“In your life, you will be evaluated on your output,” shares writer Ted Giola, “Your boss will evaluate you on your output. If you’re a writer like me, the audience will evaluate you on your output.”

He continues:

But your input is just as important. If you don’t have good input, you cannot maintain good output.

The problem is no one manages your input. The boss never cares about your input. The boss doesn’t care about what books you read. Your boss doesn’t ask you what newspapers you read. The boss doesn’t ask you what movies you saw or what TV shows or what ideas you consume.

The boss may not care about your input, but you should. Because there may be no more important activity to your professional success. I don’t think that’s hyperbole, either.

What we’re talking about when we talk about input are ideas. And our jobs require ideas, specifically for the purposes of applying ideas. How we approach any situation—problem, opportunity, or otherwise—is governed by whatever we think as a possible response. Any response is always a function of the ideas we’re familiar with.

And the ideas we’re familiar with are a function of our input.

Input eventually becomes output through some mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying. That makes input, the things the boss doesn’t see, vital to our output, the things the boss uses to judge our performance. “Problems of output are often problems of input,” writes author Austin Kleon, “If you’re output isn’t where you want it to be, try working on your input.”

Input are the ideas we are exposed to. Input can come from books, podcasts, movies, research articles, television shows, magazines, blog posts, tweets, presentations, news articles, events, conversations, webinars, experiences, museums, email newsletters, trainings, internet searches, and anything and everything else that might fit into this category. It’s also worth explicitly stating that input comes to all of us through the actual experience of working—from the meetings, emails, projects, initiatives, and the rest.

When we’re exposed to new ideas, which is happening all the time, we’re collecting new stimuli for approaching the problems we’re working on.

New stimuli are especially important in complexity because we’re constantly working on problems and opportunities that are brand spanking new. Their newness is a result of constantly changing … everything—new regulations, new competitors, new employees, new services, new initiatives, new cultural movements, new, new, new … 

When every problem is called a new problem, that’s not to say every problem is a problem we’ve never seen before, it means the problem has never been solved in a particular context because context is constantly changing. And it’s not to say the way we do things now isn’t going to work, or that everything we’ve ever known gets tossed out the window, or the training that we attended three weeks ago is useless; it’s to say that in complexity every situation is context-specific and making progress is always a function of your ideas and that mystical combination of learning, thinking, and applying.

Input expose us to ideas that help us formulate novel approaches to the context-specific problems and opportunities we face in complexity. That makes input vital because—and choose any metaphor that makes sense to you—it holds the potential to add stimuli to your brain, ingredients to your pantry, colors to your palette, tools to your toolbox …

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write,” writes Stephen King in his book On Writing. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot,” he adds, “There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

In other words: “No input, no output.

Some Thoughts About Your Input System

Your Input System is a phrase I use to describe all the sources providing ideas to you and, at least in some way, influencing how you do your work and the output you produce. 

Since all of life is input, and because conscientiously collecting all that input would be a burdensome existence, my recommendation is to improve and optimize your input system to the extent you feel 1) you can and 2) it helps you work more effectively. The rest is 1) life worth living or 2) noise. 

Here are a few thoughts on that.

Input has a way of influencing your output at a subconscious level. That’s good! You also want your input to explicitly influence you consciously—”Hey!, I just attended a webinar on this subject last week!”—and so the most important component of input is its accessibility when you need it.

So Take Digital Notes and give yourself a chance at 1) remembering what you’ve learned and 2) finding it when you need it. I save almost everything to Evernote and my personal and work devices are set-up to make it easy to collect newly discovered input. Setting up PARA across your digital tools will also be helpful.

Finding ways to collect your input will be helpful in processing that input so it’s worth spending some time thinking about your Collection Mechanisms. Read later apps, note taking apps, email inboxes, and social feeds seem to be the basic tools for making it happen. 

Follow people on Twitter or LinkedIn. Send any article you may be interested in reading to Instapaper or Pocket. Sign-up for newsletters. Take digital notes on digital-world experiences: meetings, webinars, podcasts, emails, etc. Take digital notes on real-world interactions: books, meetings, conversations, conferences, trainings you attend, observations from working, and the like. 

Input that comes from working, Input at Work—attending meetings, exchanging emails, conversing at the water cooler—is an important source of input as it holds significant influence on the work you do. I believe it’s worth treating it like any other source of input.

Input doesn’t only come to you, it also, at times, must be sought out. So one notable distinction in Your Input System is between Active Input and Passive Input. Active input is input you seek. There will be topics you need to educate yourself on quickly. Those require, for example, finding books that may be helpful, internet searches—the deeper the better, given Google’s decreasing utility with each passing day, calling colleagues, and setting up news alerts for relevant information, among others.

