ON LAUNDRY MACHINES, E-MAILS, AND HOW WE GOT USED TO ACHIEVE MORE WITH LESS EFFORT.
The weekend is here. Isn’t it a great feeling when you know that you did everything you needed to do this week? Inbox zero, To-Do list completely checked off, no unreturned calls or messages?
I assume it’s a wonderful feeling
...but I don’t really know. It never happened to me. I would bet that it never happened to you as well. If it did, reach out and tell me how you did it.
There are many reasons why we feel we are always in full capacity mode:
Most of us work on several projects at the same time, or on a complex project with several layers, and we are expected to show progress in all of them.
We are expected to work at a higher pace than in the past, and we are supposed to reach several milestones in a relatively short amount of time.
We use more asynchronous communication methods (e-mails, messages, slack, etc), which lead to a much bigger volume of messages.
We get paid to reach outcomes (complete projects successfully, reach a set goal in sales, etc), not to work a specific amount of hours. Our daily or weekly working hours are not necessarily enough to reach those outcomes.
In other words: we are expected to do more, faster and better.
About a century ago, electrical appliances entered the household. Making the laundry, which used to take about 4 hours for an average load if done manually, took now about an hour with an electric washing machine. Each new appliance would reduce the overall time invested in housework.
Far from being egalitarian families, managing the home was considered to be under the responsibilty of the woman. By introducing the new electric tools, the idea was that women could invest less time in housework, and that they could then enter the workforce. This was also the messaging in the advertisements for electrical appliances (you can google them; it didn’t make the advertisements less chauvinistic, quite the opposite).
It didn’t work. It only raised the expectations of the families to have clean clothes more often. More women did enter the workforce - which led them to what is today called the “double burden”: they were now expected to both have a job and keep up with the house's needs.
Something similar happened when the e-mail entered our lives. We expected communication to become faster (and it definitely did, even compared to today’s postal services), but it lead to a ridiculous amount of e-mails received on a daily basis. Our mailbox keeps us much busier than when we had to deal only with simple letters, which we would receive only once a day, and not on weekends.
THE MORE EFFICIENT WE BECOME, THE MORE PROGRESS WE MAKE AS A SOCIETY, THE HEAVIER OUR WORKLOAD GETS. WE ARE NOT SATISFIED WITH REACHING THE SAME OUTCOME WITH LESS EFFORT; WE WILL SEARCH HOW TO RE-INVEST THE ENERGIES WE SAVED IN ORDER TO ACHIEVE MORE.
What can we do about it?
1. First of all, let go. We cannot finish the week with unchecked to-dos. The goal is to get rid of the important and urgent tasks, and to try and complete as much as possible of the other stuff.
2. Work/life balance is a myth, as I already wrote in the past. Since you can make peace with the very low chances to complete all your tasks, you can also decide arbitrarily what are your boundaries. When I got married, I decided that I would get home every day by 6.30pm. Did it work? No. DId I do my best to respect that boundary? Absolutely. Good enough.
3. If you are a manager, you should communicate with your team what your expectations are. They cannot be “everything should be done asap”. You should clarify when you expect every single item to get done, and how fast you would like to see the project move forward. You can also encourage your team to communicate their own boundaries (see previous point) and when they feel that the timeline you set is not working, so that you can help them find more efficient ways to make progress without adopting an unhealthy lifestyle.
It would also be great if we could learn as a society to set more realistic goals for ourselves, our businesses and our teams. In the past year many researchers, superstar CEOs and politicians around the world gave a voice to ideas related to a shorter workweek, to a freelance-based economy (which would then depend on the jobs that each professional would agree to take upon themselves), and more initivaties of this nature.
Yet, most markets are based on competition, which encourages firms to work faster and better; the public sector relies on heavy bureaucratic systems and a limited workforce, which increase the workload per person signficantly.
If the market and our societies cannot realistically change, our only chance to have a healthier professional experience is to find our own shortcuts - and to respect our own boundaries.