The productivity of goofing off.


Working less actually produces more. Or at least better.

Read Time: 6 minutes

As I begin to write this post, it is a little past 4 a.m. This isn't in my usual work schedule, but I was having trouble falling back to sleep and decided I would take my own advice and strike while the iron was hot. In this case, I wanted to put into words some thoughts I have had about productivity, the cult of productivity, and how we can actually be, well, counter-productive in our efforts to optimize our working efficiency.

First, a few words on this phenomenon of the "cult of productivity." I think we've gotten a bit overzealous in our effort to maximize our time for efficiency's sake. It's akin to John Locke's social compact theory that our natural state is freedom and we trade this freedom incrementally in exchange for levels of security to a point that we are satisfied with the ratio between the two. From an anthropological standpoint, you go to far one way, you face the tribulations associated with anarchy; too far the other way and you lose your personal freedoms to the whims of a dictator. What happens oftentimes in the "cult of productivity," is that you swing toward maximizing (so you think) your efficiency to accomplish projects and tasks, but you have traded-off producing something truly "creative" in the process. In my business we call this "cranking it out." (Ok, actually we don't say 'crank'... we use a word that starts with "s" and rhymes with "fit.")

It is estimated that the "business and productivity" app market for smart devices will be worth nearly $60 billion this year. I can't find a definitive answer for how many "productivity apps" actually exist, but given the size of the market there are a lot. This tells us that it has become ingrained in our working lives to be "productive" first and foremost. However, we tend to associate "productivity" almost squarely with "efficiency." These two aspects are not one in the same. They are cousins, but often times cousins that don't see eye-to-eye.

Related Article: The Cult of Productivity is Keeping You From Being Productive.

The Obsolescence of the 9-to-5 economy.

I think the obsession of productivity is a relic of the "9-to-5" or "workday" economy. The system dominated the 20th century and developed as a result of several factors. Labor reform laws limited the time employers could squeeze from their workers. This was was amplified by unions and collective bargaining that became the most influential labor relations trend following WWII. Also stemming from post-WWII was the ideal of the "nuclear family." The explosion of couples having children and the promotion of the American Dream meant that "white collar" workers also demanded/were expected to balance an office life with a domestic one. While all these paradigms seem to us now to have been "always the way it was," the "workday" as it existed for both blue and white collar workers in 1960 would be extremely foreign to the same type workers in 1890. Couple with this the fact that actual humans were still needed to do most all occupational tasks, and the result was near universal adoption of the 9-to-5 model.

So if you as a worker are expected to produce but you are constrained to a finite period of time each weekday to do so, the natural inclination is to seek methods to become more efficient, and thus more productive. This generally worked fine in an economy dominated by large-scale manufacturing and agriculture. In USA circa 2016, we maintain significant large-scale manufacturing and agriculture, most of which is now automated. The use of a human 9-to-5 model is irrelevant when the same machine can work 24/7/365. (...there is no movement yet for machines organizing for collective bargaining... but I'll bet they would be damn good at it if they ever do...)

So as machines take over the jobs that humans do which are essentially built on adhering to a strict set of rules (which incidentally can be 'blue collar' or 'white collar'), the real value of jobs held by humans naturally comes from those who can deviate from a set of rules to create something original of value. In short, being creative.


The parable of the Swedish intersection.

I've written before and will write again about the idea of valuable "creative deviance." The biggest issue with this and the relic of the cult of productivity is they often work against each other. You burden yourself with all these systems and guidelines to ensure that you are doing your task as efficiently as possible. And what happens if you achieve maximized efficiency/productivity? You repeat the same system over and over again. And you know who can accomplish a system on a repetitive basis better than you? (hint: 🤖 ).

So efficiency and actual productivity are not the same thing. And putting efficiency guidelines in place can actually have a counter-intutive and quite opposite effect of diluting valuable productivity.

