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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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Last Updated on September 16, 2019

How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators

You have a deadline looming. However, instead of doing your work, you are fiddling with miscellaneous things like checking email, social media, watching videos, surfing blogs and forums. You know you should be working, but you just don’t feel like doing anything.

We are all familiar with the procrastination phenomenon. When we procrastinate, we squander away our free time and put off important tasks we should be doing them till it’s too late. And when it is indeed too late, we panic and wish we got started earlier.

The chronic procrastinators I know have spent years of their life looped in this cycle. Delaying, putting off things, slacking, hiding from work, facing work only when it’s unavoidable, then repeating this loop all over again. It’s a bad habit that eats us away and prevents us from achieving greater results in life.

Don’t let procrastination take over your life. Here, I will share my personal steps on how to stop procrastinating. These 11 steps will definitely apply to you too:

1. Break Your Work into Little Steps

Part of the reason why we procrastinate is because subconsciously, we find the work too overwhelming for us. Break it down into little parts, then focus on one part at the time. If you still procrastinate on the task after breaking it down, then break it down even further. Soon, your task will be so simple that you will be thinking “gee, this is so simple that I might as well just do it now!”.

For example, I’m currently writing a new book (on How to achieve anything in life). Book writing at its full scale is an enormous project and can be overwhelming. However, when I break it down into phases such as –

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  • (1) Research
  • (2) Deciding the topic
  • (3) Creating the outline
  • (4) Drafting the content
  • (5) Writing Chapters #1 to #10,
  • (6) Revision
  • (7) etc.

Suddenly it seems very manageable. What I do then is to focus on the immediate phase and get it done to my best ability, without thinking about the other phases. When it’s done, I move on to the next.

2. Change Your Environment

Different environments have different impact on our productivity. Look at your work desk and your room. Do they make you want to work or do they make you want to snuggle and sleep? If it’s the latter, you should look into changing your workspace.

One thing to note is that an environment that makes us feel inspired before may lose its effect after a period of time. If that’s the case, then it’s time to change things around. Refer to Steps #2 and #3 of 13 Strategies To Jumpstart Your Productivity, which talks about revamping your environment and workspace.

3. Create a Detailed Timeline with Specific Deadlines

Having just 1 deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate. That’s because we get the impression that we have time and keep pushing everything back, until it’s too late.

Break down your project (see tip #1), then create an overall timeline with specific deadlines for each small task. This way, you know you have to finish each task by a certain date. Your timelines must be robust, too – i.e. if you don’t finish this by today, it’s going to jeopardize everything else you have planned after that. This way it creates the urgency to act.

My goals are broken down into monthly, weekly, right down to the daily task lists, and the list is a call to action that I must accomplish this by the specified date, else my goals will be put off.

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Here’re more tips on setting deadlines: 22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

4. Eliminate Your Procrastination Pit-Stops

If you are procrastinating a little too much, maybe that’s because you make it easy to procrastinate.

Identify your browser bookmarks that take up a lot of your time and shift them into a separate folder that is less accessible. Disable the automatic notification option in your email client. Get rid of the distractions around you.

I know some people will out of the way and delete or deactivate their facebook accounts. I think it’s a little drastic and extreme as addressing procrastination is more about being conscious of our actions than counteracting via self-binding methods, but if you feel that’s what’s needed, go for it.

5. Hang out with People Who Inspire You to Take Action

I’m pretty sure if you spend just 10 minutes talking to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, you’ll be more inspired to act than if you spent the 10 minutes doing nothing. The people we are with influence our behaviors. Of course spending time with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates every day is probably not a feasible method, but the principle applies — The Hidden Power of Every Single Person Around You

Identify the people, friends or colleagues who trigger you – most likely the go-getters and hard workers – and hang out with them more often. Soon you will inculcate their drive and spirit too.

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As a personal development blogger, I “hang out” with inspiring personal development experts by reading their blogs and corresponding with them regularly via email and social media. It’s communication via new media and it works all the same.

6. Get a Buddy

Having a companion makes the whole process much more fun. Ideally, your buddy should be someone who has his/her own set of goals. Both of you will hold each other accountable to your goals and plans. While it’s not necessary for both of you to have the same goals, it’ll be even better if that’s the case, so you can learn from each other.

I have a good friend whom I talk to regularly, and we always ask each other about our goals and progress in achieving those goals. Needless to say, it spurs us to keep taking action.

7. Tell Others About Your Goals

This serves the same function as #6, on a larger scale. Tell all your friends, colleagues, acquaintances and family about your projects. Now whenever you see them, they are bound to ask you about your status on those projects.

For example, sometimes I announce my projects on The Personal Excellence Blog, Twitter and Facebook, and my readers will ask me about them on an ongoing basis. It’s a great way to keep myself accountable to my plans.

8. Seek out Someone Who Has Already Achieved the Outcome

What is it you want to accomplish here, and who are the people who have accomplished this already? Go seek them out and connect with them. Seeing living proof that your goals are very well achievable if you take action is one of the best triggers for action.

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9. Re-Clarify Your Goals

If you have been procrastinating for an extended period of time, it might reflect a misalignment between what you want and what you are currently doing. Often times, we outgrow our goals as we discover more about ourselves, but we don’t change our goals to reflect that.

Get away from your work (a short vacation will be good, else just a weekend break or staycation will do too) and take some time to regroup yourself. What exactly do you want to achieve? What should you do to get there? What are the steps to take? Does your current work align with that? If not, what can you do about it?

10. Stop Over-Complicating Things

Are you waiting for a perfect time to do this? That maybe now is not the best time because of X, Y, Z reasons? Ditch that thought because there’s never a perfect time. If you keep waiting for one, you are never going to accomplish anything.

Perfectionism is one of the biggest reasons for procrastination. Read more about why perfectionist tendencies can be a bane than a boon: Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect.

11. Get a Grip and Just Do It

At the end, it boils down to taking action. You can do all the strategizing, planning and hypothesizing, but if you don’t take action, nothing’s going to happen. Occasionally, I get readers and clients who keep complaining about their situations but they still refuse to take action at the end of the day.

Reality check:

I have never heard anyone procrastinate their way to success before and I doubt it’s going to change in the near future.  Whatever it is you are procrastinating on, if you want to get it done, you need to get a grip on yourself and do it.

More About Procrastination

Featured photo credit: Malvestida Magazine via unsplash.com

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