Fixing a Broken Work Model
Try as I might, I still spend too much time in front of the computer. I’m an Internet junkie. Even though most of what filters in each day is unimportant, it’s hard to resist “handling” it. E-mail is like fishing: you just might get a bite—or even catch a whopper.
Though 95% of what confronts us online is unnecessary, unimportant, irrelevant, or at most, entertaining, it somehow feels like work. So we “do” it.
Here’s the problem: Most of it’s not real work. It’s busywork, or make-work, or distracted play. It’s dependence on false urgency. How many professions really require one to sit in front of a computer all day long? Could any work posture be less creative, less inspiring, or more isolating?
Realizing something was fundamentally wrong, last month I decided to travel for eight days straight without once checking e-mail or doing any other computing. The experience convinced me that my premise of sitting down in front of a computer every morning with the intention of doing productive work is irretrievably broken. And if it’s broken for me, there’s a good chance it’s broken for millions of other so-called white collar workers.
The moment of clarity came on an Easter Sunday morning as I descended to the lobby of the Marriott Fairfield in Ann Arbor, Michigan. From a huge wall-mounted flat screen television, a commercial touting vitamins blared. This was followed by a continuous stream of embarrassing CNN sludge; uninspired attempts to create news “stories” by pitting personalities one against another.
No one else was in the lobby, and I wanted to read, so I looked for the television remote control, and finding none, asked the receptionist to mute this soul-damaging noise (I left out the “soul-damaging” part of the request).
Blessed silence. I read peacefully for a solid hour and a half, looking up occasionally at the soundless television screen to realize I was missing absolutely nothing of importance. Without sound the sludge was harmless.
At that moment in my computer-free week I suddenly understood the solution: Turn it off. Sitting in front of a PC to work now seemed as foolish as watching CNN in order to learn something important about the world.
I departed the lobby, and returning six hours later found the television sound still muted (it was, I choose to think, a demonstration that the absence of television audio improves the ambience of any room). Ads for the erectile dysfunction nostrum Cialys were alternating, somehow appropriately, with more CNN “news.”
What is a computer? For me, and for most regular schleps, it is primarily a recording device. We enter text, conduct research, revise text, manipulate spreadsheets, create presentations, update Web sites and blogs, write programs, execute designs, do accounting, and so forth.
But we’re basically creating files of things we’ve presumably thought about before sparking up our CPUs. After all, musicians do not wake up and hit the “record” button on their multitrack machines for six hours straight. They practice, compose, collaborate, and rehearse before arranging recordings. Should the less musical among us differ in how we approach our crafts?
Consider how one should arrange a work area. A woodworker’s shop has a bandsaw, drill press, and other specialized tools, carefully placed to maximize productivity, safety, and comfort. Similarly, computers should contain neatly arranged word processing, spreadsheet, and other programs.
But what craftsman would mix tools and games in his workspace? Who would place a television and magazine rack in the middle of his shop, install a foosball game between the drill press and lathe, move a pool table next to the bandsaw?
Yet the computer—the most important worktool of the twenty-first century—has become precisely that: a bottomless repository of time-wasting, thought-numbing activities and games, each eager to engage the easily-distracted mind in some trivial task, CNN screaming at us uninvited.
Check e-mail? Sure—it’ll only take a minute. Allow that Adobe update? Why not? While we’re at it, might as well peek in on the blog, read a little news, accept that Facebook invitation, forward that joke, monitor the ol’ portfolio …
The computer is a tool for fixing thoughts in digitized format (and for viewing others’ thoughts in digitized formats). As such, it hardly requires five or seven hours per day of our attention.
Isn’t it more reasonable—and more soul-affirming—to spend our hours in analog mode, thinking and talking and drawing and writing? Then, when we have a draft worth recording, to do so in the briefest possible time?
You may say “but I think better when I type.” I doubt it. You’re probably just more used to thinking while typing. You’ll probably accomplish more by exiting your cubicle or leaving the house.
Eight joyous days of setting not a single finger to keyboard taught me three lessons. Here they are, with resolutions derived therefrom (incidentally, I fully appreciate the irony of publishing this in a blog, and can only say it went through three paper drafts with manual redlining first, minimizing the number of pixels …er, viewed—in its production):
- The least creative, least productive, most isolating work posture is also the most familiar: facing a monitor astride a comfy office chair.
No more reflexively turning on the computer first thing every morning. That routine stopped April 1, 2008. I plan to spend less and less time at my computer.
- Thinking, planning, and drafting are the priority work tasks
Now, each day starts with a blank sheet of paper, a pen, and careful balancing of what’s important against what’s merely urgent. Thoughtfully, mindfully, I will carefully hand-draw, hand-letter paper drafts of each Next Step, my WIRU master list at hand. A cup of tea or coffee helps.
- Paper and pen—not PC—are the tools for the job
See that non-pixellized clipboard? Add paper and pen, in an offline environment that encourages fresh thinking—the library, a coffee shop—at the very least the dining room table. Somewhere without distractions (a wise man once advised that we should not read too much, lest we forget how to think for ourselves).
A mind at rest, a body at ease on the sofa. Creativity on, CPU off. Thoughts self-generated, not borrowed from others. Then, after confirming the Important and sketching drafts on paper—then and only then—will I reach around the wooden desk surface, reluctantly hit the CPU’s “on” button, activate that electronic wonderbox, and strive to record the useful.