Friday, January 27, 2017

Why Work Doesn't Work

“The price of anything is the amount of life you pay for it.” –Henry David Thoreau
I spent most of my working life inside insurance companies, and as my job responsibilities increased, my workspaces improved dramatically. I started my career at a desk in a noisy bullpen with about fifty other people, and I ended it forty years later in a hushed and private executive office suite, but one thing was constant: I always had difficulty getting my work done while at work.

Noisy people, piped in music, ringing phones, scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings, offsite meetings, committee meetings, meeting invitations, scheduled and unscheduled visitors, emails, text messages, and seemingly endless requests from colleagues for input, collaboration or assistance interfered with my ability to focus and concentrate. So I came in early, and stayed late, I worked at home at night, or on the weekends, and on flights, in the quiet car on the train, and in hotel rooms, just so I could function without those interruptions and distractions. Many of my colleagues did the same thing. We were convinced that there weren’t enough hours in the work day to get our important work done, so we willingly exchanged “life” time for more “work” time.

Once I retired I realized that most of the work accomplished in those extra hours might have been urgent, but it wasn’t really that important. In retrospect, we probably would have been better off tackling the underlying problem, i.e., redesigning our workplace and reframing our work styles to make it possible for folks to actually get their work done while at work.

This all came back to me again recently when I listened to an HBR IdeaCast in which Basecamp CEO Jason Fried was interviewed by HBR’s Sarah Green-Carmichael. The topic: Restoring Sanity to the Office. You can read the full interview transcript and/or listen to the interview here. Some highlights of Fried’s observations:
  • You know, people go to work. And when you actually ask them when they get the work done it’s not typically during the day. It’s early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, on a plane, on a train, somewhere else. And that’s always bugged me. It just doesn’t seem right.
  • It seems like something that, for whatever reason, people put up with. But they really shouldn’t.
  • It’s very hard to do really good work when you’re constantly being interrupted every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes.
  • Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort.
  • The idea that we should just layer in more time because we’re inefficient with it and we waste it– I think, basically, if you really break down your day there is more opportunity to waste time than to use time in many companies.
Fried delivered a TED talk in 2010 (Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work) in which he identified the cause of the “work not happening at work” problem as M&Ms (Managers and Meetings.) Both interrupt work, and work interrupted can be every bit as damaging as sleep interrupted!

I work from home now and I control my own time and project schedule, so almost all my interruptions are voluntary and any distractions and time-wasting are of my own making. I work in a comfortable, quiet room, at my own pace, and I take breaks whenever I want to walk, or play with the neighborhood dogs, or fill the birdfeeders, or work on a watercolor portrait. I don’t have a manager interrupting me, and I only go to meetings I find interesting. I still keep a calendar, of course, but I have a different tool installed on my desktop that helps me think about how I am spending my time. It is called the countdown clock, and I installed it right after I heard Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of Wired magazine) describe it during a Tim Ferriss podcast a while back. Based upon my birthdate, actuarial tables and a few other factors, the clock estimates how much time I likely have left on this earth.

You don’t have to be retired to use the countdown clock—it is nothing but a gentle, sobering reminder that time flies, no matter how you spend it. Kelly said it helps him think about what’s important each day. It helps me do the same thing, but it also helps me remember that exchanging “life” time for “work” time during my career probably wasn’t quite as important and necessary as I believed it was at the time.

Intrigued? You can read more about the countdown clock at Kevin Kelly’s blog and hear him talking about it in a short 2007 NPR interview here.

Dean K. Harring, CPCU, is a retired executive who now enjoys his time as an advisor, board member, educator, and watercolor painter.  He can be reached at or through LinkedIn or Twitter or Harring Watercolors


  1. Well, I was quite enjoying this piece. Lots to recognise as familiar and all too true. Nothing totally surprising, perhaps what one might expect from an older, wiser perspective. Then I reached the countdown clock and exclaimed out loud,"WOW!" That is powerful.

  2. Been there and did all that. Started working from home in 1988. BUT, what is always important is planning and control

  3. Great post. I just listened to the podcast and it was outstanding. It should be required listening for all senior management. People in positions of authority just do not spend enough time really thinking about work process. Why are we doing this? Can it be simplified, etc.?