Creative work is hard.
You can spend days, weeks and even months reading books, taking courses and listening to interviews, all the while becoming more overwhelmed about writing a book, launching a podcast or starting a business.
I’ve done it.
When I wanted to launch a podcast, I spent six months worrying about my microphone set up, scrubbing through YouTube tutorials and listening to podcasts. Six months of obsessing over details when I should have pitched a few guests, and recorded a show and published it.
Like many amateurs, I said things like, “I can’t start my show yet because I need to take another course.”
But, I learnt professionals content creators start a project, even if they’re unsure about all the steps. They understand that creative knowledge involves learning on the job.
What Is Knowledge Work?
Consultant and Harvard Business Review contributor Peter Drucker proposed the concept of knowledge work in the 1960s. It describes the management of information, processes and practices as part of a business activity. The concept isn’t a relic from corporate life, though.
Today, programmers, podcasters, writers, content marketers and creators are all knowledge workers. They work with datasets, work processes, primary sources and internal knowledge to create something the market wants and pays for.
A professional author considers all of their ideas for a book and what will sell. They write and publish accordingly. A podcaster identifies their target audience, ideal guests and topics and plans their show. A content marketer analyzes what types of content convert and allocates their resources accordingly.
Drucker set this gauntlet for anyone engaged in knowledge work:
“Knowledge has to be improved, challenged, and increased constantly, or it vanishes.”
In other words, it’s an ongoing practice that’s part of your job as a creator. Develop the competencies Drucker alludes to, and you can improve your creative process, hone your content marketing efforts, and grow a more profitable business.
Let’s cover the four competencies of knowledge work.
1. Reviewing Data
Knowledge workers use data to unearth profitable business opportunities that are a good fit for customers and clients. But too many creators are afraid of data and numbers. They say things like:
I’m a creative right side of the brain thinker. Stats and spreadsheets? Those boring metrics are for analytical left side of the brain thinkers.
The right data sets or metrics helps knowledge workers identify what's working inside of their business. They help creators figure out how to spend time and financial resources more efficiently.
If you’re an artist, writer or working at home alone in a studio as a hobby after work, who cares about financial resources? On the other hand, professional creators leverage these resources to release more work into the market. They understand what types of content to focus on, where to publish it and how often.
Let’s take the case of a content website owner. They care about content quality. But, as knowledge workers, they also review Google Analytics regularly. They examine top traffic sources and pieces of content, and these use stats to harness their competitive advantage more effectively.
Similarly, a content marketer who relies on email marketing uses open rate and clickthrough stats rates to determine campaigns that resonate with customers. Understanding conversion rates for landing pages and sales pages helps then figure out what offers to optimize.
A creator who doesn’t key metrics is more likely to stop working on profitable business activities because of boredom, a lack of insight or shiny squirrel syndrome.
Oh look, TikTok is big. I should create sharing social media content there too!
(Before launching on TikTok, check out my guide social media marketing for beginners)
Focus On Opportunities, Not Problems
A non-fiction author sees their book is selling on Amazon, but it’s enough to quit a day job… yet. They could turn their book into an audiobook, create a digital course, launch a consultancy service or use it as a lead magnet for a public speaking gig. Any one of these could help a non-fiction author grow their business. The question is: what does their data say about each opportunity?
A website owner spots opportunities to increase earnings by becoming an affiliate marketer. Assuming they’re ethical, they’ll focus on creating content about trustworthy products that customers and clients will get value from, e.g. tutorials, guides.
Tip: Numbers and stats can become overwhelming. Instead, categorise the important ones into lead and lag measures. Review them once or twice a week rather than every day.
When Google released a search algorithm update in June 2021, I caught myself checking my web stats every day. Two or three times a week was insightful, but certainly not every day. Dips in traffic led me onto an emotional rollercoaster that couldn’t directly influence revenue.
2. Processing Information
A knowledge worker reviews a data set and uses that information to act. Similarly, the creative process involves consuming, synthesising and remixing primary sources to create new knowledge.
Let’s say you see a trending thread on Twitter (data set). Can you go deeper down the rabbit hole by taking a course, reading a book about this viral topic? Twitter, except for current affairs, is a secondary source where influencers summarize or share ideas discovered in books, courses, work or elsewhere.
After reading an insightful book, could you interview the author and process your learnings as an article, podcast episode or video?
We assume authors are unapproachable because their book is well-known. Having pitched hundreds for interviews over the years, I discovered many are surprisingly receptive to interview requests. They want to promote their creative works and ideas, and they love it when a reader processing information from their work and responds to it.
Build Your Information Management System
Create an information management system for storing and reflecting on ideas. I’ve tried several systems for processing information over the years, including:
- Keeping a commonplace book
- Building up a file of index cards
- Saving articles and ideas into software like Evernote
Clipping articles and highlighting book quotes is rarely enough, though. Effective knowledge workers reflect on and react to ideas they come across.
