What artificial intelligence will do to our productivity


Takeaway: Artificial intelligence will let us accomplish significantly more with our time. To best take advantage of these tools,  identify the highest-leverage ways you could spend your time and carefully navigate how to “abstract” your work.

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What artificial intelligence will do to our productivity

For each minute you spend on a task, how much do you accomplish?

One of the fundamental truths about productivity is that not all tasks are created equal. With some, we accomplish hardly anything despite the minutes they drain. Watching YouTube videos during the workday, repeatedly checking email, or scrolling social media are examples of such tasks. (You probably have some examples of your own—some may even be part of your job description!)

On the flip side, there are tasks that lead us to accomplish an extraordinary amount for every minute spent on them. These activities may include planning our day, preparing an update for our most profitable customer, or participating in training that expands our expertise.

Over time, one productivity goal should be to spend an increasing amount of our day on the tasks that lead us to accomplish more with each unit of time. Let’s call these highly productive activities “high-leverage tasks.” Identifying these tasks and spending as much time on them as possible will make you significantly more productive. (Here’s how to calculate them.)

This is where artificial intelligence can come in: over time, AI will “abstract away” much of our day-to-day work so we can accomplish more with each unit of time. In other words, the tasks we used to labor over will become so automatized they disappear into the backdrop of our work.

This idea of abstraction is easiest to explain with an example. Think about the field of software programming. When your code runs, it goes through a bunch of steps to eventually become the 1’s and 0’s that the chips inside your computer use to make calculations. For a program to run in the past, we had to code actual 1’s and 0’s. This was time-consuming, though it was still possible to create something great.

Things got simpler—and software programmers more efficient—when sophisticated programming languages came along. Those languages let us write code in more natural and readable ways, which the computer could then translate into 1’s and 0’s. Essentially, the computer did the hard work for us, and code began to resemble real sentences rather than a jumble of numbers.

Over time, computer programming continued to create even more “layers of abstraction”—and our time became more productively spent in the process. Instead of hours spent coding, we could use application programming interfaces (APIs) to do something simple like turn on a phone’s flashlight. It’s incredible how far things have come.

AI will take this even further. The other day I wanted to prompt my computer to automatically eject an external hard-disk after 60 minutes—giving enough time for a backup but preventing the disk from always being  attached to my computer.

For this, I turned to ChatGPT. In 20 seconds, the app generated a bunch of code in AppleScript that accomplished my task—and then walked me through how to install the script on my computer. What was once manual computer programming became abstract.

Similar examples of abstraction and layers of leverage exist beyond the world of programming:

  • Project management software and methodologies abstract away the minutiae of asking your team for daily status updates.
  • Electronic health records abstract away the paper-based recording and storage of patient information, which saves time updating patient records.
  • Automated data cleaning tools (including ChatGPT!) can help data analysts organize data so they can dedicate their expertise to form decisions and insights about what they’re analyzing.

The list goes on, but you probably get the idea. Technology can make us more productive by taking care of much of our work. That lets us “rise up” to accomplish even more with our time.

We’re only getting started with AI advancements, machine learning, and related technologies.

Throughout this evolution, we need to recognize our highest-leverage tasks—especially those that can be aided by AI. The way I see it, this involves two steps:

  1. Elevate the layers of abstraction in your work by considering the most productive way you could be spending your time. Do the most valuable tasks calculation once or twice a year, while you learn and adopt new technology. Remember that higher-leverage tasks will always be around the corner. Watch for them, learn as much as you can, and experience the joy of accomplishing more with each unit of time.
  2. Double down on the parts of your work that are less likely to be abstracted away—AKA those tasks that benefit from a human touch. These are areas where greater efficiency or automation won’t add anything. Caring, connecting, and counseling—activities that involve interacting with other people—are great examples.

These tactics and mindsets will help you navigate the AI developments of today—and tomorrow—with greater grace, ease, and productivity.

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