You Can’t Be Efficient with People

In Celeste Headlee’s new book Do Nothing, chapter 4, Time Becomes Money she writes:

In the end, it all comes down to time: our relationship with it, our understanding of it, the value we put on it. Before the industrial age, time was measured in days or seasons. However, when workers began punching in and out of work, our understanding of time changed, as did our enjoyment of our time off.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

As time has become viewed as a commodity to use efficiently, we’ve become more and more impatient and busier and busier. Why should I just sit here? I could be earning more money. But that begs the questions, To what end? Yes, more money is needed when we are struggling to provide for the necessities of life. But once we are comfortable and can provide for ourselves and our loved ones, why do we keep trading our time for more money? The truth is that we aren’t, working more hours, that is.

Because we value time more, we tend to think if it as scarce even when it is not. Most workers are clocking fewer hours than they did ten to twenty years ago. But we feel like we are working more because of the increased value on time. And the challenging part of all this is that despite not working more hours, the stress we feel as a result is very real and affecting our health. “Regardless of how much people are actually working, the stress these people feel is very real and should be taken seriously.”

Because of the stress and the blurring of lines between work and personal life, we have begun to experience “polluted time”. “This is a phenomenon caused by having to handle work duties during off-hours, being on call, or even having to think carefully about work issues or problem-solving while technically not on the job.”

This is in part due to the rise of flex work, where workers often don’t know what their schedule will be for the week until just before it begins. And sometimes their work hours are cut short and they are sent home because of slow business. And other workers are expected to be essentially “on call” ready to respond at a moment to emails and texts from their boss. This pollutes their time, and they never have any real time “off”. “With work intruding on our home life and home life encroaching on work hours, many people now never have a sense of being completely separate from their jobs.”

Despite the growing prevalence of unlimited vacation time, most Americans don’t even take two weeks of vacation in a year. They feel like they can’t or they will fall behind, becoming less productive.

Here’s the irony: Staying on the job may well be impeding your career advancement. It accomplishes the opposite of what’s intended. Even though Americans say they’re afraid to take time off because they may be punished, research shows that people who take at least eleven days of vacation are more likely to get a raise than people who take ten days or less.

Chapter 4, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Another big reason for not taking a break is the American myth that “hard work, on its own, is the key to success.” Also contributing to this blurring of the lines between work and the personal is the furnishings of our offices. We make them feel like living spaces with fully appointed kitchens and lounges. “While it’s important to create an environment that’s safe, comfortable, and supportive of creative thinking, it’s also crucial that there be a clear distinction between being on the clock and off.”

Chapter 5, Work Comes Home, starts with a discussion of “quality time” and the phenomenon of “latchkey kids” in the 1980s. Due to both parents working and the kids being home alone, it was thought at the time that this could be overcome by spending “quality time” with the children. While nothing beats quantity when it comes to time with children, quality time was an especially challenging concept because we ended up treating it like we did work. Turns out children don’t respond particularly well to being managed in a time efficient way. Go figure.

She then goes on to show that even when we try to apply efficiency in what seems a logical way, it doesn’t all work out the way it was intended. One example of this is the rise of students taking notes on their laptops. Sure, this means that students can essentially take down every word the teacher says. But are they learning? Studies show that taking notes by hand, where the student must summarize points, leads to better retention. “We strive to achieve peak productivity but forget that it’s taking us further from our ultimate goal—learning.”

And we are beating this “time efficiency” into our children at younger and younger ages. Many parents cram their schedule so full of activities for their children that the children sometimes ask to just stay home. This doesn’t always go over so well with the parents. Many children today have never played a pick up basketball game or played an unorganized (by adults) game of baseball with their friends. And the parents don’t fare much better. They have less time for hobbies. Or worse, these activities are seen as a waste of time.

Speed and efficiency are, by their nature, antithetical to introspection and intimacy.

Chapter 5, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One of the most valued skills today seems to multitasking. This is despite the fact that there is no such thing, at least for human beings. It can more accurately be called task-switching, and it has a high cost.

Neuroscience has taught us that not only is multitasking not efficient, it is bad for us. The more we try to do it, the poorer at it we actually get.

And here’s the worst news of all: “Heavy multitaskers” have the same trouble sorting through information and organizing their thoughts even when they aren’t multitasking.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Headlee points out that we often think women are good multitaskers, but they aren’t. They’re just better at it than men, but only at cognitively simple tasks. For complex tasks, it just doesn’t work.

