Is More and Faster Work Better Work?

We all want to figure out how to do more work in less time. Why is that? In days past, it meant you were a more valuable employee, and could expect more wages and advancement. Now, it may mean that you want to spend more time with your family, or have room for a social life, hobbies, or community involvement. Or, you may not have a choice if you want to keep your job, as many companies are laying off workers and expecting those who remain to work harder. New research is likely to result in even more efficiency, but to what end?

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, the article “Meet the Life Hackers” explores in fascinating detail how technology has changed the way we work. However, as many of us know, our work is so full of technological distractions that some days, it’s impossible to get anything done. The article ponders: “If high-tech work distractions are inevitable, then maybe we can re-engineer them so we receive all of their benefits but few of their downsides. Is there such a thing as a perfect interruption?”

According to the article, in the 21st-century office, multitasking has become a way of life: “Corporations seized on this as a way to squeeze more productivity out of each worker, and technology companies like Microsoft obliged them by transforming the computer into a hub for every conceivable office task, and laying on the available information with a trowel.” This isn’t all bad, however: juggling so many tasks and relationships at once makes us feel needed and desired, drained yet exhilarated. (See New York Times article.)

But all these interruptions are problematic: research shows that when you are interrupted, it takes 25 minutes to cycle back to your original task. Literally, you may forget what task you were originally pursuing. In fact, 40 percent of the time, research shows that you will wander off in a completely new direction when an interruption ends, “distracted by the technological equivalent of shiny objects.”

For researchers, the challenge is to find a way to minimize the disruptions while maintaining the sense of connectedness and control. (Ever turned off your e-mail or held all your phone calls for a while to get something done that requires intensive focus? You may work more efficiently, but there’s still the lurking worry that you’re missing something important.)

The kind of research profiled in the “Life Hackers” article may indeed lead to more productive workplace habits, as it’s something that pretty much anyone who works in an office and uses a computer cares about. But who will benefit from your increased productivity? Most likely, it will be your employer, and not necessarily you. Wages are no longer keeping pace with productivity gains, so working harder doesn’t necessarily benefit you — it benefits your employer.

Thinking about these issues is a good way to prepare for next week’s “Take Back Your Time” day, October 24, on the 65th anniversary of the passage of the 40-hour work week. Sponsored by the group of the same name, the day a time to acknowledge that “millions of Americans are overworked, over-scheduled and just plain stressed out. “

  • We’re putting in longer hours on the job now than we did in the 1950s, despite promises of a coming age of leisure before the year 2000.
  • In fact, we’re working more than medieval peasants did, and more than the citizens of any other industrial country.
  • Mandatory overtime is at near record levels, in spite of a recession.
  • On average, we work nearly nine full weeks (350 hours) LONGER per year than our peers in Western Europe do.
  • Working Americans average a little over two weeks of vacation per year, while Europeans average five to six weeks. Many of us (including 37% of women earning less than $40,000 per year) get no paid vacation at all.

(See Take Back Your Time website.)

The group suggests a variety of ways that you can observe Take Back Your Time Day, such as: spending time with family and friends, organizing events on college campuses, workplaces, union halls, and places of workship, and encouraging discussions about how to reclaim the 40-hour work week. (See TBYT Press Release.) The group also supports an ambitious policy agenda, proposing laws to improve and protect family, sick, and vacation leave, eliminate mandatory overtime, and better support part-time work.

Here are a few other ways, suggested by Money Magazine’s Jean Chatsky, that you can take more control of your more productive time:

  • Stop measuring productivity in hours: focus on what you’ve accomplished, not how much time you spent at the office.
  • Get a life: have a reason to leave the office on time
  • Turn off the technology: like the Life Hackers tell you — stop being interrupted all the time and make technology work for you
  • Use business trips to regroup: turn your trips into mini-vacations, and use as much of your time away as you can to relax
  • Make your schedule flexible: work from home occasionally if you can, and show your bosses that you can get more done at home
  • Ask your company to help: are there company policies that will make you and your coworkers more productive?
  • No excuses: Squelch that inner nag and take a real vacation: what good is all the time you do earn to relax and recuperate if you don’t take it?

(See Making Time for Time Off.)

Until the experts figure out for us how to have the perfectly productive day, it’s up to us to squeeze out more time of each day. But it should be for ourselves — not just for our employer’s benefit. In planning for next week’s “Take Back Your Time” day, think about how you can reclaim just a little bit of sanity in today’s hectic working life.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.