Victus Spiritus


Discrete Intervals of Work and Play: Minimax Productivity

17 Jun 2011

This morning's riff is a natural extension to the question do you need a vacation if you love what you do. The consensus from comments was that even for folks who absolutely adore their jobs, it's healthy to take time off each year. The priceless consequence of time away from work is a revitalized outlook and a renewed sense of purpose for all the long days of labor ahead.

While probing the above trend, I wondered what happens when we segment each year into months, weeks, days and hours. Do the same benefits result from balanced intervals of work and down time? Is there an optimal rhythm for attaining peak productivity? If so is it unique for each individual? And finally how do we determine the best balance for work intervals?

Before exploring the questions posed above, I'd like to briefly review the rationale for expectations on the modern work force. Just a hundred years ago much of the US labor force was still dedicated towards agriculture. After the peak period of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was relentless transition of the labor force from farms to factories. The modern work day was born out of the friction between big businesses and labor unions.

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One of the fallacies of the industrial work culture, is that employees working longer hours leads to greater productivity. This faulty line of reasoning was predicated on making the analogy of humans to machines. For trivial labor which is capable of automation this assumption wasn't far from the truth. But the never-ending work day analogy breaks down for dynamic roles which require critical decision making. These are precisely the type of jobs which drive the US economy today, and many of them are not what you'd expect.

Work life balance

I continue to see sharp professionals and entrepreneurs herald their busy weekends and long nights at work as a badge of honor. To these ladies and gentlemen, I raise a counter example. One subtle error in judgement made while exhausted can cost your business significant dollars and man hours to rectify. Beyond critical decisions, the overall quality of our work deteriorates due to a lack of exercise and rest.

If juggling periods of work and other activities is key to optimizing personal productivity, how do we define an exceptional personal equilibrium. Unfortunately I know of no algorithm which defines the delicate balance between song and silence. Experimentation is required.

Individual expertise and reputation, combined with investments, and lifestyle demands are (soft) boundaries and forcing functions on how much (additional) income we need to generate each year. They help define how much is enough. Ambition and enthusiasm drive us far from questions of satisfaction, into the realms of social status. The scales tip heavily in favor of work when our reputation is on the line. The closer we associate our labor with our sense of self, the harder it is to take time off.