Project Practitioners > Blurred Boundaries, or Dodged Responsibility?

Blurred Boundaries, or Dodged Responsibility?

By DeAnna Burghart

One blog post making the rounds this week is on "The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time," by Tony Schwartz at HBR. His hook is the eye-catching and intuitive statement that between a quarter and a half of all employees (where?) report (to whom?) feeling "overwhelmed or burned out at work" (are those really the same thing?).

It's probably obvious from my parentheticals that I have mixed emotions about Mr. Schwartz's article. On the one hand, there's a great deal of sensible advice here. He encourages managers to keep meetings brief and to the point, stop demanding instant responsiveness, and "encourage renewal." (The oh-so-Silicon-Valley suggestions of mid-morning yoga classes or renewal rooms are just as easily met by acknowledging that salaried employees still benefit from a true lunch hour away from their desk.) His boundary-setting suggestions for individuals are equally intuitive. (More on those in a moment.) But I still find myself flinching away from the premise of the article -- that multi-tasking behavior is inherently a new and unproductive phenomenon.

"What we've lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It's like an itch we can't resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse."

I see this assertion here and there on a regular basis. Like many modern workers, I gravitate to these remarks, nod sagely, and comment on how that's just like my own workday. Oh, yes, I bounce all over the place, and work long hours, and never get away from the phone. But if I'm really honest with myself, I have to wonder if it's truly new behavior.

Is multi-tasking really the result of a uniquely hyper-competitive, hyper-digital environment? In many respects it feels like an easy out, yearning for the good old days that never were. I remember both of my parents -- both knowledge workers even by current standards -- working long hours and occasional weekends throughout their careers. They brought work home, and stayed up late thinking on it. Phone-based interrupts were limited to the office and the home line, but if they'd had cell phones the only real difference would have been my ability to talk to friends for more than 15 minutes without getting scolded for "tying up the line."

My grandmother's careers were more production-oriented, but little different. Ask any rancher's wife about the risks of long hours and multi-tasking, and they'll probably laugh you off the farm. Even my great-grandmother -- a copyeditor for the local daily paper -- routinely brought work home in the form of books to review and columns to write. I clearly remember playing under her desk in the mid-70s, while she busily marked proofs with grease pencils and cycled them to the galley, always cognizant of that all-important print deadline. No one could have watched that scene without acknowledging that she worked in a fast-paced, demanding, task-switching environment, analog though it was. I doubt that workers on Henry Ford's assembly lines or in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would agree they were not asked to work in a rapid-fire, interrupt-driven environment. I imagine we'd get similar eye-rolls from the village blacksmiths of the 1700s and the courtiers and secretaries of the Tudors, or even the Ming Dynasty.

So if we're not all that different than our forebears, why do we feel so uniquely put-upon? We seem to expend a great deal of collective energy on trying to prove we are more overworked and burned out than our ancestors. Have things really changed that much? Or are we just resisting responsibility for our own bad habits?

Mr. Schwartz recommends three practices individuals should stick to in order to set our own boundaries, and I found myself arguing with each one, even though they're imminently sensible. Do you see yourself in any of these protests?

  1. "Do the most important thing first in the morning." The emphasis here was on lack of interruption and clear starting and stopping times. But morning is when I catch up on email and address early phone calls. I'm not energetic enough to think yet until my second cup of coffee. (So NOT a morning person.) I can't, I don't ... I sound an awful lot like my teenager. The fact is, I know when I'm most productive. I don't have to think about it, or analyze it, or log it to the nth degree to discover the truth of the matter. I know that if I want to get something done -- seriously done -- I will need to do it between 9am and 10am or sometime after dinner. (Everyone knows the most brilliant programming and writing is done after everyone else has gone to bed.) So the real message here is to fit my work to my schedule and stop playing the victim. Corollary: no more meetings during optimal work time.

  2. "Establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically." But I'm too busy, and there's too much to do, and I simply have to finish X, Y, and Z. In my grandmother's vernacular, hogwash. This cycles back to item #1 very neatly. Just as there are certain times of the workday and workweek that I'm most productive, there are certain times that I'm more creative. The real issue is (to borrow a phrase I heard once) my need to "justify my existence every second of the day." Absorbing and synthesizing new knowledge is a key part of my job, but it doesn't feel much like "doing something" unless I have some work product to wave around when I'm done. The problem, of course, is that this is entirely my own insecurity talking. As long as the necessary work product was being produced, I can't think of a single boss I've ever had who objected to me expanding my horizons on company time. Most of them actually considered it an essential part of my job.

  3. "Take real and regular vacations." This is another one that I'm truly terrible at, and one that I can lay only at my own feet. I'm not sure what to chalk it up to, other than typical American bull-headedness. But I think part of the issue is my mental block on what "vacation" means. Since we can't afford to take long cruises and exotic vacations, I just stockpile the time. "Staycations" are just as valuable, though. There's something almost decadent about taking a mental health day and knocking around the house aimlessly for a couple of days while everyone else is in the office. Why shouldn't we indulge that need to relax once in a while? (See previous remark about constantly justifying our existence.)

This is all very common sense, and intuitively we know it's something we should already know and do. It's very easy to blame our hyper-connected, hyper-competitive environment for our productivity overload. But it's probably more accurate to blame our personal insecurities and poor time management. Will the world really end if we let the phone roll to voicemail while we finish this chapter, or does it just make us feel more important -- more critical, more desperately needed -- if we jump? I think it's a conversation worth having.

Related Links
We've written in the past about the need to schedule regular vacations. If you've blocked out some creative thinking time and need to get the ideas started, check out Carl Pritchard's 10 ideas for generating 10 ideas. Keeping a simple Time Management Assessment Log for a few days can help you identify your task-switching time sinks without creating one more.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Good post DeAnna, I agree with your assertion that, at least to some degree, this has always been an issue.

I believe a lot of the "bring work home" mentality stems from attempting to place work into a time box that is based in an industrial era model mindset that is, for the most part, outdated.

We like to think that our work is 8 - 5. Our reality is no longer an industrial era model (and hasn't been for quite some time).

There's a model I've been promoting since shortly after its inception known as the Results-Oriented Work Environment (ROWE)that actually diverts from this century-old model by working anytime, in any way, from anywhere so long as results are achieved. The caveat (and roadblock) is twofold. It requires a change in thought (incredibly difficult) and requires management to trust and treat employees as adults.

More can be researched on

DeAnna, you offer a great perspective to challenge the temptation for so many of us to think that history began or changed dramatically when we were born. As much as a James Herriott novel might seem to be set in some nostalgic "good old days", he couldn't protest that he was off the clock when the calf was being born in the middle of the night.

Brian - your comment about the industrial model is spot on. I think the factory introduced an aberration about work - it starkly divided life into work and non-work. For so much of pre-industrial history, work was almost seamless with the rest of life.

Thanks, guys! Brian, I've read about ROWE quite a bit in the past. Best Buy has been a leader in pushing it at their corporate HQ, I believe. There are attractions, though I don't care much for the acronym. (Isn't all work "results oriented" by nature?) It's a great counterpoint to management tendencies to be didactic about how and where employees spend their time, but a very different way of thinking.

Mike's follow-on remark got me thinking: when work was seamless with the rest of life, people were typically only paid for the deliverable, not the effort. But much of modern work requires effort that doesn't necessarily produce a "thing" when you're done. When you're paying for "the work," it's very easy to want to control how and when that work is done.

On the other (other other) hand, even ancient Babylon had middle men, distributors, warehouses, and real estate agents. The more things change ...

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