"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Don’t Work Too Hard–It Limits Play Time

I have never in my life been accused of working too hard.  My work was always a necessary vehicle for the real ride – the accomplished and fun life.  At the same time I was never a layabout,  took my responsibilities seriously, and in most cases produced high quality work.  It was not difficult.  For most of my ‘career’ I ran what I called my ‘cottage industry’ – I was a consultant and worked on my own as a subcontractor to large organizations.  It was piece work, really.  No benefits, no Social, just paid by the contract. Finish, move on, and never look back.  I was never burdened with ‘mission’ and never felt that if I only worked more hours or more days of the year, more children would be saved.  My contracts originated in the US Government in projects that rarely made any sense except to keep dollars flowing out to Africa then right back to our shores.  We consultants were the beneficiaries of foreign aid programs, not the starving children of the bush.

One of the ways I was able to keep this work-life balance – i.e. as little work as possible and as much beach time, pool time, long lunches, dinners in great restaurants, and long, languid weekends with paramours – was to be work with an intensity that crowded out any intrusions or distractions; to get up in the very early hours of the morning, work in total isolation, peace and quiet.  I wasted no time. At the office I never riffled through documents, went downstairs for coffee, crossed the corridor to schmooze with the minions, stared out at the window-washers squeegeeing the glass walls on the big boxes across K Street.  I shut my door, turned off the phone, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door, and cranked out pages and pages.

Wasting time was simply not an option.  Every extra minute that I put in on a report or proposal was a minute lost to tennis, oysters and martinis, or rum punches on the verandah of the Olofsson. 

I not only had this ability to focus entirely on the work at hand (I would jump startled out of my chair if anyone knocked at the door), but to organize my thoughts quickly and easily.  My reports were always written by the time my fingers hit the keyboard.  I did my composition on the subway, walking to and from the bus, or in drives to Virginia.  I completely compartmentalized my life.  There was working time – either at the computer, at the office, or on my ‘work walks’ – and play time, i.e. everything else.  It was a firewall that served both me and my clients and bosses.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of the combination of these two attributes – tunnel vision and a mind that could quickly understand a problem, solve it, and organize the argument needed to justify it – was that I produced nearly twice the work in one-half the time as anyone else.  While some people might have turned that into advancement and profit, I used it as a way to carve out even more play time for myself.  My colleagues and bosses thought I worked all the time, because I would send emails out at 4am, and then, after leaving the office early, would send a few more off before going to bed.  My colleagues never doubted my energy and diligence because the work just kept pouring in.  So in those few times when I had an office job I worked no more than five hours per day, claimed ten, and performed the work of 20.

Which is why an article in the New York Times (Robert Pozen, 10.6.12, They Work Long Hours but What About the Results?) caught my eye.  According to the author, not only were lawyers and other professionals putting in more hours at the office, many of these hours were either unproductive or unnecessary.

IT’S 5 p.m. at the office. Working fast, you’ve finished your tasks for the day and want to go home. But none of your colleagues have left yet, so you stay another hour or two, surfing the Web and reading your e-mails again, so you don’t come off as a slacker.

As I said, I have never had this problem, but apparently many others do.

One manager said: “So this one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy.” Another said: “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”

What I learned is how to give the impression that I worked weekends, evenings, mornings while I did no such thing.  I simply calculated that if it took me half the time to do the work of most people of comparable rank and responsibility, and they worked 60 hours a week, I could easily claim that I did the same while actually working 30.  No one questioned my creative schedule because I always turned in the same amount of work, often more than required, and usually of higher quality.  All because of diamond-cutter focus and the discipline and efficiency of a worker bee.

Slowly managers are realizing that they need to replace 19th century industrial labor policies and expectations with 21st century realities:

By applying an industrial-age mind-set to 21st-century professionals, many organizations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient. If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite “face time” whether they are surfing the Internet or analyzing customer data. It’s no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task.

Here is the conclusion of many time-motion efficiency experts:

There is an obvious solution here: Instead of counting the hours you work, judge your success by the results you produce.

To use an overused expression that here actually applies – ‘Well, duh.” I was way ahead of the curve while all the while I figured I was just working the system. 

The cool thing, says the author, is another innovative idea that stems from the so-called original premise – Limit Meetings. Any fool who has spent more than a day in an office knows that meetings are largely complete wastes of time, and are organized more for some vague notion of ‘inclusivity’ (not ruffling any feathers) or corporate culture (‘horizontal, participatory, respectful operations’), or some unproven notion that group dynamics improve creativity, than real purpose.  Limiting them, because of these reasons, is almost impossible.

Reduce Reading is the next nostrum.  Wrong focus.  I learned long ago how to skim reams of pages and take in just what I needed.  With my mind pre-programmed to look for just the relevant items on a page, I could ‘read’ hundreds in a short time.  I simply trained my mind to be an efficient Search function.  I also knew when to toss totally irrelevant documents which in the age of the cyberspace and copiers multiplied geometrically.  Easier to copy and send than read, decide if worthwhile, and send/toss.

Next comes Write Faster. It is hard to believe that the author of this article is a Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Business School, and it just goes to show how much time he has had to spend in fundamentally inefficient organizations.  Never mind.  Write faster.  The problem is many workers and especially their bosses make no correlation between quick writing and quick thinking.  My ability to turn out volumes of work in a short time had nothing to do with my ability to write English, but to think in a way which organized my thoughts before they came out.  So if you don’t organize first, your faster writing will simply be faster garbage out.  Bad idea.

Pozen concludes with something about communication, platitudes mainly about setting up targets, goals, and expectations with your boss and underlings, keeping open and transparent, blah-blah.

The fact remains that few professionals entering the workforce ever come with the various disciplines I have mentioned in this post.  They are scattered and undisciplined in their thinking, have little idea of the nature of productivity, and have never been forced to produce terse, tightly worded, logical expositions of an argument.  Too often recruiters hire new workers on the basis of their degrees, schools, or academic record; then find that even in the better schools (not the elite universities which still do the educational job required) they have learned little.

So, yes, by all means work fewer hours and be more productive during the hours worked.  It will help to adjust personal work-life balance and will add to overall corporate productivity.  And if you get good at the game, as I did, you can work very few hours and have plenty of time to play.

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