Tools for Knowledge Workers

Regardless of whether you’re an executive, a manager, a designer, or what have you, every knowledge worker needs a few common tools on a daily basis. These are what I call process tools. Using your process tools effectively allows you to create the art or content — whatever that might mean for you.

As the French writer, Gustave Flaubert said:

Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

Process tools allow you to be regular and orderly in your life so you can create your content or art. In other words, having that order allows you to be “chaotic”/creative with your work. These tools also allow you to manage your commitments with yourself and others, and your ability to work effectively depends on how well you use these tools.

Also, process tools are content-agnostic. That means they will remain the same from a functional standpoint regardless of what you create.

Process tools include:

  • Calendar: for keeping track of “hard landscape” things/events and day-specific and time-specific information; for keeping track of your commitments with yourself and others.

  • List manager: a list manager is what I call a “trusted system” for keeping track of things you want to do when you have any discretionary time (for managing a Today list, Next Actions list, Projects list, Waiting-for list, and a Someday list for things you want to do someday).

  • Collection tools: enable you to capture “stuff” in your physical and/or digital inboxes; stuff is anything that might be potentially meaningful that you haven’t made a decision about. You need the appropriate tools to capture stuff, which obviates the need for holding them in your mind, which is counterproductive.

  • Reference tools: for keeping track of support material related to actions on your list, such as Action Support for single actions, and Project Support for project-related actions. These might be physical folders and/or folders on your computer.

  • Ideation tools (such as mind mapping, visual thinking): These are what I call “divergence” tools. They are also your “thinking” tools. They’re great for project planning, idea generation and discovery, and getting clarity on ideas. These tools also help you understand ideas/concepts, help you understand the relationships between those ideas/concepts, and help you see those ideas as part of a larger system.

  • Incubation tools: tools used to gather and collect small ideas that you might want to use at a later date, such as things you want to sleep on, things/ideas you want to think more about, or having your own personal wiki (such as VoodooPad, which works great to keep track of things you might want to use later). The specific tool that you use for this function is not as important as the function itself. In other words, using a tool for incubation is more important than the tool itself.

These tools are required for every knowledge worker regardless of what their work entails.

While process tools are consistent, the opposite is true of content tools, which will be different for everyone based on the kind of work they are doing.

Examples of content tools might include:

  • Finance geeks using their own financial modeling software
  • Executives crunching numbers using Excel
  • Managers using project management tools
  • Designers using Illustrator and Photoshop for design work
  • Writers using Markdown in text editors, and so on

These tools are related to their work (their “content”). These tools are a means to help them create whatever it is they’re trying to create and bring about that change in the world.

You need both process tools and content tools to perform knowledge work in the 21st century. When you use both of these toolsets well in tandem, you increase your overall effectiveness in terms of doing your best work.

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