… when it comes to more complex tasks, including most of the things we do while on the job, there’s no evidence that women are better at multitasking, and there’s plenty of evidence that trying to do it is really terrible for your brain.

Chapter 6, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Multitasking causes stress because it is bad for us. And women tend to do more of than men, and not just because they are “better” at it. They have more to manage. Despite the many changes in men and women sharing work at home, women still do the majority of the work around the house. “Research shows that when men watch their children, they often end up doing the more enjoyable activities, like taking kids to soccer games, while mothers tend to do more of the cleaning, cooking, and logistical management.”

Another byproduct of bringing efficiency to child raising was the greater involvement of parents, sometimes called helicopter parenting. Spending more time with your kids is better if you want to make sure they become healthy and successful adults, right? It turns out that when you do too much for your kids, they never learn to do it for themselves. This may be what has led to unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression among to today’s youth. “Overparenting may feel like a good use of time, but it does not ensure success for your child. Most of the time, it does the opposite.”

And the situation gets worse for mothers. Mothers are less likely to get hired than fathers or childless women. They also make less money. The real kick in the teeth is that fathers are seen as more competent than mothers. So mothers are doing more work and being paid less and being seen as less capable while the exact opposite may be true.

One reaction to all the busyness is to avoid the self-care we all need. After all, we simply don’t have time for it. So instead of socializing, we tend to scroll through social media for a quick break. Turns out this is not refreshing. “Going to the coffee shop and chatting with friends for a couple hours will leave you feeling refreshed and upbeat; the time you spend surfing the web will exhaust your brain and deplete your resources.” Paradoxically, we need to take time out to refresh in order to be our most productive.

More to come in my next post.

Uncovering the Cult of Busy

The longer I’ve worked, the more I have noticed that my greatest productivity comes from the spaces between my busy times. Those times when my mind is free to consider other ideas or none at all. Sometimes inspiration on a problem hits when I least expect it, and so now I have come to expect it. The best of example of this in my experience comes from when I was programming for a living.

During those years, it was not unusual for me to find myself stuck on how to accomplish a particular task when I was programming. I would try different ways to tackle it. I researched on the internet to see what others in similar situation had done. Still, sometimes I stayed stuck. But I would not give up. I stuck with it, missing dinner with my family before reluctantly giving up and going to bed.

The next morning while I was showering or shaving, I almost always had some sort of inspiration, something to try or a new direction. Slowly, I started to recognize this and stopped spending so long down those blind alleys. I’d move along to some other task, leaving that stuck one unresolved, confident that a new idea would present itself. And it always has.

Ever since then, I’ve been interested in this idea. I look for it in articles and books. One book I started reading recently goes in depth into this idea. It is called Doing Nothing by Celeste Headlee. This is a well-researched book about the benefits of leisure and idleness as well as the history of how we got to the current cult of busyness.

In the Introduction she explains a bit about how she thinks about leisure and idleness and their effects.

I’d like to inspire a new consideration of leisure and a new appreciation for idleness. Idleness in this sense does not mean inactivity, but instead nonproductive activity. “Leisureliness,” says Daniel Dustin of the University of Utah, “refers to a pace of life that is not governed by the clock. It tends to run counter to the notions of economic efficiency, economies of scale, mass production, etc. Yet leisureliness to me suggests slowing down and milking life for all it is worth.” That’s the kind of leisure I hope we can all make time for. It’s what humans were meant to enjoy and what we need in order to function at our highest levels.

Introduction, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In the first chapter, Mind the Gap, the author describes a train ride she took around the country. It was a disconnected, slow journey, one she found difficult and challenging at first. But by the end, she came to appreciate the benefits she experienced. “The idea is not that everything should be slower, but that not everything needs to be fast.”

The sense that something could go wrong at any time, or that something urgent would arise that might require my immediate attention, was gone. I was no longer in fight-or-flight mode. Breaking away from the relentless pace of connected life felt uncomfortable at first, but as I ended my trip, I dreaded joining that joyless parade again.

Chapter 1, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

Interestingly, until about 250 years ago, we didn’t have this hurried sense and need to be always on and always doing. In the author’s words, “Everything we think we know about work and efficiency and leisure is relatively recent and very possibly wrong.”

