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Mindful Tasks: Making Your Work Productive and Fulfilling

What work is actually worth doing ourselves, and what should be left to the robots? In this blog, we explore the concept of Mindful Tasks; tasks that are fulfilling, create value, and cannot be performed by automated systems (at least, not yet).

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December 15, 2020

Each day, automated systems become more powerful and more capable of completing tasks that we once thought could only be accomplished by human beings. As the amount of uniquely human tasks shrinks, we’re left with an important question: as humans, what do we want to do with the time we call ‘work’?

At XRay.Tech, our goal is to enrich human work by removing the distraction of Robotic Tasks and helping people to focus their attention on more meaningful and valuable work. In this article, we’re going to look at what makes a task worthy of your attention, and how people and businesses can proactively create their future. It's simple robots should do robotic work and humans can do mindful work. 

What is a Mindful Task?

One of the core components of the XRay Method is to identify the Robotic Tasks and Mindful Tasks that make up any company’s business processes. Robotic Tasks are repetitive; they’re performed the exact same way every time, and a human touch can’t meaningfully improve the outcome of the task. Whenever you can automate a Robotic Task, you almost certainly should.

Mindful Tasks, on the other hand, are the tasks that are really worthy of human attention. Mindful Tasks fill the mind; they require you to be in the moment and demand your full attention. When you’re working away at a Mindful Task, you’ll often find that you enter a flow state where your deep focus precludes any distraction and results in a total immersion in the task at hand.

After a busy day of work, the Mindful Tasks are likely the highlights of your day. While the routine emails and perfunctory reports and paperwork will fade from your memory as soon as the day is done, the mindful portions of your work will stand out as the activities that defined the day and gave you a sense of accomplishment. Highlights are a simple way of identifying the Mindful Tasks that you enjoy. The book "Make Time" by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky is the first place I saw this tactic, and I’d recommend checking it out if you want a deeper dive into how you can schedule and spend your time. Another great strategy from this book is to turn off your email notifications so that you’re not constantly distracted by the endless stream of new messages in your inbox.

What Mindful Tasks specifically are will vary based on your job and your role, but for myself, highlights are usually an electric conversation, a 90-minute focus session where I create content, or a big meeting that leads to a new opportunity. Reflecting on our daily highlights lets us identify the work that we find to be challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable. The fulfilling work that Mindful Tasks provide should be preserved, even as we build better systems to automate the rest of the labor.

How to Identify a Mindful Task

Sometimes, Mindful Tasks aren’t necessarily an obvious highlight. That’s when it’s helpful to have a more detailed way to identify the tasks that deserve human attention. At XRay, we have a simple benchmark that we use to help determine at a glance if a task can be considered mindful: CAST. Is the task in question creative, analytical, strategic, and/or thoughtful?

  • Creative Examples: UX/UI design, photography, writing
  • Analytical Examples: Data analysis, software development
  • Strategic Examples: Project management, value creation strategy
  • Thoughtful Examples: Relationship building, philosophy, leadership

If so, there’s a pretty good chance that it qualifies as a Mindful Task, and is better suited to a human than to a robot. Of course, there are certainly instances where robots may already have an edge in analytical and strategic tasks. You could easily describe Deep Blue, the computer that beat the world at chess, as excelling at both analysis and strategy. While creativity may seem impossible for a computer to grasp, there are already many songs and articles out in the world that were written by software. However, I think that thoughtfulness will continue to remain elusive for AI and machines for a long time to come. And regardless of these exceptions, using the CAST guideline will usually help you to start determining if a task is mindful or not. Even if we could hand these tasks off to a robot, we may not want to; CAST tasks are typically the kind of work that create the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. 

Another common aspect of mindful work is that it often involves interpersonal contact. Even if it’s theoretically possible for a piece of software to perform all of the functions of a certain task, it might be inefficient or uncomfortable for other people to interact with it. In professional relationships and partnerships, it’s often important to demonstrate to your customers and colleagues that you’re willing to give them some of your time and attention. In particular, you should avoid creating asymmetric automations that make things easier for you but offer no benefit for any other parties involved, all while leaving them to interact with a machine. Ultimately, it will be very difficult - if not impossible - for any automation to build trust and rapport as effectively as you can face-to-face. For instance, nearly every important transitional period should be handled in person. Hiring a new team member, letting someone go, launching a new project with a client, or presenting a major deliverable all require a personal touch. 

Naturally, if a task is simply too complex for a robot, then it must be a human task. No software can automatically write, film, and edit a video. No software can automatically architect, design, develop and publish a complex application. No software can automatically identify a common problem and craft a business strategy, team, and mission to solve it. These are all uniquely human endeavors - at least for now. 

The Future of Mindful Tasks

As technology progresses, there will be very few limits on automation’s capabilities. For business leaders, the vital questions will not be about what can be automated, but about what should be automated. To answer the all-important “should” questions, you’ll need to have a deep understanding of your business and goals. As a firm, do you primarily serve your customers or your team? How do you create value, and who do you create it for? Exploring these concepts will help you to better navigate the ever-shifting landscape of automation and make decisions that help you to achieve your goals. Because creating automated systems is itself mindful work. Building a truly valuable automation requires you to understand every facet of the system being automated, and pushes you to imagine a future where the work in question is no longer in the hands of people. Simultaneously, once the work is automated, you have the confidence that it will be completed consistently, correctly, and in a timely fashion. 

But you don’t need to wait until you can answer those questions to start thinking about your Mindful Tasks. Start now by making a note each day of your top 3 highlights from the last working week. Make sure to include a note about why they stood out to you. Then, ask yourself: how can I spend more time on the highlights? What’s preventing me from focusing on the work I enjoy? Answering these questions can put you on the path to more fulfilling work right away.

In our next post, we’ll take a closer look at Robotic Tasks, and we’ll show you how (and why) they can be automated.

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