What is work?

9599241503_9a9d4fa6f9_zBlog reader Rachael (see her website here) raised an interesting question on my last post: What is work? When you’re keeping a time log and tallying your hours, what should count as work?

It’s a more complicated question than it seems at first. For instance, how do you count breaks? Everyone takes them, every day. If someone runs next door to Starbucks to get coffee, she might not count this as “work.” But if she took a break from her inbox by reading headlines on her computer, she probably would count this as work, because it wasn’t necessarily a consciously chosen break. She may not even realize she’s doing it. In the grand scheme of things, though, the coffee break (which gets you up and moving) is probably more productive.

Some people call themselves “working” from the time they show up at the office to the time they leave. But what if you work from home? A break might feature chopping veggies for dinner or throwing a load of laundry in. These both fit in the category of housework, though you’re still “at work” in a different definition. If your work phone rang, you’d leave the laundry and go answer it.

I’ve had a few people who claim to be very overworked try to tell me their work hours by subtracting the number of hours they sleep from 168. While I think this is silly (maybe you dream about work, so why not count sleep time, too?) I think their point is that they’re thinking about work a lot. If work consumes a lot of mental space, then they feel like they’re working even while watching a movie.

There are other gray areas, too. I tend not to count time spent traveling to work-related activities as work, but if I remember correctly, the ATUS counts this as work. Some people might not count the commute but would count a mid-day trip to a client’s office as work. If I’m on a train or plane and reading a book I’m reviewing, or I’m writing something for work, I count this as work. But if I’m reading a magazine or newspaper I generally don’t count that as work, even though I get a lot of ideas that way. If I’m driving — and can’t read or write — I usually don’t count that. Even if I’m driving to a work-related event, listening to the 90s on 9 station on XM radio just doesn’t seem like working to me.

I also struggle to figure out how to count networking or work-related social events. While recording my time a few weeks ago, I counted one reception as work because I spent most of the time talking with people who were talking about projects I might do. I did not count a dinner on another night, even though it was after a work event, because I felt in social mode. I wasn’t doing anything further with those people. I was just having drinks and dinner.

Rachael was also asking about a specific category of “work.” I do things — blog, write fiction — that I’m not immediately earning money for, and that other people with different jobs would count as hobbies. But since I am a writer, I consider these things work. They’re advancing me toward my professional goals. I do intend to make money off them, at least indirectly (you might buy my books or hire me as a speaker because you read my blog). Just because you’re not immediately paid for something doesn’t mean it isn’t work. People write proposals for projects all the time that don’t come through. Just because no revenue was booked doesn’t mean it isn’t work. Also, you don’t have to not like something for it to count as work. That may be the 4-hour workweek definition of work, but it isn’t mine.

What all this is to say is that the definition of work is complicated. I’m trying to figure out a workable definition for tallying work hours as part of the Mosaic project. In general, I’m asking people to designate their work hours. I figure if the person herself calls it work, she knows best. Over a big enough sample, the variances should come out in the wash. Also, we’re not talking huge variances, either. Workweek inflation comes more from competitiveness and cluelessness than from actual questions about whether a Starbucks run counts as work or not. That doesn’t turn a 50-hour workweek into an 80-hour work week. It’s more a question of whether you worked 46 hours or 47 hours.

How do you define work?

Is daydreaming work? Photo courtesy flickr user Christopher.Michel

13 thoughts on “What is work?

  1. Timely post, Laura, I was just thinking about this very thing (actually I’ve been thinking about it off and on for several months now and I’m halfway through my second post about it)—there is the work that is part of my job description and that ultimately “counts” towards my professional success (bonus, promotion). This includes my active research (planning/doing experiments, grant writing, paper writing and the associated paperwork) and actual face to face billable patient care. Then there are about a million other things that seem to eat into my work time—following up on orders, phone calls and phone tag with patients, documenting even the shortest patient phone call/email encounter into the EMR, opening/shredding/recycling or filing work-related mail, walking to the other office to fax things, emailing/calling to make sure faxes were received, copying receipts and filling out complex forms for travel reimbursement, umpteen emails/doodle polls/etc… to schedule meetings, the time it takes to WALK to meetings and back in our enormous campus, waiting for meetings to start, and so on. (of course I could use an admin assistant, but not going to happen…)
    I felt my time tracking was a bit disingenuous, because I had huge blocks of time on various projects—but that time was interrupted by too-short-to-keep-track-of interruptions, like someone walking in to ask a question, the phone ringing, answering a text or page…and each time I was interrupted, it started this loop of “check email, respond to email, check EMR for patient messages/results, respond to these…” and then I had to get my head back into the project. Its starting to make me really irritated and anxious, yet I can’t figure out a great solution.
    In so many ways, I can imagine that working at home, in a self-employed situation where the time you spend more linearly relates to $ earned, could make one way more productive and motivated.