The Slipbox or Zettelkästen method had the biggest impact on how I process information. Invented by German sociologist and author and Niklas Luhmann, it involves:
- Capturing key takeaways from primary sources, as individual notes
- Writing a short reaction to each takeaway
- Interlinking each note
- Collecting and connecting knowledge from different disciplines, all as notes
- Reviewing and updating notes in your Slip box regularly
You can use an analogue or digital system for the Zettelkästen method for knowledge management. I currently use the DayOne app, although Roam Research, Obsidian or a database of plain text files all work well.
Tip: To learn more about this knowledge management method, check out the book Taking Smart Notes by Sōnke Ahrens or Digital Zettelkasten by David Kadvy.
I also interviewed Sacha Fast about his process for the Zettelkästen method.
3. Seeking Knowledge
It's one thing to discover an interesting concept or an idea, but quite another to put an idea into practice. Anyone can read a recipe, but the real value lies in cooking the meal. A knowledge worker puts what they’ve learnt into practice.
Let’s say you take an online course about creating an effective email marketing funnel. After taking the course, you gain a little know-how about the underlying principles:
- Write a series of emails that tell a story. Count me in.
- Track email open rates? Got it.
- A/B test subject lines? Sure.
- Test different call-to-actions? Will do.
Until you’ve written, launched and iterated an email funnel, you’re lacking real-world knowledge about how one operates in a specific niche or industry.
Similarly, an aspiring author reads a few articles about writing a book and even takes a course. But they still must sit down, write the first draft, rewrite, edit, ship and sells the result. Only then will they gain the real-world knowledge of a professional author.
Speaking with peers further along a learning journey is a good approach for knowledge workers too. Often articulating a strategy to a knowledgable expert potential flaws. These peers can act as a sounding board for your ideas and inform decision-making processes.
Develop Action Plans
If you’re committed to knowledge work, figure out what needs to be done when and how you can contribute. Take a little advice from Peter Drucker, who wrote:
“What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?”
As a creator running a small business, chances are you own the plan. But, you still can enlist the help of others to execute it.
For example, only a podcaster can record show episodes. But they can still outsource the editing and publication process and set KPIs for team members. Similarly, a writer produces ideas and early article drafts, but they can hire an editor who finds and fix errors before publication.
If you want to develop an effective action plan, determine deadlines based on your available resources. Setting two deadlines for creative work is kind of like an insurance policy. One internal deadline is for you or your team. Another external deadline is for stakeholders, customers or customers. Two deadlines allow for a margin for error.
Documenting ideal standard operating procedures helps too. If you’re hiring someone for a new job, ask them to follow and later refine these work processes. The following example work processes for creators are easy to document and outsource:
- Content editing
- Content publishing
- Customer interviews
- Topic research
- Customer support
- Other aspects of your content flywheel
Tip: Use a service like Clarity.FM to speak to an expert from another discipline and gain a little know-how. You hire these experts at an agreed hourly rate. For example, I was confused by the ins and outs of buying index funds via my brokerage, so I spoke to a day trader for thirty minutes about my strategy.
4. Gaining Wisdom
Anyone can follow recipe ingredients, but a chef has enough wisdom to tweak it depending on what’s in their kitchen or who they’re cooking for. The same applies to knowledge work.
As a creator, step back occasionally and consider if you need to adjust your approach. Evaluate if you need to acquire skills in a related discipline or even start a business venture in a different niche or industry. It also involves aligning how you’re spending time and resources with your values. For example:
- What are your creative big rocks for the following 90 days
- What valuable asset do you want to create next?
- What did you accomplish this year?
- And what do you want to accomplish over the next five years?
- How is your creator business model evolving?
- What content marketing competencies would you like to develop?
Like the CEO of an organization, knowledge work can help you identify if your business is moving in the right direction.
Document and Publish Your Learnings
Knowledge work justifies content marketing as a powerful activity for creatives. You can write articles, record podcasts or publish videos about your learning journey. As Peter Drucker said:
“No one learns as much about a subject as one who is forced to teach it.”
Creating and publishing this type of content online clarifies your thinking in public. Sure, your first few articles, videos or interviews mightn’t resonate, but they are markers on your learning journey as a knowledge worker.
Later on, a series of articles or interviews could turn into a valuable asset that builds credibility and attracts more customers or clients for your business.
Tip: For many creators, journalling helps with problem-solving and even gaining wisdom. It encourages reflecting on how you're spending time and resources. Journaling works as part of a weekly review process, whereby you reflect on what worked and didn’t work over the past seven days.
Knowledge Work for Creatives: The Final Word
Aspiring creators can spend a lifetime accumulating information; professionals take action. They also avoid defining themselves by a single pursuit, or as historian Will Durant wrote:
“To be merely an athlete is to be nearly a savage; and to be merely a musician is to be melted and softened beyond what is good.”
If you're ever in doubt, review various information sources processes and synthesise what you learnt. Document, reflect and publish your learnings. Strike a balance between creative work and cool analytical business thinking. You don’t need a college degree to do any of this either.
By taking consistent action, you can find success as a content creator.