Maybe this sounds familiar. You work at home during the pandemic. You have no commute, so you start working earlier, end later, and barely leave your computer in between. Then, at the end of the day, when you finally turn off your machine, you ask yourself: what did I accomplish? You rack your brain. You know you worked hard all day. But you struggle to point to a meaningful achievement.

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics,” noted economist Robert Solow in 1987. Thirty-four years later, pervaded by devices and bombarded by email and social media notifications, it feels even more poignant. One study showed that in an eight-hour workday, the average office worker now works less than three hours. Another found this to be an overestimate, showing that people complete just 12.5 hours of productive work per week. Research also supports the feeling that while workdays are getting longer, the proportion of the day spent doing productive work is decreasing.

Such trends are disastrous for mission-oriented startups like BenchSci. Every minute of unproductive work doesn't just cost us opportunities, but directly affects people's lives and health. Advancement is one of our values because we want everything we do to have the biggest impact possible.

Unfortunately, many culprits in the modern age undermine this goal, from the push of constant notifications to the pull of addictive social media. But one of the biggest contributors is self-inflicted and comes from a good place: a false sense of accomplishment. Those of us who thrive on achievement (and the startup world is full of us) continuously seek out a sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, in the current environment we can achieve this sense without accomplishing much at all.

Fortunately, there are tried-and-true solutions.

The problem with dopamine and knowledge work

But first, let's look at the root cause.

Underlying your sense of accomplishment is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation. When you anticipate rewards, it increases the level of dopamine in the brain. This produces "motivational salience," which influences the desirability of outcomes and in turn your behavior. 

Humans evolved in a world where, mediated by dopamine, the sense of accomplishment and actual accomplishment were closely linked. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, finding a food source, finding a mate, and avoiding a predator were all unequivocal, significant accomplishments that allowed individuals and our species to survive. For farmers, planting seeds and harvesting food are similarly aligned. And the same holds for industrial production, where it's clear how many products line workers have contributed to producing. In all these cases, dopamine-mediated motivation aligned with individual and species survival, though in increasingly abstract ways (earning a paycheck at a factory is more abstract than harvesting and selling crops, which in turn is more abstract than gathering and eating berries).

But when we get to knowledge work, the connection starts to break down. It's not always obvious which knowledge work inputs produce the most desired outputs. For example, no two emails you send are the same; depending on the subject and the recipient, the outcome can be vastly different, but you may not know for days, and you might not always fully understand why. For another example, you can work for days to solve a problem and get nowhere, then have a creative breakthrough and make all your progress in a few minutes.

The reason is that, particularly in knowledge work, the relationship between inputs and outputs is nonlinear. And because we knowledge workers can find it difficult to link inputs with outputs, we tend to focus on more tangible if less meaningful activities to feel like we're doing something valuable. This can include things like sending and responding to email, with some studies showing that email can consume up to 23% of a person's workday. It also includes meetings, with 89% of workers saying that not all of their meetings are productive. And don't even get me started on the downsides of social media; social media companies have designed their products explicitly to hijack our reward center.

How to accomplish more meaningful things

To help address the risk of a false sense of accomplishment, I spoke with some of my colleagues at BenchSci to learn what works for them, and for us as a company. Based on these conversations, research, and personal reflection, here are some things to consider:

1. Keep the mission in mind

At BenchSci, our mission is to exponentially increase the speed and quality of life-saving research by empowering scientists with the world’s most advanced biomedical artificial intelligence so they can run more successful experiments. Our big hairy audacious goal (BHAG) is to bring novel medicine to patients 50% faster by 2025. By always keeping our mission and our BHAG in mind, we can avoid the lure of achievements that don't help us fulfill them. 

2. Align goals and objectives with the mission

For company-wide, departmental, and individual planning, we strive to ruthlessly ensure that we invest resources in activities that help us achieve our mission and BHAG. While we're not perfect, we encourage everyone in the company to critique goals and objectives to ensure they meet this standard.

