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Last Updated on September 14, 2017

The Art of Not Knowing

The Art of Not Knowing

The fear of saying “I don’t know” started long ago. In the past, a person’s ability to gain employment was based on their depth of knowledge and aptitude at a particular trade.[1] Workers received intense training and usually performed an apprenticeship before they were considered a “professional” and respected as such. Saying the words, “I don’t know” was an indictment of incompetence.

But the work landscape has changed.

In today’s workforce, having in depth expertise is less valuable and has become a distant second behind potential. A person’s potential and capacity to learn is more important and far more valuable than encyclopedic knowledge on a particular topic.

The Beauty of Not Knowing

The birth of the internet created a huge shift in the information paradigm. Now, information, data and knowledge are literally at your finger tips. The impact of the information sharing on every level and subject, which is readily available 24/7, is a remarkably wonderful double-edged sword.

Things that were privy only to certain people and shared within closed circles is now accessible to all. If you want to know —you can.

The amount and magnitude of information available is overwhelming and incomprehensible. It has become almost impossible to be a true “subject matter expert.” The paradox is that both everyone and no one is an expert.

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The shift in information sharing has also impacted workplace norms. Where it used to be frowned upon and taboo to use the words, “I don’t know” in a professional environment, it now has become acceptable and expected. Today people are hired based on their ability to process information not to memorize it — which is a far more remarkable and better use of the brain.

Our brains have gone from being storage containers to multifaceted microprocessors. Your ability to gather, comprehend, evaluate, synthesize, apply and create new information is your most attractive attribute — not your current knowledge base.[2]

Embracing “I Don’t Know”

The quicker you embrace the fact that you don’t know everything about anything, the better off you and those around you will be. You will unburden yourself of undue stress at work and you shift your brain into a continuous state of learning.

The value in embracing and saying “I don’t know” lets you off the hook and helps reduce all of the misinformation pervading our information system. The truth is, your boss doesn’t care whether or not you can produce information on the spot, he or she is more interested in whether or not you can find the correct information quickly and apply it properly.

Chasing “I don’t know,” with “but I’ll get back to you shortly,” is the recipe for continued growth, humility, and opportunities.

How to Know What You Don’t Know

Now that you understand now knowing everything is totally okay in the workplace, it’s time to understand how to complete the process and close the loop. Not knowing is acceptable; but failure to rectify the knowledge gap is not.

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Find out What’s Missing

The first step (after admitting your ignorance on the subject) is to ensure that you understand exactly what information you are being asked to provide.

Nothing is worse than misunderstanding what it is the other person needs and chasing your tail down rabbit holes. Make sure what information you are being asked to gather and synthesize and then find out how it should be presented. This is a simple yet critical first step.

Think Through What You’ve Got

Now comes the part of the process where you gather the necessary information.

Ensure your sources are reliable. Read the information and then put it into two categories: What you know and understand and What you need to know or need to clarify further.

Make a list of concepts that you need to research more in depth. Clearly defining and assessing the information is the first step in critical thinking.

Fill in Knowledge Gaps

Focus your energy on researching the things you don’t know or can’t articulate clearly.

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Always work from authoritative and well-known research. Use information from industry experts. Start from an original source such as a research study and then work your way out.

Read the abstract first, then find easier to read blogs, articles, books and videos that are based on this founding research. This will help you understand if the secondary sources are accurate. This will not only assist you in understanding the information but reading “lighter” materials also assists you with finding the vocabulary and other tools (charts, graphs, infographics, videos, podcasts, etc.) that can help you accurately explain the concepts.

Suggest Actions

Once you have and understand the information, create a plan of action.

Your course of action depends on the initial request. If you are being asked to present the information for knowledge only purposes, plan your presentation method accordingly.

If you are being asked to provide a solution or recommend a course of action based on your findings, be sure to use a structured research approach such as the “Five Why’s”. Using a structured research method will assist you in making a logical and researched based decision that has passed multiple tests. It also will assist in catching and mitigating flawed logic which is inherent to any decision making process.

Discuss and Brainstorm

Once you’ve identified a few possible solutions using a systematic approach, talk through your research findings and thought process with someone else — your boss or trusted co-worker. Together you can brainstorm potential solutions or assist each other in finding creative and innovative solutions to the issue.

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No matter how thorough you are during your research process, you should always seek the input of others. The only perspective you have — regardless of how much research you do is–yours. Seeking the counsel of others broadens your perspective.

Making “I Don’t Know” Palatable

If saying the words “I don’t know” makes you cringe, here are a few alternatives:

  • “I don’t have a concrete solution at the moment. Let me gather some information and I’ll get back to you.”
  • “I don’t want to make a hasty decision that we may regret, please give me a few hours to look into this.”
  • “This particular situation may warrant a different course of action, I’ll do some research and get back to you by the end of the day.”

These are just examples— modify to fit your communication style and situation. The thing to note is that in each example you make it clear that:

  • You don’t have an answer.
  • You are going to research the topic/possible solutions.
  • You provide an appropriate time frame in which you will provide the information/suggested solution.

This approach allows your boss and colleagues to know that you understand the importance of the issue. It also lets them know that you are reliable and are going to work to find the best possible solution in lieu of handing them a half-baked, under-thought remedy which may do more harm than good. In the end, you actually walk away looking more competent, caring and committed than had you been able to provide an answer immediately.

