The Mythical 40 Hour Workweek

Communication is crippling Corporate America.  I know what you’re thinking, “That statement is preposterous.  Communication is the bedrock of productivity today”, but if you bear with me I’ll explain my thinking on the subject.  Communication may be the bedrock of business systems today, but it has also become an albatross around our necks and is draining us of our productivity.  As organizations have flattened over the last two decades and command and control hierarchies have been replaced with matrix style organizations, communication between an ever increasing number of interested parties has sapped nearly all productivity from today’s corporations.  Our goals aren’t related to corporate strategy anymore.  We simply try to keep up with the ever increasing amount of email, meetings, and IMs that come our way all day, and if there’s any time left over for real work…. we’ll figure out someway to distract ourselves from getting it done.

Nearly 35 years ago Fred Brooks wrote his seminal book Mythical Man Month detailing his experiences managing a large team of developers.  He observed that adding resources to a project could actually impede progress due to communication overhead between increasing numbers of project members.  Everyone needed to keep apprised of what everyone elese was doing.  This communication overhead actually slowed progress.

Brooks looked specifically at software development projects, but I believe his conclusion holds true across all projects.  With the proliferation of matrix style organizations and the lack of strategically focused planning, we’ve created a corporate culture that reacts to every crisis by sending lots of email and having lots of meetings in the hope that something positive must happen due to all this communication.  The secret is, it won’t.  Lots of communication only exacerbates the problem.  What we need to do is remember that communication does not solve business problems; strategic planning and productive action solves problems.

The Quest for the Empty INBOX

This is the time of year we think about our jobs and how our actions map to our company’s goals.  It’s objection setting time.  Year after year we define meaningful, seemingly attainable goals only to see them gradually slip away during the course of the year due primarily to one thing, too much unfocused and unproductive communication.  As crazy as that sounds, how many times have you went to work full of enthusiasm for finally knocking out that project only to find that your schedule has been hijacked and now includes 2 or 3 new meetings?  On top of that, your boss has suddenly found his “next hot thing” and sent you a dozen emails that leave you scratching your head as to (a) how they all relate to one another and (b) fit into the corporate strategy.  Adding insult to injury he also wants an action plan on how to handle those twelve seemingly unrelated emails… by EOD.  As you may have guessed, that project you wanted to finish never finds its way onto your desk and the worst part of it all is that finishing that project IS actually ON YOUR GOAL SHEET.  Go figure?

Reacting seems to be the only goal we need to define on our objective sheet for the year.  Forget getting any real work done. All that seems to matter anymore is getting through our email and meetings and making sure that everyone on the email chain knows we’re “on top of that”.  Maybe we should create an automatic outgoing email that simply replies to every message with “I’m on it”.  We’d be the company hero.  Does it really matter if we get anything done as long as people think we’re working on it?

Herein lies the problem.  Not only has excessive email communication become the norm in business, it’s also how we are defining success in our workdays.  In times gone by we defined our success by how we contributed towards the company’s objectives and whether or not we influenced the bottomline.  Today we define success by whether or not we’ve processed all our incoming email and at least looked like we handled all the day’s “hot” issues.  How many times have you gotten nothing productive done during the day, but felt successful just because your INBOX was empty?  We’ve become a slave to our communications systems and reacting to them rather than intelligently planning and using email and IM as tools for thoughtful articulation of messages.

So is there any hope for reestablishing our productivity and becoming an agent of change rather than an instrument of reactionary behavior?  Here’s my list of things to do to obtain the Mythical 40 Hour Workweek.

Cleanup Your INBOX

In Multitasking is a Lie I discussed the problem of context switching between tasks and how it effects your overall performance.  Because the use of email is so prevalent in our society, my guess is you have lots of extraneous emails sitting in your INBOX; email from your relatives, mailing lists, newsletters, etc.  You should eliminate as many non-essential emails as you can and move them to a personal email address.   Less mail in your INBOX means less temptation to check it everytime you see your notification bar indicating “You’ve Got Mail”.  Less email checking means more focus and more focus means more real work.

This is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.  Everyone seems to hit “Reply All” and/or adds lots of people to the CC list because they think someone might be interested.  Well guess what… WE’RE NOT!  I have enough email that’s directly related to me, I don’t need email that MAY interest me.  If you think it’s important or relevant to me… send it TO: ME.  Many people I know have already resorted to filtering all CC’d email and placing them directly into archive folders.  Maybe you should too.

Train Yourself to Get Things Done

In the book Getting Things Done by David Allen he defined a system for personal productivity that teaches people to evaluate incoming messages, make a decision and act.  It’s a great system, but may not be necessary if we just focus on a few simple steps to get back our lost productivity.

First, review your yearly objectives and establish whether they still make sense.  If you aren’t sure, schedule time with your manager so that you understand from a high level what you should be working on.  This is also a good way to review the company’s objectives and understand how your job makes “a difference”.

Secondly, create simple goals for each day that help you reach your objectives, and schedule time in your calendar to ensure you can work on those goals.  If you don’t, your schedule will undoubtedly be “hijacked” by someone else’s agenda.

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”
  –Paul J. Meyers

Thirdly, learn to focus again.  We’ve gotten so used to being interrupted throughout the course of the day that we’ve forgotten how to focus on the task at hand.  During your scheduled time to work on your daily goals, don’t check email, in fact turn it off, and don’t answer the phone.  These are the distractions that drain your productivity.  Focus on your work and only your work.  I’ve even heard of people who have taken to working on non-networked PCs just to minimize the chance they will be distracted by (a) email or IM or (b) distract themselves by surfing the web.  I haven’t gone this far yet, but if you find it difficult to stay on task, maybe pulling the networking cable is not such a bad idea.

Learn to Say “NO”

This one may be the hardest to actually do because noone likes to say “no”.  Probably somewhere deep in our subconscious we believe that saying “no” shows weakness.  If we say “no” our boss will think we can’t manage the load.  The contrary is probably closer to the truth.  By carefully analyzing your incoming work against your defined objectives you’ll prove to be a valuable asset in accomplishing the “important” work that implements your company’s strategy.  However, I’m not suggesting you say “no” to all incoming requests – just be careful in your analysis of what you’re being asked to do.  Is it important to the company’s objectives?  Are you the right person to accomplish the task?  Are there other time critical tasks you need to perform in order to meet your objectives?