Friday, December 08, 2006

Take back your time

In my first job, which happened to be as an engineer in a different country, I was limited by labor contracts to working no more than 96 hours in any two-week period. In my second job, in the USA, I put in more than 96 hours in many individual weeks (their standard work week was 45 hours, not 40).

While I like work, and while I really like making a contribution, life was certainly more enjoyable in the first environment than in the second. I had the time to enjoy hobbies, to be around people, and to experience new places when I was working 40 hours a week (we rarely worked overtime). When I was working 90+ hours a week, I rarely had time for any of that.

At my third job, I returned to an environment, still in the USA, in which I normally worked 40-45 hours a week. I found that I and my colleagues worked very intensely while at work, and then we had time we could call our own. I felt like a human being who worked again, rather than a worker who didn't do anything else. This, like my first job, was certainly more enjoyable than working very long hours.

But it's fair to ask: were the long hours better for the company? After all, if I turned out over twice the work in 90 hours when compared to 40 hours, perhaps that was good for the company directly and, indirectly, for society? If that were true, they would have gotten over twice the contribution out of the same number of people. Perhaps my enjoyment of a 40-hour week was a sign of laziness.

I don't think so. I noticed that, when I was working a "regular" work week, I'd work hard during the day. Then, in the evening, I would enjoy doing whatever I enjoyed doing. After being away from work for a while, I might think of an idea that would help me with a problem at work. I'd typically take 5-10 minutes to write that down, saving me perhaps an hour or two the next day had I attacked the work without benefit of those insights.

When I was working 90+ hours a week, I'd occasionally have similar ideas while at home. In those situations, I found that I'd rarely take the time to record my ideas; my time to be with family, to take care of basic chores, and even to sleep was already so limited I didn't want to give up another 5 minutes.

More than that, I sensed that my overall weekly or monthly contribution peaked at some hourly workweek far closer to 40 hours than 90.

All in all, I think the companies that had me work a hard 40 hours a week on the right things got more real contribution from me than the company that had me work 90+ hour, not because I was slacking off, but because it's very hard to maintain a creative, innovative focus on the right things when there's no time to recharge one's batteries, when there's no time to take care of onesself.

Some time ago, organizational behavior professor Sandy Piderit wrote about just this issue.

More recently, Kathy Sierra blogged about Twitter, one final tool to add to our mental overload.

I'm not about to condemn Twitter or to rail against companies that have long work weeks.

I am going to suggest that, if you're a manager in a company that encourages or demands your people work long hours on a regular basis, think seriously about that practice. It may serve you in the short term, but does it lead to unsustainable results and an eventual crash? With innovation being the current hot topic, do you get less innovation by pushing people harder? Is it good for society?

I will also suggest that, if you're a person who gets stuck working long hours on a regular basis (perhaps driven by others, perhaps driven by your own decisions), think seriously about whether you want to continue that practice. It's easy to get into an hours-based competition, where you work longer than the next person in the hopes that your work will be rewarded by more salary. Unfortunately, it's like an arms race or a price war: the other person can respond in kind, leading you to respond by working still more hours, ultimately limited only by the number of hours you have to sleep and the 168 hours in a week.

There is a systems component to this posting. Back in 1995, Jack Homer published an article on worker burnout, focused on his personal experiences. You can find the reference listed in Desert Island Dynamics: An Annotated Survey of the Essential System Dynamics Literature, and you can find a model listing on Tom Fiddaman's site.



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