Last week Chatterino Alex Blow published a really interesting article around how easy it is to sabotage your work/life balance by being unproductive at work.
As a quick synopsis, the CIA published a pamphlet in the 1950s with guidance for their spies around how to be as unproductive as possible for the enemy without blowing their cover by actually looking like they're time-wasting. But what's really scary is just how much of these working practices have seeped into day to day work/life in the 21st Century. Have a read of the highlights...
Organizations and Conferences
- Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
- Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
- When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committee as large as possible — never less than five.
- Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
- Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
- Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
- Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable"and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
- In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers.
- Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw.
- To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions.
- Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
- Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
- Work slowly.
- Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.
- Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
- Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
You can read the full pamphlet here on the CIA's website, and when I read it, I was quite shocked by just how many of these unproductive ways of working have become standard in working culture. And although we've turned pretty much every other element of our working lives upside down during Covid-19, this mind-set of "being busy looking busy" is the one thing that hasn't gone away.
During lockdown, most of us have fallen victim to "zoom fatigue" and have inwardly crumpled at the sight of yet another day of back to back video calls. Deep down we know that we probably don't need to be in all of these meetings, but there's a comfort in economically challenged times to looking and feeling busy at work. And there's a strange etiquette with conference calls and video meeting where if you've been invited by your boss or a client, it feels rude to decline the invite, even if you know you don't have much to contribute and will just be there to listen in on your colleagues and maybe take a few notes. There are no travel costs to consider and everyone knows you're just sat at home in front of your laptop, so unless you've got another meeting booked at the same time, how do you say no? And as a result we feel overwhelmed by the fact that we're cramming our actual work into a very tiny proportion of the working week and moan to each other that there just aren't enough hours in the day.
So how do we knock this unproductivity on the head for good? We're reviewing pretty much everything about our ways of working as we emerge from lockdown, so let's make sure we give the virtual time wasting as much attention as the physical time wasting (like commuting during rush hour or heading into the office just to write a document on your laptop which could be more easily done from home), that we've all agreed would be foolish to return to.
Let's focus on how to improve real communication, and not just use technology as a shortcut to "loop everyone in", and make sure that you're only spending time in meetings (physical or virtual) that you actually need to. Or that everyone is clear on roles and responsibilities on a project so no one is doubling up with a colleague. And that tasks are assigned to the person best equipped to complete them, not the person who might get offended if they weren't kept in the loop.
Covid-19, for all it's horrors and stresses, has given us a chance to bring real and permanent change to working life. To be more productive without compromising our home lives. To look at how we use our places and spaces, and our time, as usefully and efficiently as possible. So let's not ourselves slip back into old habits because it's the easy thing to do. Because our employers are not an enemy that we've infiltrated and are trying to bring down; we're on the same side, re-building our economy, and hopefully making working life better for everyone in the New Normal.