Changing Our Approach to Work

After the business barons got out of hand exploiting their workers with unhealthily long work shifts in awful conditions, the 8-hour shift came as good news and was almost luxurious for many. It went on to become embedded in the mentality of working people having been fought for and hard won. There was a slogan used by the campaigners that went, “Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, Eight Hours for What We Will!”

It’s held firm for a long time now, and been exported to every corner of the world. But, in so many ways it just plain doesn’t work any more. Here, this informative and entertaining article from Forbes highlights just some of those reasons – and suggests what could work so much more effectively for us.

Forbes – Why The 8-Hour Workday Doesn’t Work

While reading this I became aware of my own personal hangups that don’t make such changes easy. Early in my professional working life, it was the late 1980’s and i was working in a bank where there were a lot of very traditional and ‘set in their ways’ people. I had had many part time jobs during my student days and always worked hard. Here, suddenly, I was faced with an environment within which it was more important to be seen working and ‘busy’ than to actually get work done or achieve outcomes.

One of my biggest shocks was when i watched a senior gentleman who had just returned from his annual vacation labour for two whole days making lists of all the correspondence and work that had arrived on his desk during the two weeks he was away before he wrote a single letter in response or made a single phone call. It even troubled me that, in his absence, all work related to his clients was simply added to a growing pile on his desk. there was no comprehension that our responsibility was to meet needs of clients/ customers (and that a person’s holiday was an inadequate reason for them to go without service!)

There were time clocks in the office where each employee had to insert a plastic key that would then cause it to show how much time you had worked over the month. Some of the laziest and most unproductive people in the office used to show the highest numbers of hours at the end of every month! Figure that one out. There were all sorts of games and scams people could play. I really didn’t want to join in. In fact, far from playing the game, I got in to trouble after i’d been there about 6 months and to be spoken to sternly by the union representative. He informed me that it had been brought to his attention that I had been taking on ‘extra projects’ for managers and taking work home in the evenings and at weekends. This was to stop immediately!

I ignored the union rep and reminded him a few years later when I had been promoted a number of times and he still sat doing the same job as before. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown at that time for my decision to strike out from my home country and head to the East, where attitudes to work and time tend to be rather different. i haven’t looked back really – in fact, this year I’ve moved further East!

I still suffer from guilt. We are all well aware of the ability for office workers to ‘guilt’ those who seem to be slacking if they have a personal or casual conversation in the workplace, or come a little later than others, regardless of work done, output achieved etc. I’ll even guilt myself for walking in half an hour after others, even though I know that I sat down and did two or three hours of great quality work that I’m proud of the evening before at home.

There’s one area where I do disagree with the advice in the Forbes article. I think when one is in the state of ‘Flow’ identified by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi the need for breaks every hour melts away. Certainly, for me personally, the clock stops mattering when i’m in my groove like that. To force myself to take a break would actually be an annoyance, would break the flow and make me less productive. That doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.

It’s not just the time issue that needs major rethinking in our approaches to work. it’s also how we behave in our offices, how we organise them and how we make them places where people can actually get work of real quality done. These problems are well brought out in this TED talk;

Going back to my early working life, eventually i became a manager after a few years, in charge of an office with about 14 people working (or, I worried, too often not working), interrupting each other continuously. When i brought this up as an issue, people were shocked. I suggested a plan whereby anyone could put up a little flag at the front of their desk (we were entirely open plan). This flag meant, don’t interrupt this person. You couldn’t keep the flag for more than an hour at a time or for more than 2 hours in a single day. People didn’t like this. When the next ‘upward appraisal’ session came around they gave me a bad mark and complained i was making myself inaccessible. The truth was, it was vitally important to them to maintain the status quo. Concentrated, uninterrupted work time would mean we’d have to show some good work. Worse, it meant that you couldn’t impulsively go and stretch your legs whilst dumping some ‘upward delegation’ on your boss.

I’m writing this in the evening, sitting in my home with beautiful classical music playing in the background – Bach, if anyone’s interested. I worked at home all day today and didn’t even leave the house. I got real work done. Work that was important and matters. And, I probably achieved more in my work today than I had in the last week. i didn’t watch TV or waste my time. I did do some exercises and take a shower in the afternoon when I felt my work flagging. That left me ‘good to go’ for a few more hours afterwards.

So, why do i feel guilty?



