No time to think: the tyranny of activity

I caught a snippet on the radio this morning reporting that some researcher or another had calculated that the average worker spends half a year over their working life waiting for the kettle to boil. It was, I think, in support of some notion about how inefficient we all are, and I daresay that it was probably pointing out how much more kettle-boiling-waiting time there is in the public sector compared with the thrusting private sector. I might have made that last bit up, I admit.

But it set me to musing – whilst the kettle was boiling as it happens – about how little we value the time that people spend at work thinking rather than doing. All the talk about efficiency, productivity, outputs, outcomes, cost-effectiveness, all of it seems predicated on this notion of squeezing out time, desperately trying to get rid of the spaces between bashing out widgets – whether those widgets be literal or metaphorical. Everybody, and everything, is on a conveyor belt. From patients hanging about too long in hospital before vacating their beds, to school kids not applying themselves with sufficient rigour to ticking off the next attainment level in their GCSE course, our whole society is in a constant state of being cajoled to the next thing. Apparently, those who only stand and wait no longer serve, and Milton can shut the fuck up. He’s not part of the modern world, and we have nothing to learn from him.

I’m proud of the time I’ve spent waiting for the kettle to boil at work. I’ve done a lot of my best stuff whilst doing so. Thinking. Processing. Balancing one thing against another. Questioning whether my busyness is in fact directed at any useful purpose. You might retort that my relatively senior position requires such thinking time, whilst more junior staff should be simply getting on with the job. If so, you’d be wrong.

Wrong, in the first instance, because such an attitude is profoundly demeaning. It suggests that only some people’s thoughts are worth the time they take to have them. But that’s not all. More importantly, the devaluing of thinking leads directly to poor decision-making. And decision-making happens at all levels of an organisation. The more that such decision-making is substituted by automated systems, or by orders from above, or constrained by strait-jacketed procedures, the more that the quality of what finally gets done is undermined. It goes beyond that, too. We wonder why so many staff are absent from work through stress, why so many employment tribunals find in favour of staff who claim that they have been stressed at work. If we take away people’s time to think and reflect, if we suggest that they don’t need to think or reflect because they are too low down in the food chain, then we dehumanise them, and stress is the first symptom.

As at the bottom, so at the top. Thinking, especially about first principles, encourages leaders to question, and to make judgements. It supports independence. It protects organisations, and society at large, from the dangers of being run by lemmings. Undervaluing thinking, by contrast, leads to the well-worn excuses of only following orders. Perhaps those leading the banking industry would have been better served, and we with them, if targets and bonuses had been less in evidence, and independent thought had been encouraged instead.

So piss off with your downer on waiting for the kettle to boil. Use those moments, without guilt and without shame. I don’t want my staff to rush about frenetically doing things all the time. I want them to think, and I want them to tell me what they’ve thought. It will add to my understanding, and help me to break out of my own limiting thought processes. Go on, make a cup of tea, and then we’ll take time to talk. Those invoices will still be there when we’ve finished, and we might have found a way to deal with them more creatively, more efficiently, and hopefully, even a way to get rid of some of them.


One thought on “No time to think: the tyranny of activity

  1. Hear, hear.

    I can think of more than one manager/leader in more than one organisation I have worked for who has fallen into the trap of equating busyness with quality. They are the type who take pride in having a full diary of meetings because “that’s how things get done”.

    Thinking versus doing. Quality versus quantity.

    I have the luxury of being in a purely strategic role, with virtually no operational responsibilities. On the one hand, it’s quite scary – I am judged solely on the quality of my thinking, and my ability to influence others to do the same. On the other, it’s profoundly liberating because I don’t have numbers I have to hit, can work in a flexible way and genuinely love what I do.

    Some of my colleagues admit that they “don’t get me”. They tend to be the ones whodon’t wait for the kettle to boil, though.

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