People say that life is short, but that’s not true. Life isn’t short, it’s long. In fact, it’s the longest thing we ever experience first hand. We only perceive life as short because we don’t make the best use of the time we have. It has become all too easy nowadays to waste away an entire lifetime with distractions like TV or social media. All the while we subconsciously hope that some day, by some miracle, a more satisfying future will roll around in which we will be… happy.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Recognize the above quote? It’s from Pink Floyd's iconic 1974 single Time, which outlines a key problem with the human condition: Time passes, regardless of whether we use it wisely or just let it slip away.
Think of time as a constrained budget: You have 24 hours to spend per day, every day. The question is, how do you chose to spend those 24 hours?
To consciously improve how you allocate your time budget, you’ll first need to identify how you currently spend most of it. Keep track of what you do every day for a couple of days, and you’ll soon see patterns emerge. When I did that myself, I found that besides activities I liked and cherished (being with family and friends, reading, working on engaging projects) or that are plain necessities (eating, sleeping, personal hygiene) I also spent a considerable amount of time every day on Facebook and YouTube. But I also realized that that didn’t contribute to a more meaningful, fulfilled, and satisfying life. In fact the opposite was true: The more time I spent on those platforms, the less happy and fulfilled my life would become.
So I decided to quit Facebook all together and significantly cut back on YouTube. That freed up a lot of time in my schedule which I now use for more worthwhile activities---writing, exercising, and meditating for example.
Our professional lives are not fundamentally different. Most of us are locked in to a rigid 8 hour work day, and so we spend 8 hours every at a desk in an office. While some of the things we do during that time are engaging and fulfilling, many are not. By consciously paying attention to how I spent my time at work I noticed that it took me 20 minutes every week just to enter my time sheets in two separate systems. Think about that: My company pays me, a highly skilled knowledge worker, to spend 20 minutes every week doing a job that a trained chimpanzee would be equally qualified to do: Copying and pasting numbers from one set of tables to another! Needless to say that those 20 minutes are also the low point of my motivation and engagement every week. What could be more boring than doing monkey work?
The problem here is that we can’t just get rid of that non-essential task all together. There may be good reasons why my time sheets have to be tracked in two systems, and in a huge corporation, questioning those can be a quixotic pursuit. Still, I would like to get those 20 minutes per week back so I can spend them doing more of the work that truly fulfills me.
Fortunately, solving that challenge in the professional context can be easier than in our private lives. There’s a lot less soul searching required, and not as much mental effort involved. (For example, quitting Facebook was as much of a challenge for me as quitting smoking was a couple of years earlier. Think about what that says about their business model for a second.) Instead, all it takes in the case of the redundant time sheet task is a basic level of automation. Modern tools enable us to consistently and predictable automate tasks so that they can run unobserved over and over and over again---without the expenditure of the most valuable resource we have: Our time.
I believe that for everyone of us to live up to the fullest of our potential, we need to be conscious of how we allocate our time at home and at work. And I believe that we need to spend more time in ways that are satisfying, engaging, and fulfilling, and less time with trivial, mundane, and boring tasks. While privately this requires life style changes that aren’t always fun to begin with, professionally we can leverage the automation of non-essential work to focus more on what truly engages us.
Note that the kind of automation I’m talking about is not the enemy of the worker, as it is often portrayed. I’m not saying that corporations should replace people with robots in order to maximize profits. The automation that I mean has to be driven from the bottom up, not from the top down. Think about all the boring little tasks you do every day, and find simple ways to automate them. Then take the time you save and work on more productive, engaging, and interesting projects instead. Or go home early, and spend that time with your family!
John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that by the time the year 2000 would roll around, people would work only 15 hours per week. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen for two reasons: The first is the rise in living standards and consumerism. Many of us could work significantly less than we do, if we were happy with not having the latest iPhone, not going on vacation multiple times per year, and not filling our wardrobes with the latest designer fashion every season. For obvious reasons, that’s not going to change---at least not for most people in most parts of the western world.
But I believe there’s a second reason why Keynes’ prediction didn’t come true, which is our outdated definition of valuable work. Our notion of work dates back to the industrial era, where employees would essentially sell a fixed amount of their time to employers who would use the workers labor during that time to produce goods and services. That made sense if the employees where working on factory floors or production lines, especially in jobs where there was a direct correlation between the number of hours invested and the business outcome achieved: If your job is to manually assemble a product, and that task takes you one hour per item, chances are that if you work two hours instead of one, you’ll produce two items instead of one. Thus you have created twice as much value for the company for twice as much time spent.
Today's work is fundamentally different from that model: We already got rid of much of the jobs that have that direct correlation between time spent and outcome achieved, but we still act as if that assumption was true for most of our jobs. There’s a famous saying that “9 women can’t make a baby in one month”, which is meant to ridicule the naïve assumption that throwing more people at a problem will solve the problem faster. But the same is true for individuals: If you work twice as long on your PhD thesis, will it be twice as good? If you spend twice the time working on a piece of software, is there any guarantee that the product you create will be twice as valuable?
For many modern jobs, this distorted definition of value leads to a focus on “time spent” rather than on “outcome achieved”. But that provides little incentive for individuals to come up with more efficient ways of doing their jobs. If you have to be at the office from 9 to 5 anyway, why bother finding a way to do a task that takes you an hour in 30 minutes instead? So that you give your boss another opportunity to pile more work on top of your desk?
There’s two problems with that thinking: First, it only happens in environments where employees are not empowered to choose what to work on for themselves. In my time sheet example, if I automated that task I would be free to spend those 20 minutes any way I liked instead — provided I spent them at my desk looking busy. That’s not the case in most jobs today. Most tasks are still distributed top down, with little individual freedom for the employee. And that has to change if we want to empower employees to be smarter about how they do their jobs.
The second problem though is even more fundamental: We constructed our societies and legal systems around the idea that “work” equals “time spent”. We idealize the workaholic who puts in 50, 60 or 100 hours every week. Who pulls all-nighters to save the critical project in the last minute. Who spends his nights, weekends and vacation working from home. We look down in disdain on the slacker who goes home early to care for their children, or just to lie in the sun on a beautiful day.
It’s easy to measure how much time someone spends sitting at their desk, and to pay them more if they do more of that. But it’s hard to measure how much impact their work has on the long-term success of the company. And it’s almost impossible to codify that in a contract that’s compliant with employment laws in most European countries.
I am deeply convinced that much of that has to change if we want to thrive as a society. If we want to empower employees to be smart about how they spend their time, many things have to happen: We need to create tools that allow for easy automation of mundane work. We need to put those tools into the hands of those who know the most about what that mundane work looks like, namely the individuals who do it manually today.
We also need to create systems to evaluate the outcome of work, not just the output we produce or the hours we put in. We need to create legal frameworks that protect workers in outcome oriented organizations, both from corporate exploitation and from getting caught in ego-driven workaholism. And we need to change our view of what productive work is. Instead of looking down on the colleague who goes home early because he was smart enough to automate parts of his job, we should put him on a pedestal. And we should challenge the workaholic to work fewer hours, but in a smarter way.
I guess life is short, after all. Let’s use the time we have as well as we can. And let’s let technology help us do that.