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Working in a Long Hours Culture (Part 3): When do you get to do the work?

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives - Annie Dillard

Let’s recap from last time. I suggested that there are three elements to any job:

  1. Producing - this is where you make a difference and should be where you spend the majority of your time.

  2. Maintaining - These are the aspects of your role that just have to be done.

  3. Consuming - this is generally what you have to assimilate to enable you to do the job.

And the killer question? Well, first pull up your diary for the next four weeks, and then ask yourself:

When are you going to do the work?

That’s it. When are you going to do the work? You see, my guess is that as you look at the next four weeks, you are staring at what I call a hard landscape. There are already a number of boulders, called meetings and appointments in that landscape, so the time left to do the work, the real work, is in the white space between the boulders, because as Jason Fried says:

…meetings aren't work. Meetings are places to go to talk about things you're supposed to be doing later.

But that’s not the whole story because you and I know that you’ll use some of that white space to ‘deal with’ email, return calls, or catch up with a colleague, so the question remains:

When are you going to do the work? Our working week is just that; it is our working week, not anybody else’s, so we need to guard it well and be careful what and who we allow to invade it. Before you dismiss that as unrealistic, let me ask another question:

When are you at your best?

This is when you ought to be scheduling appointments with yourself (try 60 - 90 minute blocks) to get done what I call the high leverage work. And I mean putting appointments in your diary, and treating them with the same respect you would treat an appointment with your most valued customer or your boss.

This is when you avoid the maintenance tasks, and when you should avoid meetings, which tend to be about maintaining and consuming anyway, and of course it’s when you should be avoiding email. By putting it in your diary, if someone wants your time then, in all honesty you can say you are busy and offer an alternative.

How will others respond?

It doesn’t matter because they need to learn these lessons too.

  • Your boss? Any boss should bite off the hand of someone who shows they are serious about doing great work, and if you’ve done the tracking I suggested last time, you have the ammunition to prove how you could better spend your time.

  • Your colleagues? That’s an education process; they just need to know when not to bother you and you need to hold the line.

  • Your teams? They need to see the upside; at least you won’t be bothering them when you are engaged in what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work.’ If this sounds a bit tongue in cheek, I can only tell you that when I started to implement some of these strategies, there was more than a handful of people asking how they could benefit from doing the same.

There’s a very simple maxim here: If you don’t respect your time, no one else will.

To be fair, there’s also a practical problem. If you look at the next four weeks, you may not have a lot of room for manoeuvre. Work with what you’ve got, make those appointments with yourself where you can, and look at the following four weeks where you should have some more flexibility.

Start small

For most people the best time to schedule these sessions will be first thing in a morning, but it needs a level of discipline; resist the coffee room chat and importantly resist checking your email - nine times out of ten, it will suck you in.

But start small, maybe just a couple of 60 minute slots in a morning, then add in a slot one afternoon. Fight off interruptions, switch off the phone. If you have your own office close the door, although that doesn’t always deter people; be polite but firm - ‘I’m in the middle of something, can we catch up later?.’

Enforce your boundaries

If you work in an open plan environment you will have to come up with other strategies. Some workplaces allow headphones to indicate when folk don’t want to be disturbed. You may have to settle for a note stuck to the back of your chair. If you enforce it, people will begin to take notice and given time folk will get used to the idea that this time is when you are off the radar and are only to be interrupted if the place is burning down.

Does this solve the problem of how the other work, the maintaining and consuming, get done? Not directly but it is part of the process. Stay tuned.

Next time:

We will look at strategies, tactics and tips that help to create some balance to your work routines and help you manage your working week so you get to eat with the family, get a social life, get a decent night’s sleep and avoid the seriously damaging effects of spending too much time at work.

Science corner:

The Ford Motor Company showed in the 1990s that increased productivity resulting from additional hours worked above 40 per week was short lived, three to four weeks, before productivity turned negative.

A number of studies from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health suggest that long hours (more than 50 per week) can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease.

Thoughts, comments, questions?

We would love to start a conversation. Please feel free to leave a comment in the box below.

John publishes a monthly blog which you can find by following this link

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