The Manager on Labor Day

There will never be a Management Day to complement Labor Day. The reason lies in the nature of the function, which I once flippantly defined as “delegating whatever you can define, and doing whatever you cannot.” What you cannot define, you cannot step away from. Stuff so ambiguous, you can only define it after actually doing it. When worker bees step away from their tools, situation awareness fades rapidly, and perforce, they must relax a little. There are no tools to the management trade. Your head is it, and it goes with you to the beach, even on Labor Day.

The good news is that management work can on occasion hit a lower limit of zero, if you’ve been able to build a team of star performers, and delegation has achieved auto-pilot levels of perfection. Those days are the real, unpredictable management holidays. You may have as few as zero a year, and , if you really get lucky, as many as 365. In that potential for true productive leisure — others working to make you look good while you sip margaritas by the pool — lies the allure of management.  The moral hazard in this self-policed profession, of course, is slipping away to the pool without actually clearing the decks. In that moral hazard lies the source of all Dilbert jokes.

The bad news is that the upper limit on the quantity of management work is essentially non-existent. The only event that is not your problem is your own accidental death. Most days are somewhere in between productive leisure and death. If you are lucky, the day’s undefined work is the fun stuff: framing interesting decisions and just sitting there thinking through intriguing ambiguities. The so-so days are the ones devoted to crafting carefully-judged emails when you are itching to say, “screw this shit, I am going home.” The worst days are those devoted to dealing with forms, budgets, paperwork and accumulated piles of undefined stuff that’s clogging your mind so completely you’re truly stalled, and only a heavy-lift GTD sweep can save you.

The greatest managers are probably defined by the effectiveness of their switch-off rituals: the ability to create management “holidays” at will. In The Time Paradox, there is a description of a day in the life of legendary investment manager Bill Gross. The guy wakes up at 4:30 AM and spends several hours just booting up situation awareness of global financial markets. He then heads off for a workout and yoga for a couple of hours every morning, letting the situation awareness percolate for subconscious processing. Apparently he gets his big insights towards the ends of these workouts. I am only on Level 1 of this video game, the one called “project management,” but switching off even a couple of times a year for vacations is already tough enough that I seriously doubt I’ll ever get  to that level of artistry.

So if you are a manager of any sort working in America, and lucky enough to have one of your all-decks-are-clear days tomorrow, enjoy your Labor Day weekend. Maybe you’ll come back with a Bill-Gross level relaxation insight.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Of course, the alluring zero management work (ZMW) point is when one has to think of the big-picture, game-changing innovation possibilities and introduce a disruption. In one sense, this is a good manager doing more of the leadership thing. And then the cycle starts again in catching up with the defining-after-doing, figuring-out-enough-to-delegate, process setting process.

    GTD is one of the few time management frameworks that coherently incorporates this aspect alongside efficiency techniques. It straddles desk clearing to mind clearing and many layers in between. Unfortunately how good it is does not correlate with how soon one adopts it as a habit :-( I am still having it listed on one of my Really Should Get Started on This lists (yup, in plural).

    Without necessarily getting spiritual about it, I believe reaching and staying at ZMW would quickly become less attractive if it is used for typical leisure activities. ZMW offers pleasure in pursuit not in position :-)

    Finally, your humble remarks apart, the increased frequency of your posts clearly shows that you have managed to assign sufficient priority to this blog, which I assume is not part of your manager work deck.

  2. Ganesh:

    Call me shallow, but I think I’d like the position, fun though the pursuit is. And I’d probably use a good deal of any leisure created in fairly typical ways :) including more writing and other hobbies I currently dont have time for. I am more of a true dilettante than my blog might suggest.

    Re: GTD… That’s definitely the best process model out there, and I have been a medium-discipline practitioner for long enough to realize something like it is necessary but not sufficient.

    The 4 hour work week is one (morally hazardous) way to approach sufficiency. I’ll continue hunting for the holy Grail.

    And the current freq increase is part luck, part planning better, part length variations. Hope I can keep it up.

  3. In case you have not seen it already, Dan Pink’s TED video on motivation talks of a FedEx day experiment at Atlassian where developers could work on anything but deliver something overnight and how it gave great results, prompting the company to progress to Googlian 20 per cent time. While this is a well known concept, I liked his listing of three ingredients: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose and the behavioral experiments on monetary incentives.

    Methinks all this new understanding should soon lead to Management 2.0 where most if not all industries have a culture of true empowerment with minimal management work that focuses on creating an enabling environment for carefully selected people. Today there is too much of slack selection driven by an exaggerated sense of job market competition and then bemoaning the lack of excellence or creativity.