3. Define meaningful outcome measurements

Once we have goals and objectives that align with our mission and BHAG, we need to understand how we'll know whether we're achieving them. For this we establish long-term key performance indicators (such as active users) as well quarterly key results (such as increasing the accuracy of our machine learning algorithms by a specific percentage). "For me, I try to employ a 'so what?' test," says Marie Cook, Communications Manager at BenchSci. This test helps her determine if a target outcome truly represents an accomplishment and isn't just a vanity metric.

4. Define projects and tasks to best deliver against target outcomes

This is a critical point in maximizing the amount of sensed accomplishment that reflects actual accomplishment for the organization. Projects need to produce deliverables (like a new machine learning model) that meaningfully improve a desired measurable result (like predictive accuracy). Tasks for these projects need to be the best use of resources to achieve the deliverables. "I find that I'll often get lost down the rabbit hole of articles, which feel important for staying on top of things and being informed but aren't very structured," says Mark Kostove, Enterprise Sales Executive at BenchSci. "To combat this, I've been trying to set 'micro-targets' for each of my accounts as well as professional development each week to better quantify these activities. The ongoing challenge is to then quantify the productivity of the effort. For my work, that often correlates with outbound activity, which I try to measure per account."

5. Break down tasks into granular subtasks that provide a consistent dopamine hit of accomplishment

This is where many people struggle. If tasks are too large, spanning many days of work, it's easy to get demoralized and seek out the false sense of accomplishment of, say, responding to a bunch of low-priority emails. To prevent this, break tasks into subtasks that you can complete in a reasonable timeframe—ideally a day or less. This will give you a constant sense of accomplishment that is linked to meaningful progress. You'll also feel more motivated, as you'll have many finish lines rather than one big one. "The closer I am to measuring the intended outcome, the easier it is to stay focused as part of me understands that the feedback loop is short and I’ll actually accomplish what I set out to soon enough," says Hassan Muhammad, Business Operations Manager at BenchSci. 

6. Reward yourself for meaningful achievement

To further reinforce the link between completing something impactful and positive emotions, consider treating yourself to rewards after finishing a valuable task or subtask. These can be small things and don't even have to cost anything. For example, if you do like the dopamine hit of social media, consider only allowing yourself to check it after you've completed something meaningful.

7. Prioritize being in a flow state

Flow, AKA "being in the zone," is a positive and productive state in which ability and challenge are well-matched, and you're focused and enjoying the process of your activity. You cannot achieve this state if you're constantly being distracted, or distracting yourself. So while you're working on important tasks and subtasks, try to avoid emails, Slack messages, meetings, and low-value tasks. Consider blocking your day to deal with these items outside of your flow time. "One of the things I'm starting to do now is to block off time in my calendar for 'easy wins' which I define as things I can get done in a few minutes (longer than just reading an email but relatively short)," says Asaf Inger, SVP Engineering at BenchSci. "These are things that I don't want to waste my flow time for as in flow time I try to do things that will require longer time. So during the week I'm going to mark items as easy wins and then go through as many as I can during those 30-minute windows."

8. Take breaks and ensure time to rejuvenate

Did you know that Charles Darwin worked just 4-5 hours per day? And he's not alone. It may be counterintuitive, but many of the most highly effective and productive people prioritize rest, realizing its importance to accomplishing their goals. (There's even a book on the importance of rest to productivity, if you're interested.) When we're overworked and under-rested, we're more easily distracted. And this can lead us to work on things that are of lower importance despite providing a sense of accomplishment.

These are some of the things we encourage at BenchSci to further our value of advancement. By implementing these interventions, hopefully, at the end of each day, instead of wondering what we've accomplished that's meaningful, we can clearly point to at least one thing we've ticked off our list that moved us, even if only slightly, closer to fulfilling our mission and BHAG. And only then, should we be so interested, should we check our social feeds.

Thanks to Asaf Inger, Mark Kostove, Hassan Muhammad, Marie Cook, and Wisam Zaghal for their contributions to this post.

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Written By:
Simon Smith (he/him)