In 1899, economist and sociologist, Thorstein Veblen wrote:
“Conspicuous abstention from labor…becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.”
In other words, the less you work, the wealthier you must be. It makes sense. The poor can’t afford the luxury of leisure time; they need to work to make money.
Back then, leisure time was a symbol of status. Those who worked less could rightfully be assumed to be richer.
But today, the opposite is true; on average, wealthy Americans work longer hours than those who aren’t.
Responding to “how are you?” with “yeah, good, really busy at work,” has become standard practice. Appearing busy is the new status symbol of our time.
Professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, Silvia Bellezza, explains this shift is “driven by the perception that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand on the job market.”
Bragging about how busy you are indirectly signals how much the labor market values your skills. It implies you and your work are important.
It’s not about the money itself anymore. Apple CEO, Tim Cook, told Time he begins his day at 3:45 am. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said she used to work 130-hour workweeks, and General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt said he has worked 100-hour workweeks for 24 years.
The obvious question is: why, when these individuals could retire tomorrow and enjoy a life of luxury?
Well, because by being busy, they justify the magnitude of their wealth. It’s all about perception. Of course, they’re that rich, we think, they’re superhumans.
In turn, this perception leads to the popular belief that if we want to appear successful, we need to be busy.
What a shot in the foot
The problem is, being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Working long hours actually decreases productivity and engagement.
In today’s world, creativity and innovation are big components of any company’s competitive advantage. And to nurture these, you, and your teams need downtime.
Not only because rest and sleep are vital components of a well-functioning brain, but because it’s when people feel relaxed that they come up with new ideas.
In 2016, productivity expert Scott Barry Kaufman observed that 72% of people get creative ideas in the shower, because it’s a time during which they’re not being interrupted by distractions.
“The relaxing, solitary, and non-judgmental shower environment may afford creative thinking by allowing the mind to wander freely and causing people to be more open to their inner stream of consciousness and daydreams.”
Once a year, I go back to my hometown and pick olives with my family. I feel fresh, re-energized, and my mind is buzzing with new ideas.
I also make a point of taking weekends off completely; no e-mails, no calls, no small tasks that “will just take a second.” And I encourage my teams to do the same.
But I admit it’s easier said than done. Your instinct might be telling you to respond to the work-related e-mail you receive on Saturday morning, or to quickly finish the task you didn’t complete on Friday afternoon.
Over the years, I’ve observed two major reasons why these workplace distractions make it so difficult to completely disconnect.
1. We underestimate how long tasks will take to complete
One reason why we appear so busy, is because we are. Humans are terrible at estimating how much time it takes to accomplish things. It’s called the planning fallacy.
Despite knowing that previous tasks have generally taken longer then planned, we continue to underestimate how long it will take to complete future tasks.
We’ve all done it; we start the day with 20 things on our to-do lists and feel like complete failures when we only manage to complete six.
To make things worse, the 14 tasks we didn’t complete get added to the following day’s equally ambitious to-do list, and the cycle continues.
We struggle to catch up because we underestimate how long each task will take, and we fail to factor in the distractions that get in the way: the e-mails, the meeting, the calls.
The average worker receives 121 emails a day. And these distractions don’t escape me, as a founder and CEO.
As a leader, your actions set expectations. If people see you’re sending e-mails and are active on the company’s Slack all day, they’ll feel the pressure to do the same. They’ll assume that’s what’s expected of them.
So, I make it a point to lead by example. I write a short list of focus areas for the year and make everything else a secondary priority. If a project or opportunity doesn’t fit within one of these areas, it’s a no from me.
I also wait until the end of the day to check my e-mails and follow a principle called Inbox Zero. My teams know I won’t respond to their messages immediately, but they will receive a full response within one business day.
Knowing I’m serious about protecting my prime time, my teams are encouraged to do the same.
I advise them to disable email notifications whilst they’re working, to abstain from using Slack unless something is urgent, and to avoid calling unnecessary meetings, for example.
