That sense of being on the clock, and how to escape the ticking

IMG_0165When I give workshops, I like to have a few participants keep track of their time for a week beforehand. I find these time logs give me a good sense of what people in the audience care about. We talk about challenges and strategies, and people can learn from each other.

Some issues are unique to industries, but some keep popping up again and again. One I saw a lot in my workshops last fall was what happens when you feel constantly on the clock.

Usually this manifests itself as someone who has a hard stop on his/her day. Daycare is a long drive from the office, and daycare closes at (insert time here). In order to make pick-up, our time-logger must leave at a time that is earlier than other folks in the office. Sometimes this is just fine. Sometimes, though, the time-logger is sensitive about it, or senses that others are, so she/he figures out other ways to show adequate work hours, such as working through lunch, and foregoing most socializing with colleagues. Sometimes the time-logger touts this as a smart time management strategy, since there are limited distractions.

I appreciate the sense of focus. I also think that people who put no stops on their days, ever, wind up being extraordinarily inefficient. I have written before of an internship I once did where the company would buy you dinner if you worked past 8 p.m. If I had nothing else going on that night, it was always possible to find work that could be done, at least until the spicy tuna rolls arrived. As I am recalling this now, I am also remembering that there was not a set time people had to arrive in the morning. Someone who came in at 7 and worked until 5:30 would have worked exactly as many hours as someone who came in at 9:30 and worked until 8 but…no sushi for you! In many offices, the late nights are rewarded, for no real reason other than that the late nights show you are choosing the office over personal relationships. Burn the sacrifice upon the altar. That sort of thing.

And yet…in many lines of work the whole point of coming into an office is to work closely with other people. Otherwise, why not hire a bunch of independent contractors working solo in far-flung locales? Other people may be distracting, but they are not in and of themselves distractions, taking you away from the real work. A lunch with colleagues is not necessarily wasting time. People work better with people they know and like. Getting to know and like people is partly about spending relaxed time together. Eating sushi together nightly is overkill. But not lunch together twice a week.

I work for myself in a home office, and yet the longer I am in this business the more I see the importance of close colleagues who have gotten to know you over the years. As WNYC host Manoush Zomorodi put it to me in a recent interview, with creative jobs, she is always cognizant of “how much of it is just hanging out a lot,” she says. “You cannot just do your work and go home.” It is about generating ideas with her team and hashing them out. “My ideas are never going to be as good as when all 3 of us chip away at it.” Part of being effective at work is leveraging others toward the same goal.

The solution Zomorodi came up with (in order to still see her two young kids) was to bifurcate her weeks. She works two very long days Monday and Tuesday, and arranges her childcare to allow for that. These long days mean she has lots of open-ended time at work when she is not on the clock. “I am tired by the end of those two long days — there is a lot of sharing going on,” she says. Then she does a quiet writing day (in a writing space) on Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays are much shorter days, to allow for more personal time — possibly more personal time than if she were racing home daily just to put children to bed.

Not everyone has as much control over his or her time, to be sure. That said, even if a quit time is absolutely set, I would challenge the notion of what “work” is. I think people are generally better off saying yes to the lunch invitation and spending less time on email. Possibly the relaxed chat at lunch will solve a problem that would have taken days of email chains to hash out otherwise. Email can always be done at night as part of a split shift.

Business is never just business. Robots could be effective hunkered down at their desks, but for people, looking up and reaching out might be the most efficient thing we do.

In other news: Zomorodi is doing a week of challenges called “Infomagical” right now. Marie Kondo is involved, possibly on Wednesday. First up is no-multi-tasking Monday. Want to give it a whirl?

In other other news: I am looking to interview some people who believe that having children has helped their careers. Maybe it is in a straightforward way (you started a business solving a problem you saw as a parent) or more indirect (you became a better physician while dealing with your own kids and their health woes). In any case, if that is you, I would love to talk with you for a Fast Company piece. As always, you can email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

11 thoughts on “That sense of being on the clock, and how to escape the ticking

  1. I don’t think you can ever discount how helpful collaboration is, intended or unintended. So often just chatting about what I was working on in the hallways garnered me the best advice, often from someone just passing by.

    (And sushi after 8 PM – yes please! You must have been interning at a big firm.)

    1. @Jessica – collaboration can be great. So can quiet focused work. What’s always bugged me about the whole work from home vs. work in the office debate is that this shouldn’t be a debate. Many people would benefit from doing both! The best schedules would allow for both. (And yes, late night sushi- yum!)

  2. I have always noticed that late nights are rewarded far more than early mornings. I’m not sure exactly why that is…

    1. @beth – I’m not exactly sure either, but I do often tell people who work in that kind of culture to use it to their advantage. Especially if you have young kids it’s fine to spend some morning time with them, and come in later. If you have kids who start middle school at 8 a.m., that’s a different matter…

      1. LOL. Where I live elementary school starts at 7:35 ans the bus comes at 7:10. Middle school and high school start later. I do still manage breakfast with my kids every morning though so we get quality time in the morning (even though it is short). Aftercare ends at 5:30 so late nights aren’t in the cards until the kids are older. All that being said, mornings may not give me extra face time but the do give me quiet time to get a lot of work done. There are always tradeoffs and things to like about each schedule.

        1. @beth – that is a much smarter schedule, given teenage sleep patterns. We haven’t adopted it here yet in this district. I imagine over the next decade or two a lot of places will switch.

  3. I started time tracking last week (inspired by your work, my fellow Laura), and I find that I can’t help but judge my time log. I’m a work-at-home freelancer with lots of flexibility (and no hard stops, ever), so that exacerbates things.

    That said, tracking my time is showing me why I don’t get to my top priorities most days. Now I just have to, you know, change my life 😉

    Thanks for your work!

    1. @Laura – thank you for reading it! Yes, step 2: change your life. So simple, right? 🙂

      Back in my no-hard-stop WFH no-kid days I joined 3 choirs to give me an excuse to get out of the house at night and see other people. I had to get to the subway by about 6:30 p.m. 3 nights a week, so that was my hard stop. It was focusing.

  4. I work 7-4, in theory. In practice I am late a lot since no one is around to notice or care (also: pregnant.) If they offered free breakfast to anyone in the office before 7:00, you better believe I’d be there at 6:45 most days!

  5. Hmm, interesting! Of the 5 drs I work with, I am the only Hard-Stopper. I am also (in my opinion) the most efficient (by a lot). I do notice I somehow get more done when I know I’m under the gun. Then again, my work isn’t all that creative (sadly!).

    I’m so jealous you got to talk to Manoush Zomorodi! That’s my favorite podcast. I want to go on it after my 30 day challenge is over. Must propose to WNYC . . .

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