Friday, February 22, 2013

Time management, quality -vs- quantity, and diminishing returns

Growing up I have watched many people ruin their lives with a lack of balance. Those who have known me long enough have known I was TERRIBLE at balance, and have worked terribly hard to get to where I am today. Both of my parents, upon immigrating from Hungary (where I don't think they take it easy easy as Western Europe) in my opinion were seduced by the American dream, just like most of the parents of children from my era. I watched them ruin their lives, health, and spirits by not balancing work and all the other things that life involves.

With this background and perhaps the advice of a few key friends, bosses, and mentors I learned well to balance my life (or focus on balance as a key element), but it was hard. For me it took an odyssey into triathlon, where balance between going hard and easy is a key element of a successful plan, and a long term burnout in a job where I was literally doing 5 peoples jobs! What was profound when I first came to this realization was that it decreased my ability to be highly available and observant. I wrote about this in an article called Carpe Diem, where I observed that because I was burned out and uninterested, I was only mediocre in situations where the game really was on the line (think a last minute bug or redesign needed to fix a major problem); I also saw that in addition to always being tired, and snippy with my co-workers and friends, I never had time to "stop and smell the roses" which is where a LOT of creative and problem solving influence really comes from.

Unfortunately we learn from many sources over the years a fact that is well espoused in this Inc article entitled: "Why working more than 40 hours a week is useless." I interpret this as constantly working more than 40 hours on the same thing. I believe you can have other "big rocks" (read major passions and devotions as the well known time management analogy goes) in your jar, but you can't have too many, and you certainly can't fill your jar with gravel, sand, and water (busy work, email/SMS, and the WEB/Social Media) first. If you ignore your health, nutrition, exercise, sleep, and personal life you'll just end up with one under maintained big rock, and a bunch of crap:

Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s found that you could get short-term gains by going to 60- or 70-hour weeks very briefly — for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline," she wrote. But Robinson stressed that "increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output...In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time."
But the unfortunate temptation is to be sucked in by focusing on quantity over quality when we think of things in a superficial form:
there's actually a pretty strong correlation between how busy we are and how important we feel. "We live in a competitive society, and so by lamenting our overwork and sleep deprivation — even if that requires workweek inflation and claiming our worst nights are typical — we show that we are dedicated to our jobs and our families,"

But we know these things. Yet people and management have both seemed to ignore these facts in America like crazy.  I have been quite successful in the right situations, but I need help. I have an unfortunate propensity to be able to go hard for a much longer time then most people, but I'm simply able to push past exhausted mediocrity to sickness, and a host of other interpersonal issues that can be hard to notice for me because I am so bland. This brings down my employers, myself, and my inner circle. I have been a great performer, for extended periods of time, in the context of my "big rock" when I'm able to incorporate the following:
1) work HARD for more like 6 hours a day (3-4 chunks with at least a little break, and often a workout thrown in the middle).
2) I have and am able to use vacation, and
3) I have a boss who watches me and occasionally helps me refuse tasks or take a break.

I also need to have the bandwidth to also have my "Smell the roses" moments so I can get creative, and ingenuous inspirations which often come at random times, and often from random people.  That said it's still not a popular thing to talk about. As I have moved up the ladder, and especially work with many time zones I have accepted that I am inevitably forced to become a bit more available, especially at random times. My response to this is to resolve conflicts with life more often by not forcing all my errands and appointments to take over my lunch, evenings, and weekends. I feel like there's a fair balance between taking some incursion by work into my personal life, and responding by allowing myself things like haircuts, doctors appointments, and such to occasionally have me step away from work for a while. I also feel like 2 and preferably 3 weekends a month MUST be disconnected. This is JUST medium term maintenance though... You still need vacations.

I recently raid an article entitled "Cheryl Sandberg leaves work at 5:30. Why can't you?" And then follows with:
Facebook's COO comes out as a proud believer in leaving the office on time, and creating balance in your life.
I also wrote an article about exercise called "Exercise and the Body Mind Connection" which called out articles citing MASSIVE improvements in health AND intellectual performance. So just adding the balance of some cardio a few times a week can make you miss less days sick, focus and think better,  AND give you (admittedly subjective) feeling of improvement in BOTH your professional and personal lives! Which leads to another more recently published McKinsey articles titled: "A personal approach to organizational time management," and another article called "An organizational approach to time management."

These articles reveal how both organizations from CEO down need to focus on time management institutionally, as well as individuals themselves:
Imagine its impact on senior executives. The scope, complexity, and ambiguity of senior leaders’ roles not only create near-infinite permutations of priorities but also make it more difficult to get real-time performance or productivity feedback. Is it any wonder that only 52 percent of 1,500 executives McKinsey surveyed said that the way they spent their time largely matched their organizations’ strategic priorities? (For more on this research, see “Making time management the organization’s priority.”)
So it's already hard for an individual on their own. If a CEO is not able to instill this in themselves AND their employees, they and their employees will suffer:

Our research and experience suggest that leaders who are serious about addressing this challenge must stop thinking about time management as primarily an individual problem and start addressing it institutionally. Time management isn’t just a personal-productivity issue over which companies have no control; it has increasingly become an organizational issue whose root causes are deeply embedded in corporate structures and cultures.
 Luckily they also say that....
Fortunately, this also means that the problem can be tackled systematically. Senior teams can create time budgets and formal processes for allocating their time. Leaders can pay more attention to time when they address organizational-design matters such as spans of control, roles, and decision rights. Companies can ensure that individual leaders have the tools and incentives to manage their time effectively. And they can provide institutional support, including best-in-class administrative assistance—a frequent casualty of recent cost-cutting efforts.

There's a lot more amazing content in those articles with real suggestions on how to improve the problem. They are a great read.  It's taboo in America, but a lot of smart people are seeing the european view of quality over quantity, and diminishing returns. A literally great analogy is Soccer -vs- American Football. The NFL is literally the most stunning representation of American mentality that I mention in an earlier article I mentioned: "Bigger, Better, Faster, More." Alas that is just naive. At times like these I have to fall back to music, which is my first love. We all want to be in the hall of fame. We may have 300 pound lineman who can tackle you and run a 40yd that you can't believe, but life ain't a track meet, it's a marathon. Or maybe even an ironman these days :)

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