In last week’s blog I rallied against the 40% of time at work that seems to be spent "working on projects that had no significance, going to meetings that had no outcomes" and made some suggestions for solving the paradox at the heart of work.
My question about what to do was answered in part by Kevin Ball. His experience makes him wonder if this is a problem that needs to be solved; if there is not some universal truth about people in all this ‘wasted’ effort.
"The knowledge that some part of your day can be spent in pointless activity is really rather relaxing and it can be accomplished guilt-free if you can explain it as ‘necessary’ to comply, conform and cooperate with the organisation around you. For the early days of my working in the spare bedroom, this meant suppressing the protestant work-ethic and doing some housework in the ‘working’ day; it meant measuring the output rather than the hours spent on input and it meant wrestling myself into a position of accepting that it was OK to be unproductive sometimes."
He has been influenced by Oliver Burkeman’s piece in the Guardian about the extent to which busyness is good. Oliver quotes economist Todd Buchholz: "What you really want is to chase your tail, even if you never catch it". His view is that alternative theory: that calm is the enemy of happiness, and that it's busyness on which we thrive. Railing at the calm advocates he calls "Edenists", he proposes that striving keeps us neurologically fit: "The people who sit back and relax… those are the people who become truly miserable." Research, he notes, suggests that retirement prompts a reduction in cognitive abilities. "What you really want," he insists, "is to chase your tail, even if you never catch it."
He quotes the physicist Richard Feynman who experienced the logical consequence of the dominance of productivity over all other concerns. Feynman found he didn’t envy the geniuses at Princeton who occupied a clutter-free environment where they were allowed to think without interruption: "These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves. So they don’t get any ideas for a while… a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you… and nothing happens."
But it seems to me that the choice is not between mindless busyness and tranquil edium – but rather about the extent to which we can focus and concentrate. It’s a process that is central to my new book The Shift: How The Future of Work is Already Here – the idea that what’s really crucial is that we are prepared to concentrate, focus and, from this, to master something – that could be a skill, a knowledge area, an understanding of a particular network. It’s this focus and concentration that will be increasingly crucial for the future. Focus does not need tranquility – but it does need long periods of undisturbed time – when concentration is possible. What is tough about busyness is not that it stops tranquility – but rather that it fragments work into such tiny slithers that the concentration needed to learn something deeply is gone.
My guess is that Richard Feynman was wrong about the geniuses at Princeton when he saw "those poor bastards" sitting on their own. What they were actually experiencing was the marvelous luxury of undisturbed time, unbroken into fragments, providing them with an opportunity to develop deep mastery.
Busyness is fine - it’s the three-minute fragments that so often comes with busyness that is the curse of modern work.