I can’t remember who first introduced me to the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ (except, eerily, as I type this sentence I’ve just remembered – but you won’t know him so let’s leave it there). Anyway, it popped into my head this week when, after a prolonged bout of whingeing to no one in particular about how I’d had enough travelling and why does nobody ever give me any design and development work so I can stay in my office, three different clients did just that.
You’d think I’d be happy about this, but I confess to responding to these engagements with a feeling of deep foreboding. You see, having all this open-ended design work to do presents me with a problem: I have to organise my own time.
Ironically, one of the reasons I left [insert name of global consulting firm here] was the agonies we would all go through every Friday afternoon trying to fill in timesheets which had no Project Code for ‘Faffing About’. I longed to inhabit a world in which I could Faff About to my heart’s content, without fearing a visit from the Loading Manager. Well, now I’m in that mythical unsupervised world (with the exception of my wife occasionally saying “Are you still rearranging that pot of pencils?”) I have to confess it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
How could it have come to this? How could the life of freedom I yearned for have such feet of clay? Why, instead of celebrating the fact that I didn’t start writing a case study till 8 hours after I sat down to write it, am I feeling a deep sense of self loathing that leaves me unable to contemplate my own reflection in the mirror? I mean, at the end of the day, who cares as long as I deliver what my clients want on time?
Well, for a start there’s something called the Work Ethic. We live in a society that has the link between Effort and Reward precisely calibrated. Anyone whose goal in life is to be paid for sitting at home reading the paper has to keep it quiet because of the telling equation ‘time is money’. The only way you’re allowed to be paid for sitting at home reading the paper is if you’ve worked like a dog until your pension matures; then you have ‘earned’ your freedom.
It would be hard to find a company willing to spend $100,000 on a large consultancy project in which the consultants sat at home reading the paper for a couple of weeks and then provided the client with the most brilliant idea in the world for revolutionising their business. It is, however, an everyday occurrence that a company will spend $100,000 on a consultancy project in which the consultancy can demonstrate that $100,000-worth of consultant days were spent working for the client. Whether the consultants spent the first 3 hours each day playing Minecraft, or worked like dogs for 12 hours, is completely immaterial; the client is happy that it saw people working for x number of days and will therefore pay happily for that many days, regardless of the value of the outcome.
This philosophy is enshrined in the religion of the anally retentive known to mortals as Time Management. I once did a self-report questionnaire on a time management workshop which told me that 80% of my work time was spent doing things that are neither Important nor Urgent. I was hugely impressed by the validity of this instrument, and couldn’t understand why the facilitator seemed to regard me as some kind of pariah who’d Missed the Point.
But I don’t get it: surely the goal of good time management would be to deliver what people expect of you when they expect it, having enjoyed yourself hugely, not worked too hard, and without feeling any guilt or shame? Instead the output seems to be less important than how many times you handled each piece of paper while you were producing it. I have a wonderful book on my shelves from the 1950s called How To Gain An Extra Hour Every Day. Here are some of its top tips:
And there was I thinking life was there to be enjoyed. Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot on today: I’m determined to beat my high score on Minecraft.
Author: Phil Lowe has been a coach and facilitator for 28 years. With work in psychology and the arts (trained as an actor, and have worked as a writer most of his adult life, most recently as a screenwriter). Member of the English Justice System, working with judges to decide the outcome of employment cases.