Lunch at your desk
If you’re an office worker, the chances are you’ll spend most of your day in front of a screen. You’ll have your phone next to your keyboard (plugged in – no one needs the stress of a battery on 17%), periodically vibrating as a Facebook notification pops up or one of your work Whatsapp group messages something amusing about your boss.
At lunchtime you’ll nip out, grab a Pret sandwich or a sushi box and then head back to your desk to eat it, one hand on your mouse either working or scrolling through Facebook or Pinterest or some other site that you consider sufficiently different from work and therefore good lunchtime browsing.
There will be trips to the loo, trips to the tea station, perhaps trips to the smoking doorway across the street.
At the end of the day you’ll probably stay at least 20 minutes late, just to make sure that you can’t be accused of clock watching, then you’ll rush to your car, train, or whatever and get home as fast as you can so that you can slump on the sofa and eat the contents of a Tesco meal deal. If you’re feeling inspired you might cook something involving chicken and some leaves. This will give you the permission you need to order takeaway later in the week because you’ve ‘been good’.
Ok – so I’ve painted a fairly bleak picture of what office life looks like, and I’m sure that you’re not this bad – but I bet you can see elements of yourself in this, because I know I see myself in some of it.
Quantity vs Quantity
Regardless of what our bosses tell us, deep down many of us still believe that our employers value quantity over quality. In many ways this is reflective of almost every aspect of our culture.
Consider restaurant reviews. I’m not talking about a Michelin starred eatery in central London, rather the kind of place you go to at the weekend with your kids, or your family.
Five star reviews – and the thing people value most? Portion size.
We perceive quantity as being one of the most important considerations when it comes to food.
It doesn’t stop there. We are programmed to buy the biggest of anything we can afford. The biggest houses or the biggest cars with the most features.
Quantity matters. The same is true for our jobs. We both judge and are judged on the quantity of the work we do. Never admit that you’re not busy or someone might start asking if you’re worth the money. Always look stressed, always work late, always respond to emails at 7pm. Sleep with your phone next to your bed in case you think of something important that you need to do tomorrow.
What do employers want?
There is a tension between what your employer thinks they want – namely quality and what they are able to measure you on – quantity. Quantity of hours worked, reports submitted, presentations created.
As an employer or manager, I would ask you to consider this: What would you prefer? Ten acceptable but forgettable presentations or one stella deck that wins some new business?
I know what I would want from my team.
Quantity, and the measurement of it, is pushing us to focus on the wrong things. It creates an environment where the look of the thing is more important than the substance.
I always recall a marketing agency I used to work where one of the account managers would routinely stay at least an hour late of an evening. The bosses loved Jack (not his real name) because he was ‘a grafter’ – in point of fact he achieved very little, and in my view he stayed late because he was so disorganised.
He was perpetually tired, worn out and looked stressed.
One day the MD gave what we thought was going to be a motivational speech following a period of financial hardship in the business. What he actually said to the agency was something along the lines of-
“We’ve all been under a lot of pressure to work hard. Well, you need to work harder. The only person who puts in the hours is Jack. You need to be more like him.”
I left soon after that speech.
Template driven lives
We have been given a template, and by and large we tend not to question it.
Work hard, progress in our career, buy a house. Work harder, buy a bigger house. Buy a car, buy a better car, buy two cars.
We sleepwalk within these templates without questioning whether or not we want to opt in. Now, for some people this may well be exactly what they need. For some, the house the car etc is the goal that they will aspire to. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in a nice house and wanting to own a nice car. The point I’m making has more to do with intentionality. Did you choose your template or was it chosen for you.
The same can be said for the template of our days.
Do we eat at our desks because we think this is what’s expected? Do we stay late, sleep with our phones by our beds and let the quantification of things dictate our value as employees?
When we’re tired we make bad decisions. In construction and other manual jobs, 80% of preventable accidents are related to human error – and this figure correlates closely with fatigue. Now, maybe as office workers our tiredness won’t result in a load of bricks falling on an old lady, but errors in our work can be devastating over time in even the least critical of professions (yes I’m looking at you, marketing!).
Multitasking is a dangerous lie
I’m going to make a controversial statement.
You can’t multitask.
Regardless of whether you’re male, female, young or old – you can’t multitask.