Tim Urban – Procrastnation

Tim Urban writes the very popular, entertaining and thought provoking blog – “Wait But Why”

Despite being a prolific writer, Urban is a self confessed procrastinator. So, what better subject for him to talk on when he got the invitation to speak on the big stage of the TED main conference. Incidentally, one of his views is that there’s something of the procrastinator in every one of us, especially for things we ‘ought’ to do, that don’t have deadlines. I have a belief that we wouldn’t necessarily have been this way, but for the tendency throughout our education for all of our time to get controlled, to the point where we lose at least some of our ability to be self-driven.

As an amusing aside, here’s the blog post about how Urban even managed to procrastinate on the TED speech and presentation itself!

Wait But Why – Doing a TED Talk – The Full Story

You Gotta Beat The Clock !

This 1979 hit was way ahead of its time, a prelude to our tortured relationship with time and the clock. On almost any day you can come across more and more books and articles on the subject of being more productive, getting more done, managing time, coping with the stress of a busy life etc. Here's a recent example from Forbes;

Forbes - 15 Surprising Things Productive people Do Differently

I don't think any of the ideas in the article were new to me - they've all appeared elsewhere in some form or other. However, one of the things that struck me was that some of them actually seem to contradict each other when seen from the perspective of whether the effective answer is to speed up or to slow down.

Point 1, for example, seems to me like a recipe for anxiety levels that will ensure very little productive and certainly even less that is creative. To become so rigid about every minute of the day is to set up expectations that will always fail when you come up against the influence of others, or even the natural creative flow of ideas and thinking.

In contrast, ideas 2 and 5 are examples that could have come straight from the 'Slow Movement'. So, big doubts about this list as it seems to pull the reader in two opposing directions at once.

I've been thinking more and more about the idea of how we relate to time after reading 'In Praise of Slowness' by Carl Honore. Here's a TED talk he did on the subject:

Here’s a link to his website; Carl Honore – Writer and Speaker

It’s fairly easy to find copies of the book in PDF form online for download and well worth the read. Like him, I can see the ‘fun and excitement’ in fast, in doing things at pace and getting the thrill of speed. But, I can also see that somewhere, for many people this has become so skewed as to have potentially debilitating effects and actually reduce their ability to do their best work or live their life in the most meaningful and effective way. I’m particularly interested by what he has to say about slowing down in education and schooling.

Having read this book, I’m now more determined to make evaluative decisions about when i choose to go fast and when to slow down.

Napoleon Hill on ‘Giving’

The one who tries to get something for nothing generally winds up getting nothing for something.

Those who think they can get by in life without providing the same amount of value for value received will eventually find themselves working harder than ever to deceive others and receiving very little in return. Life has a funny way of evening the score. In the long run, you will get in the same measure you give. Spend your time on productive, positive efforts; give generously of your time and talents, and you will stand out from the great multitudes whose primary goal in life seems to be to get something for nothing.

Scary Statistic!!

Within the developed world (which includes the developed bits of the developing world!!), a child, on average, spends approximately 50 hours a year talking alone with his/ her parents and 1,500 hours a year in front of a screen (PC, TV, movies etc.)

And some of us wonder why media material has more impact on them than we do? The other thought that went through my mind was if our interaction with our children is really only 50 hours per year (barely an hour a week!) we had better make sure it’s good interaction! Because, if half of it is nagging, criticizing and battles then we need to be ready for all the consequences.

Design for Giving Contest

The Joy of Giving Week (27th September to 3rd October) is a great concept in its own right.

Joy of Giving Week

However, the Riverside School, Ahmedabad have added an additional element which really lifts it to a new level of awareness. What they have created is a contest between teams of students with a teacher for guidance from at least 30,000 schools across India to generate ideas for “Giving” projects, which they will then go ahead and implement. That will see at least 1,50,000 children between the ages of 10 and 13 engaging in acts of kindness, thoughtfulness and whatever giving ideas their creativity leads to.

The Shri Ram School has been asked to act as a nodal link for schools in Delhi and the NCR. We have a really enthusiastic team of teachers from Phase III and Aravali – Chetna Maam, Rashima Maam, Janani Maam and Rina Maam who are working really enthusiastically to make sure that as many schools as possible come on board to celebrate the joy of giving, the joy that a child can gain from doing something for others.

Design for Giving

There is still time to get lots of schools on board. So, please pass the word on to as many schools as possible across India, sending those in Delhi and NCR our way.

We also intend to put together as many teams as possible from within our own school to join in the contest, to unleash their creativity and imagination and to hopefully get a lot of fun out of doing things for others.

%d bloggers like this: