Working Hard/Hardly Working

I admit that I have a pretty sweet deal.  I like most of the things I do at work.  In fact, I would pay to go to many of the meetings and conferences they pay me to attend.  I am not saying it is all great, but the good things far outweigh the negatives.   I think about my job a lot, but that is hard to place in the “work” category, since if I didn’t have this job I would probably be studying many of the same things re new media, persuasion and knowledge management. 

I purport to put in long hours. I rarely get home before 7 or 8 pm, which means that I spend around 10 hours at work, but what is work?  And I can usually carve out time during the day for exercise etc.  I have only recently come to terms with this.  I used to feel guilty and lazy.  I couldn’t understand how I could be doing okay w/o working very hard. But after almost than twenty-five years of decent progress, I had to rethink this. Something seemed to be working.

Most people think or at least say that they are busy.   Much of this is self inflicted work.   Every day I see people doing things that need not be done or doing things in such a way that they actually create more work for themselves and others.   But the biggest reason people think they are busy is that they are fooling themselves. 

WSJ had an article about that, giving some scientific backing to my observation.   When people are asked how much they work, they invariably come up with significant higher hours than when they follow it closely with a diary.   Some of this comes from the definition of work, as I mentioned above.   I read the WSJ, Economist and many other such publications.  I could not do my job if I didn’t keep up with the latest news and innovations.  But what % of that can I call work?  Most our high estimates of work hours comes from giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We might think that we usually work ten hour days and count the times when we work less as unusual exceptions.    But maybe there are more “exceptional” than “normal” days.

We have to remember that “normal” doesn’t mean typical or average.   It means the way something would be under good conditions.   A normal man would be healthy, not overweight and not deformed in any significant way.  This is not a typical or average man.   (BTW – an “average” man has less than two legs.  Think about it.  Nobody has more than two legs and some people have less, so the average is less than two.  Statistics can be interesting.)  IN that respect a normal day might be one where you worked through the day w/o important interruptions arriving and leaving on time.  There are not many normal days.

In respect to work, you have to consider both typical and normal. My first job in the FS was as public affairs officer in Porto Alegre. I was ambitious and worked hard, but I was distressed when I talked to colleagues who seemed a lot smarter and harder working.   My results were usually better than typical, but never up to what I considered normal. Life was too easy and I was sure I was just not doing something everybody else was doing.  I worried about this through my next posts, until I figured out that most people just think they are busier than they are and all the talk about constant work is just people talking. Pointing this out to people does not make me universally popular and I have to qualify the statement.  There are some times when you are truly busy, but most of the time not. Beyond that, if you are consistently working more than nine hours a day, and I am not talking about just being there but really working, you are burning out.  It is like trying to sprint through a Marathon. The results matter and sometimes LESS “work” will produce better results. 

I am not making a plea for indolence but I am very suspicious of people who claim to work 70 hour weeks all the time. I think there is a lot of useless energy spent and probably a lot less time on task than they say and probably than they think.

There is some virtue in doing less, especially if you find the points of maximum leverage and then use them. It is often better to clear obstacles than to push harder.   All good leaders should be a little lazy, create the proper conditions for the success of others and then get out of the way.   People need to be free to innovate and do things their way.  Constant hectoring will just give you a sore throat, make everybody less productive and create a lot of work for everybody.

Anyway, I put my time in at work and try to earn my salary, but I know that sometimes it is best to do less but do the right thing.

This story is tangential but it applies.  This guy has a clogged pipe. He called the plumber who says that he can fix the problem, but it will cost fifty dollars.  The guy agrees.   The plumber takes out a little hammer, walks to a place along the pipes and taps it a couple of times.    Everything is fixed.   The guy is outraged.  “Fifty dollars,” he says, “for a few taps?  I want an itemized bill.”   The plumber writes out a receipt.   “Tapping the pipe – $.05.  Knowing how and where to tap – $49.95.”