You might faintly remember that I was doing a series on “What’s wrong with work?” awhile ago – well, I went back to check just how long ago it was and wouldn’t you know it, it’s been a WHOLE YEAR. I wrote about Money, Mastery and Meaning. In February I came back to the series talking about Management Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Is it irony that this last post is about time? We don’t have enough of it.
In my research into the nature of work, one of the aspects I found most interesting was the fact that we have changed from a task-oriented to time-oriented view of work. In the pre-industrial era, people worked on completing tasks: building a chair, tilling the field, sewing the dress, cleaning the stables. They probably worked the same amount of hours or even more than we do today but that wasn’t what their compensation was tied to.
Today, how many hours we put in can feel more important than what we actually accomplish during that time, which adds a new dimension of pressure to work.
Consider the billable hour. I worked at a graphic design agency where every 15 minute increment was technically supposed to be documented and billed toward the right projects. Design doesn’t work that way. Brainstorming and idea creation involve time to think. Some people mull through problems for a long time until they have everything thought out in their heads and then execute quickly. Others start doing right away and re-think as they go along. Thinking isn’t easily measured and don’t look “productive” from an outside perspective.
Having to account for every minute of your day to show its productivity is enormously draining. In Daniel Pink’s book Drive he suggests that part of the reason lawyers are so miserable as a group is because of how minutely they’re required to track their time with each client, “For nonroutine tasks, including law, the link between how much time somebody spends and what that somebody produces is irregular and unpredictable.” While we’re obsessed with being more efficient and faster at everything we do, some work is seriously jeopardized when we try to hurry it along.
Sometimes, working fewer hours actually makes us more productive because we value our free time so much. In Joanne’s Cuilla’s book The Working Life she writes,
We actually have some record of what such a change [working less hours] might mean to a community: in 1930, in the teeth of the Depression, the cereal entrepreneur W.K. Kellogg put his workers on a six-hour day at full pay. Productivity increased dramatically, helping pay for the experiment. Meanwhile, the company town’s parks, community centers, churches, and YMCAs all flourished. Researchers who interviewed the townspeople found that their interests had grown and changed: they now asked themselves, “What shall I do?” not just, “What shall I buy?” (p. 115).
There are quite a few modern examples as well (Results-Only-Work-Environments are the most extreme version) and yet Americans still work longer hours and take far less vacation than most Europeans. And it’s not putting us that much farther ahead. Despite working fewer hours, the French are just as productive as the Americans.
There are all kinds of obstacles if you start trying to fix the time vs. productivity imbalance. Culturally, we’ve tied being busiest to being best. Touting the numbers of hours worked per week is a kind of status symbol (Maybe because so much of our work has lost meaning and time is the only “measurement” we can find to give us a sense of meaning?). Many people are doing the work of two or more people and no matter how long they work, can’t get through what’s expected of them. Some of us, if given the freedom to chart our own course, find it hard to self-motivate or learn how to work outside a 9-to-5 structure.
Have you struggled with living in a time-oriented vs. task-oriented culture? Have you struggled with the billable hour or with setting your own hours? Tell me about your experience.