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Time to do the work: Ten principles for achieving sanity in the workplace

Juggling balls by Marlon Bunday via Flickr [1]

“Once you’ve seen a pattern, you can’t un-see it,” says Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection [2].

One pattern I see time and again is how loading people up with multiple simultaneous projects can dramatically reduce the quality of their work. Most managers and companies don’t understand this, or don’t want to understand it, because they are measured on throughput and not quality.

Organizations producing knowledge work as their primary output — consulting firms, the media, software companies, financial services, etc. — aim to hire employees who have managerial abilities. They should be able to multitask, attend to several projects at the same time and manage their own time conflicts.

But while the activities of managers are designed to fit into that pattern, those of us who work with the subject matter of our organizations (i.e. the ‘work product’) actually require uncontested time to perform the work.

Everybody understands that a factory worker needs time to perform his task. Distractions would slow down the line and reduce the plant’s throughput. Industrial capitalism has spent the last 200 years designing increasingly better methods to ensure that distractions and other adverse factors are minimized in production lines. Shifts are relatively short to ensure that workers don’t get over tired; tasks are just simple enough to perform easily but not too boring to ensure workers don’t nod off or quit in frustration.

In organizations staffed with mostly knowledge workers, the contrast between management and ‘those who do the work’ is much harder to see. And the fact that most knowledge workers are conversant with modern office culture and have the ability to be self-managing creates the illusion that everyone in the organization should be treated equally.

In a managerial role — where my responsibilities are primarily internal — I can choose to sacrifice quality in certain tasks in order to increase my throughout (or create the impression that I have increased it). But when I am tasked with actually delivering the ‘product’ (a report, a software program, etc.), I cannot do this. To do the work properly is to spend the time doing it.

Nobody gains anything from loading up knowledge workers beyond their capacity to perform the work. Both firm and employee stand to lose their reputations at every turn when work is performed poorly. Customers are likely to get bad advice that’s not tailored to their specific situation because the consultant has just recycled something he’s previously created for someone else. The work of downstream consumers of the product (software developers, for example, who receive a requirements document written by a time-pressure business analyst) becomes affected, too. And so the problem is compounded all the way down the line.

Smart knowledge workers should follow a number of basic principles to protect themselves against this pattern, whether sanctioned to do so by their employer or not.

I’ve learned these (usually the hard way) in the course of my ~15 year journey through the ‘knowledge economy.’

Of course, not every one of these strategies applies to every situation. You will have to come up with your own blend to make it work in your individual context. And it does take a certain amount of courage and groundedness in oneself to politely but firmly assert one’s limits, especially when the request for more of your time is coupled with a statement of need or tied to a promise of a bonus, a salary increase or lieu time off work.

But if you apply these principles consistently and intelligently, I’m willing to guarantee that you’ll see improvements in your overall workplace sanity — and the quality of your work will increase because for once you’ll have enough time to do it.