Productivity

For once, not using that journal entry title to talk about my own.

Someone posted a pointer to an opinion piece looking at productivity differences between the US and Germany to a private hierarchy I read. I know productivity numbers like this are somewhat disputed, but I don't want to get into that. What I'm more interested in is the analysis.

Whether or not the US does significantly better or worse than other countries in this regard is hotly debated, but what isn't is that the length of typical work weeks for employees, particularly in IT, is not going down. Fifty or a hundred years ago, it was common to expect that the growth of automation would mean more leisure for humanity. There was, at the time, some argument over whether that would be a good thing, but it seemed to be a trend.

This didn't happen here. The above article argues that the amount of vacation that US employees take is going down over time. And in IT it's common to hear about 50 hour weeks (or 80 hour weeks in startups). Little of that promise of increased leisure from modern technology seems to have happened in the US, although it seems to have happened somewhat in Europe; about all we managed was to get down to a 40-hour work week, which is now honored in the breech for a lot of exempt employees. And that was seventy years ago.

Most of the scientific research that we have available is quite clear that working longer hours causes diminished productivity. Standard time management advice is to focus more and work in shorter intervals. Hours of unfocused work are considerably less effective than much shorter periods of focused work, recovery time is vital, and forcing oneself to work long hours leads to bad decision-making. Even in less cerebral and more repetitive work, such as some assembly line work, we've known for many decades that working longer hours leads to more accidents and more bad decisions, and there the costs of an accident are often much higher.

So, why are we so dead-set on doing the exact opposite of what available evidence says is the best way to work?

I think this is to some extent a Rorschach blot question: you're going to see the answer in this that fits your pre-conceived notions about what's dysfunctional about US workplaces. I rambled elsewhere about my own pet peeve: the overwhelming focus on money and short-term profit and cutting cost, which I think leads to a lot of the nasty employment abuses in the US.

But here I want to raise a different point: as the article says, we work long hours because that's what we're measured on and rewarded for. We work unproductively for many of those hours partly because it's impossible to be productive for that many hours. We get used to feeling intermittantly unproductive at work; it becomes normal. And in many jobs, particularly in IT, we don't measure ourselves by results because we have no idea what a reasonable level of results actually is.

Management gets a lot of blame for failure to manage by results rather than by artificial measures like attendance and time worked (or tickets closed, or hours logged against customer requests, or similar trivially manipulatable and artifical measures). But I think this goes deeper than management. I think even we ourselves, with as good of knowledge as anyone could possibly have of what our jobs are and what good results look like, don't have a clear idea of how much to expect from ourselves on a daily basis.

I know from time management exercises that I wildly mis-estimate tasks and don't have a good feedback loop to get better at estimates. I also tend to plan towards maximums rather than the average. If I have a very good day, I try to work at that level and hold myself to that level of work, rather than trying to find a long-term average. And my perceptions about what results constitute good results vary wildly based on the most recent events and surrounding context (such as whether a project is late), even though I know that my basic work capacity is not going to change significantly because a project is late.

If we want to change how we measure work, I think this may be the place to start. We can't ask managers to measure us by results if we don't even know what that measurement would look like.

I'm going to start asking myself some new questions: What is the average amount of work I can get done in a day? What's the standard deviation? Is there some way that I can measure this over time so that I'm not fooling myself based on circumstances or temporary surges of productivity, since my day-to-day productivity seems to have a lot of "noise"? What realistically constitutes finishing a week's worth of work?

When am I "working" but not accomplishing something, and more importantly, why am I doing that? What broke when that happens?

I'm firmly convinced that one of my personal breakthroughs in time management will happen when I can stop "working" when I'm not being productive. Whenever I manage this (rarely, right now), I both find I needed the break and find that I can return far more productive than I was before I took the break. But usually I continue to "work" unproductively, clocking hours without creating results, and feel both guilty about the lack of results and even less productive. That's the trap that I think this article is pointing at.

Posted: 2010-09-30 21:20 — Why no comments?

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04