In chapter two, It Starts with a Steam Engine, the author shows that prior to the Industrial Revolution humans just didn’t work that many hours. Without electricity, the day only lasted as long as the sun was up. Most workers owned their tools and were paid by the project. They worked as much as you could physically and enough to support your needs. Beyond this, there wasn’t much point. “Before the nineteenth century, people worked an average of six to eight hours a day and enjoyed dozens of days off throughout the year.”

But with the rise of factories, people began to move to cities where they were no longer in control of their tools. These were provided by the employer, and one employee could replace nearly any other. Work became priced by the hour and the world of busyness began. “Quite suddenly, people were expected to work punishing hours with no time off.”

Interestingly, all these extra hours turn out not to be all that productive.

Yet we’ve known for more than a hundred years that long hours of toil don’t actually increase productivity. We have data on this going back to the 1800s—at the time when unions forced employers to cut hours, factory owners were surprised to find that productivity increased while accidents decreased. Overwork was counterproductive in the days of the sweatshop, and research shows it still is, even in the age of the knowledge worker.

Chapter 2, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

In chapter three, Work Ethic, the author shows that the work ethic we have today is due to both a religious and an economic myth.

This belief in hard work as a virtue and a life philosophy started on the door of a church in Germany. Over the course of a couple hundred years, the religious notion that working long and hard makes you deserving while taking time off makes you lazy was adopted as an economic policy, a way to motivate employees and get the most out of them.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

We stopped taking the time to enjoy pastimes and hobbies. These were a waste of time. We no longer pass time, we spend it. And we need to be careful how we spend it lest we be seen as lazy.

In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 people would only work fifteen hours a week. That would be enough to support all. We would have unprecedented time for leisure. The problem would be what to do with all that extra time. But that hasn’t happened. Why?

CEO pay has grown out of all relation to that of workers, showing that the benefits of the increased efficiency that Keynes rightly predicted have not been evenly distributed. “The profits that Keynes thought would fund a more leisurely lifestyle for all have mostly gone to a tiny percentage of the population.”

We marvel at the luxury enjoyed by English dukes and German barons of bygone eras, but the top earners now live more lavishly than the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. The only difference is the income gap is wider today between CEOs and their workers than it was between the fictional Earl of Grantham and his valet.

Chapter 3, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I’ll continue my review in my next post.

It’s All Personal

Don Corleone from The Godfather saying, "It's not personal. It's just business."

“It’s not personal. It’s just business.” In my experience this is a common phrase used when a business person needs to do something that might be perceived as harsh or unkind. Personally, I have never subscribed to the message behind this statement. It suggests that our work and personal lives are separate and that we can make decisions in one area of our lives separate from the other. In short, it implies that we are two people – one at work and another at home. I don’t buy it. To me, it’s all personal.

As an employee, when someone makes a decision that adversely affects me, that’s personal. It affects my life in a profound way. Brushing it off by saying, “It’s just business” is disingenuous at best and self-delusional at worst. Every decision a boss or manager makes affects others personally. To pretend otherwise is simply bad business.

Nonetheless, business people have to make difficult decisions every day. And many, if not most, of these will make a direct and substantial difference in the lives of their employees and clients. How can those involved do this while maintaining their own humanity and respecting that of their employees and clients? I think the answer is simple, yet challenging. Treat them the way you would want to be treated if you were on the receiving end of the bad news you are delivering. Here is an example.

Times are tough. Your company just lost its biggest client. You have reduced all other expenses as much as you can. Now you have to start letting some of your employees go. This is hard for you. You have built a cohesive team that feels closer to family than employees. How can you let some of them go? “It’s not personal. It’s just business.” is simply not an option. Be frank with the employees you need to let go. Explain as much of the situation as you can. Offer to provide excellent references. Provide or pay for assistance to them in finding another job, if you are able. This not only makes it easier for them to come back should things turn around, it also means that they leave with a more positive feeling about you and your company. This is leaves doors open rather than dismissively (and perhaps unintentionally) shutting them in their face. In short, it is good business.

Admittedly, this is a simple example. There can be, and often are, many other factors that make such decisions hard to carry out. No matter the situation, the best business decision is to always acknowledge and respect the humanity in others. Business is nothing more than people dealing with each other in a market of some kind. There really is no separation between business and the personal. Bringing your humanity to work is good business, because it’s all personal.