The sheer popularity of books pertaining to the world of work can be visible from a passing glance at a Waterstone’s window display. Time management, how to influence others, how to be less stressed, how to get what you want and feel happy whilst doing so…
Conversely, the supposed “secret” to managing your time more effectively can only be unlocked by spending your precious time learning how to do so.
In most cases, there is no quick fix - no single remedy to a lifelong habit of procrastinating, no simple equation to define the optimal work / life balance that will leave you ultimately satisfied – happy, even – from both a professional and personal perspective. Something always has to give. The sad fact is, for many, that “something” is themselves.
When is the last time that you spent more than a few minutes reflecting on your “self”? I’m not talking about meditation – booting up Headspace, counting breaths or mindfully experiencing bodily sensations. I mean taking the time to truly think about YOU and what YOU want from life. Becoming an employee, or a spouse or a parent is often said to lead to a loss of identity. I’d argue that it’s not identity that is lost, but the time to ponder what said identity is.
As people mature and their tastes develop and change, there is rarely a spare minute to “catch your breath”, let alone contemplate who you are, what you have become, what you want to achieve or how to achieve it. These are all vital questions for self-discovery and contentment, and yet the time you unconsciously devoted to such thoughts in the past is now consumed with deadlines, school term dates, shopping lists and so on.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I’d be shocked if you reached adulthood without being asked this question at least a handful of times during your formative years. It’s almost a rite of passage – something to laugh about with your co-workers in the cafeteria in years to come, when, instead of being the rocket scientist, World Cup-winning footballer or astronaut you set out to become, you’re adjusting to life as an office worker, glued to your computer screen for 12+ hours a day.
You’re hardly changing the world. But then - in reality - who does?
I recently finished reading a punchy book entitled It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work, penned by the co-founders of software company Basecamp – Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
Fried and Heinemeier Hansson address this very topic in their aptly entitled chapter “Don’t change the world”:
The business world is suffering from ambition hyperinflation. It’s no longer about simply making a great product or providing a great service. No, now it’s all about how this BRAND-NEW THING CHANGES EVERYTHING. A thousand revolutions promised all at once…
If you stop thinking that you must change the world, you lift a tremendous burden off yourself and the people around you. There’s no longer this convenient excuse for why it has to be all work all the time. The opportunity to do another good day’s work will come again tomorrow, even if you go home at a reasonable time.
…worry less (or not at all!) about changing the world. Chances are, you won’t, and if you do, it’s not going to be because you said you would.
On reading this, I found myself nodding along. I don’t see the lesson here being about dampening ambitions or cutting back, but maintaining a productive focus on what is important. The last sentence particularly resonated with me.
When Jeff Bezos set up shop in his garage in 1994, he couldn’t have possibly envisioned the global impact his foray into online book sales would have. Even if he had, it wouldn’t be his vision of success that would make it happen – it would be the opportunities he took, the connections he made, a huge amount of hard work – and luck.
His venture didn’t just change the world – it changed the game altogether. And in more ways than one. In the 25 years since launch, Amazon has diversified to gargantuan proportions – e-commerce, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, gaming, streaming… you name it, Amazon has been there, done that and sold the t-shirt.
The Basecamp twosome, however, claim they accepted their product wouldn’t change the world, or, more importantly, that it didn’t need to - a belief system that has been key to their continued success. Rather than diversifying (and risk diluting their primary product), Fried and Heinemeier Hansson doubled down to make only one: Basecamp.
The thing I like about this book is its outright rejection of the toxic Silicon Valley “brogrammer” culture of all-nighters or 4am starts, a trend which is apparently now growing in China. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is ultimately counterproductive and more about creating the image of hard work than delivering its outcomes.
Fried and Heinemeier Hansson say:
We gave up everything else – and the potential of millions more in revenue – so we could focus in rather than pan wide. Companies typically downsize their offerings when they’re not doing well. We did the opposite. We cut back in the best of times. At the moment we scaled back, business had never been better.
…we’ve decided to stay as small as we can for as long as we can. Rather than continue to invent new products, take on more responsibilities, and grow more obligations, we continually aim to pare down and lighten the load – even when times are great. Cutting back when times are great is the luxury of a calm, profitable, and independent company.
It’s hard to argue with this logic, although some may find it a little patronising for these two millionaires - who undoubtedly worked tirelessly to get where they are today - to tell us that they have all the answers and that this is all so simple.
The sentiment underpinning this - that the Basecamp founders have chosen to work to live, not live to work - is a simple one that I absolutely agree with. But getting there isn’t always so straightforward. Only a privileged few get meaningful, fulfilling work handed to them on a platter. Most of us must work to get there and develop the skills needed to reach this holy grail of work / life balance.
Needs and circumstances change as we mature. In 2009, I took 127 flights for work. In the entire year, I only had one unbroken week at home (for Christmas) and I spent every weekend unpacking, repacking and prepping for my next trip. It was a busy 12 months full of opportunities at work I wanted to seize, and since I wasn’t married and I didn’t have kids, it wasn’t a huge sacrifice. I very much doubt I’d do that again now, but the lessons that experience taught me have been invaluable.
Since then, I’ve made several conscious steps to better manage my time and productivity - reducing travel, shortening trips to be recovered by the weekend and eliminating weekend working unless absolutely critical.
My most recent adjustments have been to schedule time for exercise - and stick to it – and take better control of my calendar by only attending essential meetings.
It has been challenging to break out of old habits to make these changes. How can I justify taking time out of work to get active? But I’m reminded of an old Abraham Lincoln quote: “If I had five minutes to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first three sharpening my axe.” I know that after exercise I’m sharper, more focussed, more energised and I get more done. This isn’t time lost, but productivity gained.
Cutting out all non-essential meetings goes hand-in-hand with a leadership principle which has never failed me – openness and transparency. Reducing hours spent in back-to-back meetings gives me more time to be available to support and guide team members. It also allows more time for meaningful and creative work.
In a famous interview, Bill Gates recalls how Warren Buffet taught him a valuable lesson about time-management.
I remember Warren showing me his calendar. I had every minute packed and I thought that was the only way you could do things. The fact that he is so careful about his time – he has days that there’s nothing on…. That taught me that you control your time and that sitting and thinking may be a much higher priority than a normal CEO who might have all these demands on their time and feel like they need to see all these people. It’s not a proxy of your seriousness that you’ve filled every minute in your schedule.
Like the Basecamp duo, billionaires Gates and Buffet are in a privileged position of having only to answer to themselves in how they manage their time.
In reality, there are no easy answers. But if there is a universal truth in here it’s in the importance of taking control of how you spend the precious commodity of time to make sure it is working for you. Maximising your productivity is unlikely to entail having a schedule as threadbare as Warren Buffet’s but it’s also probably not going to be found keeping up appearances by accepting every meeting request and working every possible hour either.