Not Knowing Doesn’t Make You Impotent

“I don’t know” is a legitimate, acceptable and more importantly— responsible response when you don’t know an answer.

Your credibility doesn’t lie in your ability to provide encyclopedic knowledge on demand. We have the internet for that.

Instead, your credibility lies in your ability to track down, research and synthesize information and provide that information in the proper format to the proper people.

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Published on July 17, 2018

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

How Productive People Compartmentalize Time to Get the Most Done

I’ve never believed people are born productive or organized. Being organized and productive is a choice.

You choose to keep your stuff organized or you don’t. You choose to get on with your work and ignore distractions or you don’t.

But one skill very productive people appear to have that is not a choice is the ability to compartmentalize. And that takes skill and practice.

What is compartmentalization

To compartmentalize means you have the ability to shut out all distractions and other work except for the work in front of you. Nothing gets past your barriers.

In psychology, compartmentalization is a defence mechanism our brains use to shut out traumatic events. We close down all thoughts about the traumatic event. This can lead to serious mental-health problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if not dealt with properly.

However, compartmentalization can be used in positive ways to help us become more productive and allow us to focus on the things that are important to us.

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Robin Sharma, the renowned leadership coach, calls it his Tight Bubble of Total Focus Strategy. This is where he shuts out all distractions, turns off his phone and goes to a quiet place where no one will disturb him and does the work he wants to focus on. He allows nothing to come between himself and the work he is working on and prides himself on being almost uncontactable.

Others call it deep work. When I want to focus on a specific piece of work, I turn everything off, turn on my favourite music podcast The Anjunadeep Edition (soft, eclectic electronic music) and focus on the content I intend to work on. It works, and it allows me to get massive amounts of content produced every week.

The main point about compartmentalization is that no matter what else is going on in your life — you could be going through a difficult time in your relationships, your business could be sinking into bankruptcy or you just had a fight with your colleague; you can shut those things out of your mind and focus totally on the work that needs doing.

Your mind sees things as separate rooms with closable doors, so you can enter a mental room, close the door and have complete focus on whatever it is you want to focus on. Your mind does not wander.

Being able to achieve this state can seriously boost your productivity. You get a lot more quality work done and you find you have a lot more time to do the things you want to do. It is a skill worth mastering for the benefits it will bring you.

How to develop the skill of compartmentalization

The simplest way to develop this skill is to use your calendar.

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Your calendar is the most powerful tool you have in your productivity toolbox. It allows you to block time out, and it can focus you on the work that needs doing.

My calendar allows me to block time out so I can remove everything else out of my mind to focus on one thing. When I have scheduled time for writing, I know what I want to write about and I sit down and my mind completely focuses on the writing.

Nothing comes between me, my thoughts and the keyboard. I am in my writing compartment and that is where I want to be. Anything going on around me, such as a problem with a student, a difficulty with an area of my business or an argument with my wife is blocked out.

Understand that sometimes there’s nothing you can do about an issue

One of the ways to do this is to understand there are times when there is nothing you can do about an issue or an area of your life. For example, if I have a student with a problem, unless I am able to communicate with that student at that specific time, there is nothing I can do about it.

If I can help the student, I would schedule a meeting with the student to help them. But between now and the scheduled meeting there is nothing I can do. So, I block it out.

The meeting is scheduled on my calendar and I will be there. Until then, there is nothing I can do about it.

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Ask yourself the question “Is there anything I can do about it right now?”

This is a very powerful way to help you compartmentalize these issues.

If there is, focus all your attention on it to the exclusion of everything else until you have a workable solution. If not, then block it out, schedule time when you can do something about it and move on to the next piece of work you need to work on.

Being able to compartmentalize helps with productivity in another way. It reduces the amount of time you spend worrying.

Worrying about something is a huge waste of energy that never solves anything. Being able to block out issues you cannot deal with stops you from worrying about things and allows you to focus on the things you can do something about.

Reframe the problem as a question

Reframing the problem as a question such as “what do I have to do to solve this problem?” takes your mind away from a worried state into a solution state, where you begin searching for solutions.

One of the reasons David Allen’s Getting Things Done book has endured is because it focuses on contexts. This is a form of compartmentalization where you only do work you can work on.

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For instance, if a piece of work needs a computer, you would only look at the work when you were in front of a computer. If you were driving, you cannot do that work, so you would not be looking at it.

Choose one thing to focus on

To get better at compartmentalizing, look around your environment and seek out places where you can do specific types of work.

Taking your dog for a walk could be the time you focus solely on solving project problems, commuting to and from work could be the time you spend reading and developing your skills and the time between 10 am and 12 pm could be the time you spend on the phone sorting out client issues.

Once you make the decision about when and where you will do the different types of work, make it stick. Schedule it. Once it becomes a habit, you are well on your way to using the power of compartmentalization to become more productive.

Comparmentalization saves you stress

Compartmentalization is a skill that gives you time to deal with issues and work to the exclusion of all other distractions.

This means you get more work done in less time and this allows you to spend more time with the people you want to spend more time with, doing the things you want to spend more time doing.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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