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Fixing a Broken Work Model

— Creativity on, CPU off —

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.

(This post comes to you from the Soul Shelter archives)

You may also enjoy:

Happiness is Turning Off the Computer

Want to Achieve Your Goal? Avoid E-Mail!

The Four-Letter Question for 2008: WIRU

Is the Internet Dangerous? (Part One)

7 Comments to Fixing a Broken Work Model

On Jan 28, 2010, Allie commented:

Yes! I’ve noticed keenly this week how much non-stuff I was doing in front of the computer, and how much I was not producing during all that time. I’m still training myself to be more disciplined about computer time versus thinking and doing time. I think it does have a lot to do with where you do work and how your workspace is organized– currently my laptop is parked on my dining room table, so it’s far too accessible…

On Jan 28, 2010, John Bardos - IdeaEconomy commented:

Hi Tim,

I agree that computers can be a huge distraction. I also cherish time in a cafe with my ‘idea book.’ Different ideas and different ways of looking at problems come from using alternative tools and locations.

However, I think it may be too limiting to define new tools by how they solve old problems. Email isn’t a faster letter, it is a new way of communicating. The Internet isn’t a library at home. It is so much more.

I don’t think of a computer as a ‘recording device.’ I believe it to be more of a ‘collaboration window.’ It allows me to connect with people and co-work on various projects in ways unimaginable just a few short years ago.

Most corporations are still handing off paper from one person to the next or sending email attachments. They still think in a document centric way. The new way of work is about workers, contractors and customers all collaborating in real time on a single web space. Tools like GoogleWave, GoogleDocs and Project Management / CRM apps like Solve360.com are changing the nature of work. It is not about files and documents anymore. It is shared online work spaces with tags that relate all the valuable information together. That is the real value of buzz words like cloud computing, web2.0, enterprise2.0, etc.

If you think your computer is a typewriter and an email terminal than it makes sense to keep it turned off for longer durations. If it is a way to build deeper relationships, improve the speed and quality of project deployment and basically expand your learning and understanding, I feel it is hard to get away from that Typewriter2.0. :-)

Also, new formats like the recent Apple iPad are going to make computers more like a notebook, picture frame, portable GPS, Video monitor, newspaper or whatever you want it to be. Technology is not only solving old problems, it is also offering new ways to live and work.

On Jan 29, 2010, Nana commented:

I like to start my day with blog posts, I find them inspiring. I like evidence that people are also thinking, also learning. I use them as stepping stones, or just as a way to slip into the groove of thinking creatively.

But maybe I’ve become addicted. It was slow in the blogosphere yesterday, and I spent a lot of time fruitlessly clicking around, trying to find….well, I don’t know what I was looking for, but not a lot got accomplished.

I’ll let you know how using your work model works…

On Jan 29, 2010, by Tim commented:

As long-time readers may know, I wrote this essay nearly a year ago. Since then my thinking has changed.

For example, since January I’ve been checking e-mail first thing in the morning. This is because I’m teaching this quarter, and making sure my students are on track and properly served is my top priority. I find that accomplishing this important task in the morning frees up the rest of the day.

@ Allie: Redesigning your workspace can really help. See before and after pictures of my dysfunctional and less-dysfunctional workspaces here. The key was to create a completely separate computing station (with an electric table!).

@ John: I find your points persuasive, and appreciate your gently nudging Soul Shelter toward a more balanced view on technology. Still, the subject here is work. As a teacher, investor, and writer, I find that 75% of my active income is based on creating or editing documents: teaching materials, student submissions, business plans, memorandums, book chapters, and so forth (the other 25% is spent listening, facilitating discussion, and spewing hot air). Almost none of my income derives from active, real-time computer-mediated collaboration with others. Although such computer-mediated work is essential in work that demands collaborative creation of digital products, and is growing more important in other industries as well, I daresay that many people, like me, derive no income from such computer-mediated activity, and would do well to spend less, rather than more time computing. But remember, Clark’s Rules apply only to Clark and may be completely wrong :)

@ Nana: I feel your pain. Check out this story about how one Japanese company — in a computer-intensive sector — dramatically improved its productivity and efficiency by limiting computer use.

On Jan 30, 2010, Nana commented:

I remember reading that post while exploring your archives. As a born-again GTD advocate, to be separated from my pc is to be separated from my lists. It makes me feel lost, crippled. But when I decided on a priority, it was easier to close the pc and plan, and work–but to then transcribe again was a pain.

Unbelievably, though, my one day experiment netted a much higher quality product. It is strange, knowing how much work it will be to translate the newsletter I created from my rough “story board” to a digitized format–but I am extremely happy with the content.

Conclusion: this is a technique worth cultivating.

On Mar 11, 2010, The Most Effective Method for Achieving Flow « Feed The Spark commented:

[…] Focus. Turn off your email, your twitter, your browser or, if possible, your computer. (Pursuant to this post on Soul Shelter, I’ve found that a long-hand first draft stimulates a much better […]

On May 22, 2011, The Most Effective Method for Achieving Flow commented:

[…] Focus. Turn off your email, your twitter, your browser or, if possible, your computer. (Pursuant to this post on Soul Shelter, I’ve found that a long-hand first draft stimulates a much better […]

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