In Time’s 10 questions interview with Elon Musk (co-founder of electric car maker Tesla), Musk talks about his experience building the Tesla electric car company, his belief that most people can become entrepreneurs, and his strategies for successful start-up companies.  In a word, Musk says that companies will be successful when they are doing something useful for other people.  Become an entrepreneur, he encourages.

And “do something useful.”

I love this. My seeming obsession with the question “what do you do?” (as evidenced through the Professional Focus interviews throughout this blog) stems from my unending curiosity about what, exactly, it is that people “do” every day – whether it’s behind their desks, in swanky offices, out and about in the field, at home, or spending long hours behind a computer (like I often do).  I’m still not convinced that the nine-to-five model (or, as it’s becoming more common, the eight-to-eight workday) is truly the most effective way to work. I’m also baffled when I hear stories about long, tedious workdays that seem to have no end and no conclusive purpose. And thus I ask: What do you do?

I’ll admit, this has often led to a series of bad-date-esque scenarios where I’m hounding a person with questions about their daily existence.

Me: “What do you do?”
Them: “I’m a __________ ”
Me: “Nifty. So what do you do each day?”
Them:  “I check my email, go to meetings, respond to questions.”
Me: “What kind of questions?”
Them: “You know, client emails and such.”
Me: “How do you know when you’re done with your work?”
Them: “Well, I just go home when I finish tasks.”
Me: “Who defines these tasks?”

… and it goes on. My apologies to those who I’ve already badgered with questions: I’m not trying to be a nuisance, I promise.  I’d like to better understand the work day and how we define our tasks within our organizations. Often, it seems we spend a lot of time doing things that seem to just fill up our time.  And with time becoming more and more valuable, especially if you find yourself busier, in demand, or beginning to take on the role of project management within your firm, I find myself constantly asking: who is it for? why are we doing it? And what processes do we use to get these tasks done? The big question “what do you do” is inherently linked to my further curiosity about why people do what they do.

Beyond the immediate functionality of my work habits, I also reflect on the type of work that I am producing in the long term: Am I doing something useful for our clients? Is the work we produce something I am proud of? Is there a tangible goal or product that I have worked on? How can I do better next time? Does my work have meaning? There is no “right” answer to the questions I’ve posed. Fundamentally, I want to understand what we do, why we do what we do, and how it is that we get our work done. Much of my research and reading centers around these questions, and I’m a big fan of The four hour work week by Timothy Ferriss, the 80/20 rule, What color is your parachute, and recent writing by Martha Beck. It is through this exploration and reflection that I can be critical and reflective of my own habits and productivity.  Tomorrow morning, as I head back into the office, it will be refreshing to focus my thoughts on one question this week:

Am I doing something useful? Because Musk nails it, in his advice on entrepreneurship and starting a company. This advice translates to everyday tasks as well as larger questions about our work habits and company goals.  During my down time between projects (a rare occurrence it seems), I reflect and ask myself: am I doing something useful with this time? Am I doing something useful for my organization? How am I setting up tomorrow’s tasks to run more efficiently? Do something useful: do it for yourself, in your own time, and for your time working on projects or in the office.

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