Reading emails whilst writing that report is not multitasking, it’s task switching. If we could multitask, then texting and driving would be fine. It’s not, using your phone whilst driving causes accidents. Fact
The myth of multitasking is one of the pernicious lies we tell ourselves and others to justify why we should keep our email open and our phones on and our Facebook page visible at all times. This is not a recognition that human ability is untapped and that we can create technology to take advantage of the full extent of our attention and cognitive abilities, quite the opposite in fact.
Technological functionality has expanded to fill our capabilities and has long since exceeded our ability to meaningfully engage with it. So the machines and apps we use have reduced the amount and type of information they allow us access to into small enough chunks to enable us to switch rapidly from one thing to the other.
This is fine if Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are your things. Where it stops working for us is when we’re engaged in something that should require all of our focus to do well – writing that report, being with our kids or driving the car for example. So we apply the same switching behaviour to things that demand 100% of our attention, and they suffer as a result.
Thankfully there’s a simple(ish) solution to much of this.
We are happier, more creative, more accurate and less stressed when we focus on what we’re doing.
When I was a programmer I was lucky enough to experience flow – if you’ve not heard the expression before, check out this site for a great explanation. I’ve long since stopped coding, but I find I am able to achieve a similar state when I write or when I engage in physical skill based activities (like building a pizza oven or a kitchen table).
Dedicating 100% of your mental (and in some cases physical) availability is liberating. Not only does it provide moments of utter freedom from whatever worries you may currently be experiencing, it also means that the thing you are focusing on will be of a higher quality.
I accept that we lead fragmented and busy lives. Finding blocks of time to mess about on projects can be difficult. We can change a couple of things though.
1 – Turn off distractions and tackle each work task one at a time. I know this gets said all the time, but emails can wait. Close down the email program, turn off the notifications on your phone (better still remove social media apps from your phone – forcing you to become more deliberate in your social media usage) and put on some headphones and listen to some music while you get on with that project. Spotify has a number of playlists specifically designed to aid focussed work.
2 – Try mindfulness meditations. Honestly, I was sceptical that a) it would make any difference to me and b) that I was even capable of slowing down my thoughts for any period of time. I’ve tried to get into the habit of giving myself at least 1 minute of mindfulness meditation time each day. Quite often it will be more like 5 to 10 minutes, but knowing I only have to do 1 makes it feel like less of a chore.
I can genuinely say it’s made a difference. It’s not like a huge thunderbolt. I’ve not become some kind of Bhudda. I just feel a little bit more chilled out and in control.
There’s loads of stuff on mindfulness online – here’s a couple to get you started. Maybe it will work for you.
There’s a world beyond work
Having something that is demonstrably not work is also important. We need to have a safe place, an activity that enables us to decouple our brains from the thing we spend the most time thinking about.
Socialising is of course important, but so to are activities that engage more fundamental parts of our brain. Physical craft is an anchor to the world beyond our head. It could be anything – cooking, gardening, woodwork. As long as it absorbs you, brings you joy and is nothing to do with your job.
The things you do when you’re not at work give you substance, they give you depth. An employee with interests and experience beyond their areas of professional expertise has a much deeper well to draw from when creativity is required to answer a challenge.
Explore your passions, and see if your employer can support you in them.
Bosses need to be intentional too
Employers – start addressing the culture of your business. Do you want excellence or attendance? You can have both, but your employees need to know that it’s the quality of their work that you value, not the quantity.
- Expect the best from your people, yes. But back it up by encouraging a culture that respects not answering emails after 5:30 or at weekend (France does this by law).
- If staff come in tired or ill, let them know that they shouldn’t be here. (people with colds reduce productivity for everyone) They can work from home if they really feel they have to do something.
- Encourage staff to eat in shared areas or even off site, not at their desks. Proper lunch breaks are good for business.
- Reward quality work, not ‘grafting’.
- Recognise that staff with a rich and varied set of skills and interests will ultimately enrich your business. What can you do to support them?
We need to challenge our business leaders to recognise the changes we need to make. None of these suggestions cost much money, but the effects they could have on your workforce are huge.
Steps on the journey
Whether you are an office worker or a CEO, intentionality is the thing that will help you look at and question the template you’ve been given.
You may be in a position to become an agent of change, or you may realise that where you are now does not align to what you need to be the best version of yourself.
Question every preconception and make sure that the things you do in your daily life align with your core values and aspirations. It’s a constant process that requires you to be deliberate and mindful.
All of this stuff ladders up to one key thought:
In everything you do, at work, at home, in life; be intentional.
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