Reimagine Busyness at Work
IMAGINE WHAT THE WORLD WOULD BE LIKE IF…
…you knew your optimal work needs (OWN) — the set of particulars that define how you work most effectively and allow you to be intentional with your time, focus and energy — and had the flexibility to structure your days accordingly.
...you knew exactly what mix of tasks makes for your best creative flow — what helps you stay inspired, what kind of feedback energizes you and how to design all of this into your daily work life.
...you lived and worked in a culture of understanding and caring, where your need to recharge was prioritized. A culture that knows rest is not the opposite of work but an essential ingredient for making meaningful and effective work possible.
...co-workers and bosses were partners in a venture to contribute significantly to the vast, creative and evolving human project we call life.
...meeting the full range of our needs — emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual — was a top priority in the workplace, allowing you to access and share more of your potential.
...you had the choice to leave work behind when you leave the office.
...you were supported in developing a healthy relationship with technology, setting limits with yourself so you have more capacity for engagement and more time for work that means the most to you.
NOW, BACK TO THE REAL WORLD
We are a long way from this ideal right now, despite some organizations implementing progressive and creative ways to work with more intentionality and balance. Earlier this year, Erin Griffith had this to say about the reality of work today:
Most jobs — even most good jobs — are full of pointless drudgery. Most corporations let us down in some way. And yet years after the HBO satire “Silicon Valley” made the vacuous mission statement “making the world a better place” a recurring punch line, many companies still cheerlead the virtues of work with high-minded messaging… It’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.” (all citations © The New York Times)
*Hustle culture, Griffith explains, is a recent trend among millennials to emphasize an extremely hard work ethic.
Similarly, in a viral essay, the anthropologist and social provocateur, David Graeber questions why so many jobs seem to lack meaning. But even if you’re lucky enough to hold a job that engages your mind and spirit, there are plenty of other challenges to making the most of your work life. In addition to the pressure of long work hours, you’re probably also dealing with an avalanche of emails, work-related instant messages, impromptu drop-ins and scheduled meetings that eat into your time for the work you really need and/or want to do.
Despite strong evidence that hyperconnectivity in the workplace greatly reduces productivity, the practice persists. A 2012 McKinsey study showed that the average “knowledge worker” spends more than 60 percent of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and Internet searching, with close to 30 percent of a worker’s time dedicated to reading and answering email alone!
The combination of all the above — long hours, a lack of clear purpose and sense of value, and too many interruptions that erode quality work time — have led to widespread burnout, which is estimated by the Stanford University Graduate School of Business to cost the U.S. $190 billion per year in health care expenses.
POSSIBILITIES FOR REIMAGINING BUSYNESS AT WORK
Start with the understanding that our culture, for now, continues on the path of overwork and hyperconnectivity and that no individual can change that alone, however each of us can play a critical role in righting our work-world ship. Beginning by knowing what you need to sustain your best work puts you in a better place to make a difference. The graphic below is intended to spark ideas for designing your ideal work day. Yours may look very different, feel free to play!
Imagine your job is a product — what would the Nutrition Facts label say? Determine what you need to be optimally productive and creative and write them down. You may not be able to put everything in place right away, but it’s important to know what they are and to advocate for them over time so you can incorporate as many of them as possible. Doing so is a key part of building your leadership and taking responsibility for what you need. It’s also a key way to ensure that you can most fully share your unique value, contribute your maximum and be available to support others in doing the same.
Here are some key items to address for meeting your OWN:
- Get clear on your ideal work schedule — What are your optimal hours? Do you perform better when you start early or are you more productive later in the day? What are the effects of regularly working evenings and weekends? A growing body of evidence shows that most people can do focused work for only about 4 hours a day, and that companies around the globe are getting positive results from allowing shorter workweeks.
- Use the “consultant’s rule” — Most tasks take one-third more time, energy, focus and money than we anticipate. Add this into your OWN budget so you’ll have the resources to do your work well.
- Build in enough rest time — Remember, no work is possible without rest, so you need to find the right formula for peak performance. Consider the following questions as you clarify your optimal work/rest cycle: Do you need short breaks during the workday? (Most of us do!) How many breaks and for how long? Which kinds of activities help you make the most of a break, and which don’t? How many days off are best for you during a typical week? How much vacation do you need? How much vacation can you realistically take without feeling a loss of effectiveness and momentum?
- Attention residue — When transitioning from one task to another, you need time to clear and reset your attention. Are you aware of the effect that attention residue has on your ability to work deeply? Do you have a plan to address attention residue? You may want to reflect on how much time you need to transition between tasks. Most people need more time than they think, usually at least 10 minutes.
- Make sure to build in meeting prep and follow-up time — Most meetings require 5-20 minutes of prep and 5-20 minutes of follow-up to be most productive. How might you establish a practice of scheduling time for prep and follow-up? Doing so is a great way to show leadership and contribute to an improved work culture.
- Make daily and weekly to-do lists — Set ambitious yet realistic to-do lists that include time to step back and reflect. Sometimes, simple paper lists are the easiest to manage!
- Minimize tech distractions — How strong are your boundaries with social media, the internet, your smartphone and other devices? Are any or all of these cutting into your ability to focus on what’s important? If so, can you develop a plan to address these challenges?
- Communicating needs — How well do you communicate what you need to do your best work to your colleagues, staff and boss? What is one way you could communicate more clearly to maximize your creativity and impact while building your relationships and learning about your colleagues’ needs?
- Social balance/Interdependence — How well do you balance advocating for your own needs with respecting the needs of those around you in the workplace? If one is out of balance, what is one thing you could do differently this week to right the balance?
Choose one important need each quarter to build your advocacy muscle. Before you start advocating for changes, get really clear on what you hope will shift and make a list of unmet needs — more room to work, a quieter office, more helpful feedback, flex time, more support around vacation times, whatever it is you feel is reasonable to ask for and which will help you contribute your best. It can be really empowering to your needs in writing or spoken out loud. Now choose one item from your list and step up to the self-advocacy starting gate! If you tackle one OWN item per quarter, that’s potentially four major changes in your work life the first year. In a few years, your work life could be transformed for the better.
Get the support you need to advocate directly and respectfully for what you need to contribute your best. Expressing your OWN can be scary at first, so start slowly, brainstorm both what you want to share and what you don’t want to share. And get feedback from someone you trust before you share live.
A sample OWN that you might want to practice with: working through your lunch break may be normed in your office, but doesn’t allow you to re-charge. Try speaking with your manager about the negative impacts of not taking lunch and what positive impacts they can expect if you really shut off work during the middle of the day. This will build lots of skills — self-connection, communication and even empathy for your boss, as you negotiate what they need from you to feel comfortable with such a shift. Make sure your boss and colleagues understand your motivation is to improve your contribution, back yourself up with any facts and figures you can find, and be prepared to deal with and get support from allies around a “no.”
This inventory will help you to get even more clear on your OWN.
We need a radical, sweeping redesign of the workscape, but it’s not likely to happen soon. Until that day comes, it’s up to each of us as individuals to advocate for ourselves and others to create the positive change we can to build a better work world. Together, I believe we can make our voices heard, resulting in a workplace that is more humane, creative and empowering.