I like to use the example I heard once of traffic issues in Sweden to illustrate this point. There was a small Swedish town that was having an issue at a particular four-way intersection. It was notorious for accidents and fatalities caused by drivers running through the stop signs. The town tried flashing lights, double stop signs, etc. Still nothing effectively solved the problem. Then in a radical move the town took down all cautionary signage and left the intersection bare. It wasn't long before the accident rate for the intersection dropped significantly. The town authority came to discover that when all the cautionary signage was in place drivers were actually less careful because they assumed that the other driver was being careful. With no "safeguards" in place drivers were now suspicious that other drivers would approach the intersection in less safe way, making them then be more careful.

This isn't exactly apples-to-apples with productivity stifling productivity, but it's close. We become obsessed with these systems to improve our efficiency, and actual productivity (in terms of value) is cut.

As a company, if you force your employees into a definite "9-to-5" situation, the effect will be the same as the Swedish intersection. Employees will squeeze as much efficiency as they can into that time period, and if inspiration or creativity strikes at other times....meh.

Can you imagine a situation in which Di Vinci or Edison or Jobs said "Ok, I'm only going to work on this flying machine/photograph/personal computer between the hours of 9-to-5 straight, and then not give it another though." I don't think their end product would have been as good, if it developed at all.


The value of goofing off.

Ok so now the real reason that you're reading this article: To find out how you can make a compelling case to your boss that playing Bejeweled at work is actually in the company's benefit. (The Millennials reading this will no doubt roll their eyes at that sooooooooo 2013 reference). First, let me say it's going to be an uphill battle. The beancounters economists who study these things estimate that at least 30% of an office employee's time, and possibly up to 80%, is spent "goofing off" online. Said beancounters economists also estimate the "loss" to the economy to be somewhere around $85 billion.

I don't know if I'm buying it.

Remember how back in school you were told to study in short increments rather than "cramming" into one ridiculously long marathon? There's science behind that. We tend to retain knowledge and "think" better a the beginning of a mental cycle, and toward the end. The "lull" in the middle is where much of the productivity is lost. By breaking study sessions up into smaller blocks, we increase the number of "beginnings" and "endings" and therefore typically retain more. There is a reason that TED talks are now limited to 20 minutes. Many scientists claim this is the approximate amount of time that most humans can be effectively productive on a single subject matter.

So if this is the case for "study," why wouldn't it also be the case for "work"? Both require, typically, a high level of mental activity to be as productive as possible. And if your profession places a high degree of value on innovation and/or creativity, it makes the most sense to increase the opportunities of innovative/creative thought by breaking our activity into small segments. And to give your brain a break between these segments, well, that's where the "goofing off" part comes into play.

Ipads have shown to be as effective in calming down children as sedatives. One has to imagine that playing on these devices would have a lesser but similar effect on adults. "Goofing off" through gaming or web browsing or whatever is a way to give the brain a "power nap" in between periods of increased productivity. All this to say, if you work less you may actually produce more output that is of greater value.


...if they're doing it...

For whatever reason, this piece of chock full of Swedish examples today. The town of Umeå in Sweden has cut workers back to a six-hour workday in an effort to boost "happiness" with the hypothesis that this will boost the productivity/value of their end products. A similar experiment in Gothenburg, Sweden, seemed to product good results: less sick days taken, lower worker stress, etc. A British marketing agency did the same with perceived success (...just sayin'...).

So you're probably saying "sure that's fine for Sweden, the occupational laboratory of the world, or a kooky UK creative shop, but could something like that ever really work in USA work culture to boost actual productivity?" (that is what you're saying...I know it...).

The jury is out, but consider this. Amazon is testing the concept of a 30-hour work week for some of it's employees. Yes, that's right, I said Amazon. The POSTER BOY of soul-crushing Silicon Valley giants. In true Daenerys-drop-the-Unsullied-whip fashion, Amazon is piloting a program to see if demanding less from their employees will actually produce more value from their work.

So, do you feel like you can adequately defend watching Stranger Things at work to your boss now? I'm more than interested to hear how that comes out.





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