Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I tried, and failed, to relax. I am sure I am not alone, and that many of you had the same experience. But I failed in a very revealing way, that led me a very interesting definition of work.
What happened was this:
I was reading a book to relax (Robert D. Kaplan’s excellent Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the future of American power). It was pure relaxation in the sense that the subject has nothing to do with either my work or subjects I normally blog about (my other “job”). But a few chapters in, something very interesting happened: I suddenly decided I might want to blog about the book. And just as suddenly, a relaxing experience turned into “work,” and within a half-hour, I felt I needed a “relaxation break.” So what happened?
Consider what hard work used to mean. If you worked on an assembly line 40 hours a week, cranking widgets, you were working. If you put in 20 hours of overtime to make it 60 hours, you were working hard. Get up to 80 hours, and you were killing yourself.
The point is, crank-widget work is easy to define and measure in objective terms. Information work is different. Drucker offered the correct, but mostly useless idea that part of information work is defining the work to begin with, which makes it very ambiguous. Call it define-and-do work.
Crank-widget jobs do exist in information work too. Making sales calls for products with a proven sales script, or routine types of trading on Wall Street are crank-widget jobs because there are measurable, tightly self-contained units of work (calls/trades) that have already been defined. And those professions tend to have a “work hard/play hard” culture because the boundary between work and non-work is clear. You can actually decide to “stop work for the day.” There may be no punch-clocks, but it is punch-clock work. And this can be true of even very complex types of information work, so long as it is formulaic (which is a synonym for “pre-defined” if you think about what “formulaic” actually means). The formula may take a PhD and lots of specialized knowledge to execute, but if there is a formula, it’s crank-widget work.
But when you are doing define-and-do Druckerian work, it is basically impossible to decouple definition from execution a priori in useful ways (“my job is to define my job and do it” — sounds like a GNU recursive acronym, doesn’t it?). “Work” is whatever the hell you need to do to “get the job done.” A non-constructive definition.
But even if you can’t define this kind of define-and-do information work, you can detect when you are doing it. Here’s how you detect it:
It is work if there is a customer other than yourself.
Or to put it more explicitly: It is work if it will impact something that will be evaluated by others, and if their reactions will have consequences for you that you care about (If you don’t care how they react, they are by definition not a customer).
That’s why I experienced the sudden attitude shift while reading the book. Suddenly, I went from not caring how sloppily or carefully I read the book or what ideas I picked up, to thinking in terms of the needs of a blog post that others would evaluate.
It has nothing to do with whether or not you enjoy the work (as I do blogging). People who claim they love their work so much “it doesn’t feel like work” are deluding themselves. They’ll still be work-tired and need to “unwind” when they quit.
This definition can lead to some very surprising conclusions. George Lucas said, a few years ago, that he’d made so much money now that he could “afford to make bad movies for the rest of my life.” This illustrates one surprising conclusion. Finishing the Star Wars franchise was “work” for him even if he didn’t need the money, because the evaluation of the audience mattered, since in a sense the original trilogy was part of publicly-owned social capital, and if they rejected the prequels he was attempting to tack on, he’d have felt a personal sense of failure. But now that’s he done, he really can afford to ignore the audience.
By the same standard, you sometimes need a vacation to recover from a vacation if the original vacation involved meeting family expectations. I am sure that’s especially true for many Americans who are returning after stressful family weekends. That’s a “work” vacation because between the turkey and the pumpkin pie, you may have had to justify your career/life to your Dad, and the reaction mattered. If this is true for you, then for better or worse, your Dad is your customer for a product you are creating called “my life.”
The level of apparent hard work and enjoyment is irrelevant. I once went on a hard 10 day hiking trip, where we’d cover miles of mountain trails every day, for 6-7 hours at a stretch. I’d be exhausted, but when we camped for the night, I felt relaxed. I felt unwound, rather than feeling a need to unwind.
There have been times when I’ve written some simulation code just for the hell of it, to have some fun for myself. For example, I once wrote a little simulation of a sky-writing airplane that would fly around and write any text string I gave it on the screen; thing took hours, and I never properly finished it, but it was relaxing. And I could abandon the project halfway precisely because there was no external party in the loop who cared.
And on the other end of the spectrum, I often have entire days now when I do absolutely nothing except sit around/walk around and think. No observable output. Sometimes not even working notes or scribbles. Just thinking. And at the end of the day, I am utterly exhausted, because I’ve been thinking about work-related problems where any decisions I take as a result of my thinking will have consequences to be evaluated by others.
The definition “others will evaluate the consequences, and their reaction will have consequences for you” basically says it is work if there is a feedback loop that matters, that goes through an external party.
What causes the stress that makes it “work” is a combination of two factors. First, since you define what to do, there are no natural limits. You can define your work to be as simple or complicated as you like. Second, since the reaction of an unpredictable external party is going to determine how you feel about the work, there is a reason for you to endlessly work to try and lower the anxiety about the unpredictability. In other words, there is an infinitely-stretchable component to the work (the definition), and a fundamentally unknowable component to its consequences (the external reaction).
When crank-widget work fails to satisfy the customer, you can say “not in my job description” and pass the buck.
When define-and-do work fails to satisfy the customer, that’s not possible.
This definition gives us the easiest way to measure how hard you are working. Take 24 hours, subtract sleep time, subtract the time you are focused on doing something where there is no customer. The rest is work. It’s far easier to spot the negative space than to spot the positive space.
And by that standard, many of us are working 80-90 hour weeks, even if it doesn’t feel like it.
This also gives us the best way to relax: shorten all feedback loops as much as possible, and stop work when a round of feedback is in, and before you begin the next define-and-do iteration. If you routinely work in 3 month loops, you’ll never sleep.
Unfortunately, for truly complex work, there is a limit to how much you can shorten the customer loops for the things you are doing, no matter how much agile iteration you build in.