2. We overestimate how long others work
Knowing others are busy puts pressure on people to appear busy too.
My friend once told me how one of his guests at a dinner party rushed home when he saw a work e-mail come through on his phone.
“Is it urgent, do they need you?” He asked.
“No, but I want to appear to be online just in case.”
The sender of the e-mail could have been at home, watching TV, and sent a quick e-mail to share a thought that popped into his head.
Yet the recipient assumed they must have been working all evening, and that he, consequently, would be deemed “less committed” to the company if he wasn’t.
This here is an example of norm misperception. We overestimate how much other people are doing and so we automatically think we need to do the same to keep up.
The idea of the ideal worker becomes someone who gets to work early, eats lunch at their desk, stays late and e-mails on weekends. A profile that’s not conducive to productivity and drags others down the same path.
But there’s something that can help you put an end to these downward spirals at your company: transparency.
Use transparency to eradicate “busy” work culture
Transparency at work is about communicating openly and honestly with your teams and creating both the culture and systems that allow information to flow freely between people and teams.
Both issues above relate to people’s inability to see reality for what it is. People simply need more information. And a transparent work culture grants this.
People’s working time is no longer seen as cost-free
If employees have access to each other’s calendars, people’s time is no longer seen as cost free. The average worker spends 35–50% of their time in meetings, and 67% of these aren’t even constructive.
If people have access to each other’s calendars, for example, they can make better decisions as to whether the task their peer is working on is more or less urgent than the meeting.
This new information attaches a cost to the act of convening them to the meeting.
Plus, workers can get a better sense of different team member’s level of involvement in each project.
If this meeting relates to a project that constitutes 10% of their peer’s workload, do they really need to attend? Perhaps they can be briefed on the progress made, relating to the specific part of the project they’re involved in.
New access to information empowers teams to make better decisions that reduce distractions in the workplace for everyone.
Positive Peer Pressure
Company policies and systems help, but no single individual or process is enough to change a company’s culture.
Culture is largely built informally, through peer interactions. And it’s these interactions that gradually shape change within the company through positive peer pressure.
In the same way that seeming busy puts pressure on others to appear busy, appearing to make time for downtime encourages others to do the same. Like a chain reaction, it takes one person to show how its done, for others to follow.
As CEO, that person at Jotform, was me. Sunday is family day. I spend time with my wife and kids, usually doing something active. Once the kids are in bed and I’m relaxing on the couch, I tend to notice ideas pop into my head.
A day of downtime and letting my mind wander prompts my creative thinking. But instead of shooting off an e-mail to share my idea with my teams, I write it down, or I write it in a draft e-mail to be sent in the morning.
I make a point of not disturbing employees during out-of-work hours, and I share these practices with them openly. I tell them about my weekend, my vacations, and this openness about leisure time lets them know there’s more to them than work. They’re encouraged to respect their downtime and that of their peers, just as I do.
There are countless productivity and time management articles out there. Suggestions from top performing superhumans and gurus that involve completing 10 different activities before 8:00 am.
I encourage employees to ask their colleagues how they’re managing their workload.
Everyone works differently and every worker has their own circadian rhythm that dictates when and how they work best. But knowing how their peers manage a similar workload to them can be helpful.
They can choose to take or leave the suggestions. But in contrast to Mark Wahlberg’s questionable schedule, sharing time management ideas with peers who have similar workflows to them is a realistic way for teams to optimize their productivity.
Things always seem more important in the moment, than they actually are. An e-mail received at 2:00 am doesn’t come bearing news of the end of the world.
Above all, it’s important to keep perspective. Our capacity is limited to a certain amount of work. And this could change daily, depending on our energy levels; even hourly, depending on our circadian rhythms.
The race to be “busiest” is just an added distraction to an already cluttered environment.
Transparency in the workplace can empower employees with access to the information they need to sort through the mess, be selective with their endeavors, and optimize their productivity.