a topical subject in the midst of a team meeting.

In preparation is to prepare for a work activity. Whether it’s a meeting or an interaction, and those two categories cover much of what we do at work, I look to my notes to prepare for knowledge reasons (here’s what I know) and process reasons (here’s how I’m going to do this).

In creation: To inform a creation. It might be a PowerPoint slide deck, financial model, framework, project plan, memo, team development activity, etc., etc., etc., my notes help me in the process of creation.

Using a note in consultation, in preparation, or in creation happens in the flow of work and in that flow there is also an opportunity to improve a note and make it even better for the next time it is used. It’s called progressive summarization and it’s an exceptional feature of digital notes.

Progressive summarization is a tool to do just what it describes: progressively summarize a note you’ve collected previously, as you’re using the note, so that you can make it even more useful for the next time you use it. 

For example, there’s an article I constantly reference because it’s changed the way I think about work. I saved the entire article as a note. I’ve bolded passages, highlighted key ideas, and even summarized it. So when I return to the note, which I do with some level of regularity, it’s easy to find what I’m looking for without having to spend 15-minutes re-reading the article. That’s progressive summarization.

Tiago Forte, inventor of Progressive Summarization and creator of the Building a Second Brain course, describes progressive summarization as “a method for opportunistic compression — summarizing and condensing a piece of information in small spurts, spread across time, in the course of other work, and only doing as much or as little as the information deserves.” 

Progressive summarization works through five layers with each layer building on the previous layer.

The first layer is creating the note. That’s easy. 

The second layer is bolded key points. The third layer is highlighted best points (which come from the bolded points). The fourth layer is creating a summary of the note in your own words. 

And the fifth layer, which in all honesty I haven’t quite figured out yet, is to remix notes. I imagine it to be a mastery-level use of digital notes and something I’ll figure out when it becomes useful to my digital note taking practice.

Progressive summarization doesn’t have to occur all at once. In fact, it shouldn’t. And not every note deserves or requires all layers of progressive summarization—stopping at the bolding layer is common for me and summaries should be reserved for only the most impactful notes. 

Notes are intended to be useful. Using progressive summarization to make notes more useful as you’re using them to do the work you’re doing absolves digital note taking from tedium. We’re all too busy for tedium. 

More Creativity at Work

At work we commonly depend on our creativity as we write the email, as we compose the thought in a meeting or interaction, and as we create the spreadsheet or presentation. Let’s call it creativity in the moment.

Equally (and perhaps more) important is considered creativity. The creativity that emerges from well thought out preparation, consultation, and creation in thoughtful consideration of context.

I’m not sure that distinction serves all that much importance beyond this: it calls attention to the need for creativity in all moments, in all areas, and by everyone when working in complexity.

Digital notes help us in constantly shifting contexts because digital notes provide a system to collect, process, and remember the information and knowledge required for being creative—and importantly: while we’re being creative in preparation, in consultation, and in creation.