    1. @Ana – what you’re describing, of the loop it takes to get you back into the flow, happens a lot. I see this on logs, people get up to do something, or take a phone call, and then you cycle through email plus whatever (for you it’s patient stuff, others might be stock quotes or headlines or…etc.) I don’t know if it’s psychologically necessary (we warm up before working). If so, the only way around it is to not get interrupted! If not, then maybe it’s possible to compress it or skip it.

  2. Interesting question.

    While I see how its definition would be important to someone who studies time and work, as you do….I resist the impulse to answer. The very question seems to be about accountability, whether via billable hours or one’s employer, more than it does productivity. The university I work for right now rewards us based on output (publication) rather than input (hours) but I see that beginning to change…

    1. @gwinne – I’m all for definitions of output. If someone can earn a good living in, say, 4 hours per week, more power to her. I would imagine for most of us, though, what you get done rises with work hours until you hit a point of diminishing returns. At some point, you probably hit negative returns, and more work hours hurt, rather than help. So while 2 people might be getting vastly different amounts done in, say, 10 hours a week, I’d bet most people would get more done than they would at 10 hours if they worked 15 hours.

  3. The ATUS breaks it up with and without travel time– the BLS definition is different from the ATUS definition in that respect. (I just downloaded the ATUS for my students to use for their final exam.

  4. This is a really interesting and relevant discussion. Part of why it is such a complicated equation is that at the same time most people do define work as unpleasant, yet there is a pressure to find a career that we enjoy. So when work is indeed fun, we get confused. What if a networking dinner turns into comedy hour full of drinks and socializing, for example? For me, a fellow writer, some assignments are pure hell, while blogging or essay writing can be the best time I have all day.

    I’d like to apply this paradigm to parenting: what parts of parenting do we qualify as “work.” Just time times when we’re wiping noses, cooking meals and nagging about chores? What about the sweet or fun moments and hours? What if we happen to find joy in the nose wiping and cooking (but not the chore nagging, for the record)?

  5. Great question!!! I have two areas that I define as work: 1 – My day job, which includes the 8 to 5 that I work and the commute since I commute each direction to work and can’t exchange that time for anything else.

    I also define work as everything that I do that moves me forward to creating a small business. Although, I’m not making money right now, the time I spend working towards that end I label as work.

    Great food for thought for a Monday!

    1. @Jennifer – thanks! Yes, I’d count work invested in building a business as work. You certainly hope there will be monetary rewards eventually!

  6. Your blog came to mind last week as I was partly “killing time” (billable hours) at work due to a down tool- I couldn’t do my planned work and other projects are out of my court for a few days. But if I get paid for it and have to hire a sitter and be present, it’s work. 🙂

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I’m tracking my time closely this week (and plan to do so next week, too), and I’m realizing that I need to reframe how I think of my work. I have limited hours in which to do my work, and I want to maximize those hours in terms of my earnings. But I also want to keep writing poetry, keep up my blog, and develop some new revenue streams, AND I need to be more realistic about the time I need to do non-revenue-earning-but-essential tasks such as invoicing, emailing clients about my availability, and so on. No insights yet, except the insight that I need to re-think my thinking on what’s work. We’ll see what the time logs reveal!

  8. Very nice post. Personally I use the Toggl app and track my time whenever I am sitting in front of the computer. That includes time spent working, reading books, reading random blogs, emailing, even reading Twitter for example. At the end of the week I try to make sure that the actual work and book reading have a much greater chunk than than ‘administrivia’. I usually aim for 30-35 hours recorded/ clocked as ‘work’ – which basically means a lot more time is actually spent at work.

    For someone who has to figure out how many hours are billable, this is a much harder problem than someone who is salaried. For me I consider work to be whenever I am focused on a problem writing code to solve that problem, meeting with my team to discuss a work item, or reading literature to get to the bottom of a problem. I usually add work email to this chunk of time too, but try to spend as little time as possible on email.

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