Blog 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