Workflow: This is How We Get Things Done

Every day you do many actions, and hopefully somebody values those actions and pays you for them. Whether you’re cleaning teeth or changing oil, you have a set standard of actions which are required, and you do them over, and over, and over, until you can do them in your sleep. What began as a wide-awake apprentice, new on the job, became a bored individual practicing rote patterns. These patterns are your workflow.

Everyone has a workflow, but the only people who are really talking about it by using this word are intellectuals (and usually nerdy ones), mostly because their work is abstract. It’s easy for a farmer to develop a concrete workflow called “Planting Crops.” He watches his Dad, or his mentor, go through the steps, and he follows along in real-life until he “learns” how to do it on his own. As he is learning he will see the farmer do incredibly complex things as if they were incredibly simple. The young boy finds his level of excellence and efficiency nothing short of miraculous.

But really, all the experienced farmer has done is develop patterns, which he then has strung together into a workflow. Time has made him proficient in the process. That proficiency frees his mind to think about other things and catch mistakes which slip by the young boy, whose brain is maxed out just doing the basics. Again, the farmer looks like he’s doing mental jujitsu as the boy bangs his head against the barn, frustrated he’ll never be as good. But the farmer is on auto-pilot; his body does the work, and his mind is free to catch errors and find new methods for greater excellence and efficiency. So the workflow helps the farmer do miraculous things, like implement changes and do mental jujitsu.[1]

Another use of the mental model “workflow” arises: As the farmer ages, he may forget why he does what he does. The details may fade as to why he must rotate the crops, but he still rotates them because that’s just how it’s done. His workflow dictates, and he acts, and what carries him along is a feeling, a remembrance of two things: that his Dad did it, and back when his Dad taught him, he was fully convinced this was absolutely necessary.

But imagine a young upstart coming to town with new research that claimed fields didn’t need to be rotated as frequently. The farmer either stands firm on principle, or he must begin to learn for himself so he can evaluate the claim, so he can discern. At this point the farmer is stepping away from the pattern and examining it by the process of research and self-education. Now, for a moment, analyzing the workflow itself, the process, has become more important than the crops, the actual activity of getting things done. He must reevaluate the system and then get back to work, implementing a change in that system.

What is a Workflow?

A workflow is the flow of work required to produce a product. It’s a mental model used to label a string of patterns usually completed all in a row for a desired end-result. A farmer has a particular workflow which he enacts when it’s time to plant or to harvest. A shoe-maker has a particular workflow for making shoes, and you can imagine that every step he takes is almost identical across make and model. Once he has mastered each tiny step, he can set the work on cruise control, producing masterful shoes with very little entrepreneurial enterprise, very little cognitive effort, and increasingly fewer errors.

Who Needs a Workflow?

As I said before, the main application of this, for my study, is in intellectual work. The abstract nature of researching, studying, thinking, and writing can mean that as a professional thinker you reinvent the wheel (or the workflow) every time you want to get things done. That keeps you from both excellence and efficiency in major ways. Just as a farmer needs to achieve mastery over his tools so that they become mere extensions of his body, so also academics need mastery over their computers, their software, their methods (like researching, note-taking, information storage and retrieval).

In order to achieve mastery of a topic you must first achieve mastery over your tools. In this series I will break down the core tools necessary for an academic to do his or her work so that maybe you can learn from my experience and come away with a better grip of what tools are out there and how best to use them. Since every Christian is a student, this applies to all of us, in some way, and at some level. As Christians, we have an obligation to be intellectually adept and skillful in our understanding of the Word of God (Heb 5:11–12). It is our duty to:

  • Understand God (why else the Scripture?)
  • Grow in our knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet 3:18)
  • Love Him with all our minds (Matt 22:37)
  • Seek Him with all our minds (1 Chron 22:19)
  • Exercise discernment (which requires an understanding mind) (1 Kgs 3:9).

We are even commanded to build patterns in our minds to enact so that in the moment we aren’t caught without a game-plan (Luke 21:14 [cf. Dan 1:8]). Now if that isn’t a sanctified reason for workflow, I don’t know what is.

It can be just as intimidating to try to get meaning out of a book as it is for a farmer to take on Wall Street. If you don’t have the skill-set and the holistic workflow, then you probably lack confidence and appetite for that discipline. I hope to break down that workflow, for example, and help you master each step in order to become a better reader. It’s easy to say read more!, but it’s very difficult to lead others step-by-step. Workflows to the rescue!

Disclaimer: I fully expect about 50% of this series to be applicable only to knowledge workers, so don’t feel bad about skipping some.

  1. The same thing happens for martial artists, professional athletes, or anyone who reaches mastery in a skill. They can see multiple things at once which frees their brain to do more with each thought. Thoughts become thought patterns and single observations become groups of observations: “chunking.”  ↩