Passive input is input that comes your way, as a result of your interests, and effort to allow passive input to just show up when it does. It’s pulling a book from your anti-library and spending a Saturday afternoon reading, it’s reading through a weekly email newsletter, it’s scrolling your Twitter feed, it’s opening LinkedIn. Passive input requires a more conscientious approach knowing that you may come across something that’s of interest to you for whatever reason. What you do with it—read it now or send it to Instapaper, add it to a watch later playlist on YouTube, etc—is up to you.

A note on Addressing the Filter Bubble. It’s real. Most of the time your filter bubble is okay as long as you are aware of it. In fact, it’s part of what makes Your Input System valuable. But some of what is filtered out could be of interest so it’s something to be aware of and, if you desire, do something about by actively seeking out ideas beyond your filter.

Back inside your filter bubble, leaning on Curation as a powerful winnowing force can help direct your limited attention to input of interest and it works on a number of different levels. 

On one level, Your Input System is a curation device for topics that are of interest to you, or may be of interest when discovered. That may be the ultimate goal.

Curation also works by depending on curators. When you find people who always seem to be creating (or have created) things interesting to you, it’s worth following them as their output is likely to continue to appeal to you. The same can be said of publications. Curation can also work at the topic level through something like a Google news alert or hashtags.

One more thing: Validity. The validity, or the extent to which an idea is well-founded and representative of the real word, is critical to good input. You may be astonished to learn how many of the models, frameworks, and methods we use at work which have very little supporting evidence or are used out of context, or both. Then again you may not. In either case, It’s always good to remember the George Box aphorism, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and in management and organizations this is extra true.

The thing about input is that with everything else going on at work no one has any time for input. But no one can have the luxury of having no input, at least on a professional level, if you desire any level of career progression. Besides, you’re collecting input all the time, whether you’re intending to or not. 

There’s certainly an opportunity to optimize your input and go all out for making your input system the best it can be, but I believe a more managed approach to improving your input system over time is a more sustainable approach. You’re busy so make Your Input System work for you.

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Some Thoughts on My Input System

A few years ago I started spending time reading a book while at work. Not the whole day. Just a half hour here and there of intentional reading on a work-related topic. It felt … wrong. Especially when people walked past the office and saw what I was up to.

But it helped me … think. It helped me to formulate thoughts on problems we were solving and develop theory to go about working on them. It helped me be a more effective employee, which is what bosses desire, even if their actions don’t always align with that ideal.

My willingness to trade 30-minutes of morning email responding for a chapter in a book that increased my knowledge on a topical subject was good for me and my boss. (And the emails still miraculously received replies.)

When your input system is intended to support your output at work, then it should be okay to make time to collect input while at work. How well we do our jobs is increasingly a result of our ideas and how we apply those ideas to context-specific problems in complexity. 

There are two additional points worth highlighting: 1) books are an important component of my input system and 2) my input system is largely framed by topics I’m already interested in and am exploring further.

Input arrives in a variety of ways for me including internet searches (although I find this effort less and less worthwhile as Google succumbs to the SEO-madness every website is optimized for), reading (from a variety of channels), my job (work is an input through meetings, projects, emails, and the rest), conversations with colleagues, as well as email newsletters.

This approach has a way of removing serendipity from my input system, which I generally believe is more of a focusing mechanism than anything, but there are a few ways I’ve found that do allow for serendipitous discovery, even within the confines of my existing interests:

  • Twitter is my most important input. I say that because I’ve turned Twitter off (logged out, deleted the app) on multiple occasions and I always come back. Some people experience Twitter as an awful place, but I’ve found it to be helpful more often than not. It’s my main source of new topics, new things to read, and it allows me to follow people directly.
  • People as input: Not everyone I “follow” is on Twitter, but many are and if I’ve started following them because of things they’ve created, they’re generally a good signal of other things I may be interested in. I stay attuned to their output.
  • Podcasts, especially interview podcasts, are a wonderful combination of people-I-follow and serendipity. Podcasts are a great serendipity subcontracting mechanism because if I like the podcast, I’m likely to enjoy the weekly guest and a long-form interview is a great way to be introduced to new ideas.
  • Email newsletters, which I briefly mentioned above, are a special blend of serendipity and predictability. They’re effective at following people and subjects and interests and, most importantly, most email newsletters have links links links to things on topic, related to a topic, and often completely off topic.
  • Events have been a fruitful source of input for me. Talks, presentations, panels, conferences, book readings. They’re a good reason to get out of the house and return with something useful.

Knowing my input system exists (whether I craft it, curate it, improve it or not) has helped to be aware that input can come from anywhere and to have a general orientation toward being open to it. 

Important, because it’s as true up there as it is down here: “No input, no output.