Doing vs Thinking: A Work Theory

March 5, 2020 | By Paul Mackenzie Ross | Filed in: business, philosophy.

Working at a digital marketing agency, I spend a lot of time analysing not just the campaign data of the SEO and PPC work we do, but also the workflow and the processes.

Granted, we are so busy that there’s not always time to analyse and philosophise, but when we do it has to be meaningful and efficient.

This one work theory currently on my mind is that there are two major components to any job we do, be it analysis, strategy, design, SEO or whatever.

The two components, as in the title of this post, are:

  1. Doing.
  2. Thinking.

When I first landed in this hot-seat just over three years ago I had to very quickly adjust to multiple client agency work again. To coin a cliche I had to “hit the ground running”.

That phrase in itself implies trajectory and when you “hit the ground running” it’s like stepping off a moving train. Of course, we can’t do that any longer like we used to with the old “slam door” carriages, but you get the picture. There is forward motion and stepping out onto a platform involves taking that inertia, gauging the speed and taking that step with the intent and action of continuing the movement. Otherwise you’d fall flat on your face.

The workload increased at the agency since the time I joined and we added more clients, performed more tasks and generally increased the workload.

This involved an incredible amount of inertia.

As the sole digital marketing expert in a tiny agency I performed all the SEO, PPC, social media, reporting and pitching duties for my one-man department.

After over a year of relentless work we needed backup in the department so in the summer of 2018 we took on a PPC specialist. The workload was now better distributed and the pressure decreased.

However, with the success of the business, we kept winning work and adding to our own workload. We were, very gratefully, victims of our own success.

The issue still remained though – we were still doing more than thinking. When the pace of work is relentless you don’t get a lot of time to sit down and think.

Yet three years on I can see my colleagues in other departments of the business taking time to think. A LOT of time to think. It’s not just strictly thinking either – it’s analysing, discussing, theorising, talking, debating etc. It’s all very good and whilst it’s a form of doing it’s not in and of itself immediately productive.

Herein lies the nucleus of the theory.

When you do, you have no time to think.

When you think, you have no time to do.

This is very black and white, I know, and life is all about those shades in between. But stick with this for the moment.

The doing is an x-axis on a graph. It is the trajectory, the forward motion. If there is a timescale then the x-axis aligns with this. Time and productivity are one. If there is a week of working days, a job that takes 5 days and you work every single day then you will have completed that job by Friday.

The thinking is the y-axis on a graph. If you plot your time thinking along a timeline then you don’t actually produce anything. Spending 5 days thinking, talking or chin-stroking does not complete the job and you don’t get paid for doing nothing.

Of course, there are advantages to thinking. How can you do a job better? How can we be more efficient, more effective, more productive. If there’s an answer, a conclusion to this mental activity then it will aid in the physical production. Doing alone isn’t clever, and thinking in isolation is not productive.

Therein must be a “sweet spot”, a “happy medium”, a trajectory where there is ample thinking and production combined. What exactly this is I do not know yet. I instinctively know when there’s been too much academic process because I realise I’m behind on time. Yet just getting work out of the door isn’t totally satisfying if there’s nothing new or different to add to the task.

Does anyone have a formula for this? I can’t be the first person to have thought about this, so there must be an existing theory or template for getting the balance right between the intellectual and the actual.


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