Why Don’t We Focus on Productivity Instead of Personal Sacrifice?

You’re in the middle of a meeting and an “important” IM pops up with an issue that needs immediate attention. By the time your focus is back on the subject at hand, you’re lost as to where your team is in the meeting.

The distracted workplace is quietly being noticed as causing important issues like:

I recently reread The 4-Hour Work Week. While I have mixed feelings about several parts of the book, one line really stood out to me this time around:

“We live in a culture that rewards personal sacrifice over productivity.”

Let me give you a recent example:

I have one client where we managed to launch 3 WordPress applications and 1 large custom software project in a period of 6 months. I never had to work past 5pm on that project, and the amount of unforeseen items and “emergencies” were very small.

I have another client where we barely launched 2 WordPress applications in a full year. There were several “oh we need you now” moments, and several late nights and early mornings.

The second project was rewarded as being done great. It was great we had people come in at all hours of the night to “burn the midnight oil.” However, when compared to the other project, it seems like a total failure, doesn’t it?

When you’re looking at large five and six figure software development deals, doesn’t it make more sense to focus on getting it right the first time—rather than rewarding everyone for an 80 hour week?

Work at Work, Play at Home

One of my favorite lines from this article on the pains of the open workplace is:

“As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults.”

This is one of those things where it’s time we held more people accountable for their actions are relationships when it comes to work. When you’re at work, you should be working most of the time.

When you’re not at work—go out with your co-workers! Meet at the bar, meet for coffee. Meet your clients. Get to know them on a personal level. Separate your work life and your social life.

The point of open office spaces was to allow for more productivity and better communication. To “remove the barriers” that made CEOs and office managers distant from the workers. This has turned into playing to the same vanity where people say things like: “Well my job around here is to make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” with a straight face. Was is this, a daycare? Get to work!

Human Beings are Not Machines

Human beings are not machines, and the endless days of no rest are impacting the work force.

There’s an excellent article by the Harvard Business Review that details the impact of long hours.

  • Overwork and more hours does not result in more output
  • Work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds.
  • This is something business first learned a long time ago. In the 19th century, when organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased.

There’s a new trait in our smart phone obsessed society that human beings are machines that don’t need rest. That we can just power through at all hours of the night, and we should respond to emails, texts, calls, IMs and tweets within minutes of receiving them.

The projects I mentioned above had to distinct differences:

  1. Most of the lengthy  project was done off hours and at all hours of the day. I would get messages, texts, and emails late at night and on the weekends.
  2. Good luck getting a hold of anyone on the expedited project after hours or on the weekend. There was one Saturday we all got together to review, and mostly because we were just too excited to wait.

What About an Emergency?!

I’m trying to think of an emergency that was not caused by poor planning, and I honestly can’t think of one.

My mind is flooded with about a thousand “emergency” situations that were created because something was rushed at the last minute, or someone was careless in planning or execution.

Not only that, it’s usually a cop out for something else. Rarely do I see people in the knowledge worker field interrupted by true emergencies. Usually it’s:

  1. Just a shiny object (oooh, I got a new IM!)
  2. Someone who needs attention (“hey, I just had this thought so I need you to drop everything and pay attention to it”).

Try setting up a good format for people who actually have emergencies. I tell all of my clients that if they have an emergency to call me or text me rather than email or IM. It’s extremely rare I get a call or text. If you’re constantly putting out fires or dealing with emergencies, I suspect one of two things is happening:

  1. It’s not really an emergency
  2. You work in an industry where your job is to deal with these kind of things, in which case this article isn’t valid (and would only apply when you’re not on call for an emergency).

There’s a great line in Cal Newport’s Deep Work that says:

“As Jung, Grant, and Perlow’s subjects discovered, people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well defined and well-advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.”

In my own experience, focusing on productivity over personal sacrifice has a weird way of making the emergencies seldom.