Monday, February 13, 2012

Work That Isn’t a Battle

In American culture we are taught to attack our work. The theory is that we’ll get the most done if we give work our full energy and attention. Often enough, that is basically correct. But that does not mean that is the right approach to take with all the work we do all day long.

You don’t have to look very far to see the limitations of the American take-no-prisoners approach to work. Consider two other characteristics of American life: we spend nearly as much time recovering from work as we do working, and when the recovery does not come fast enough, we suffer from ailments such as sleep loss and indigestion far more than people in most of the world.

This makes sense if you consider that whenever you are attacking your work, your work is also attacking you. If work is a battle, then when you work, you are in a battle. It is no wonder if it takes hours to wind down after the battles that most of us put ourselves through in our daily work.

Yet much of this battling is unnecessary. Most of the work we do is the same work we have done before. For this routine work, instead of pushing against it, it is better to seek the natural rhythm of the work. You will find yourself going slower this way, yet by working with more clarity and making fewer mistakes, you are likely to find that you have accomplished more by the end of the day. Better yet, you won’t spend the evening and most of the night recovering from the stress of the day’s work.

Obviously, this isn’t the right way to approach all work. In those moments when you have to be on, when you have to perform because time is limited and the world is watching, you want to give your work everything you’ve got. But all professional performers know you can’t perform all day long. The more intensity you give your work, the sooner you will have to stop. A stand-up comedian can go for an hour at most; a musician plays for two hours; a football game is over in three hours; a radio personality is on for four hours at a time; the stock exchange closes after six and a half hours. Anyone who tries to be “on,” in the sense of performing, for eight hours in an office or factory is making a mistake. Every form of work has a flow, or a rhythm of action that makes it more efficient. Find that flow, and you’ll get more done. This is especially important toward the end of the day, or if you are working in the evening. This is when it is especially good to be working in a way that won’t build up stress. You can start to wind down while you are still working. If you get good at this, and your work is pleasant enough to allow it, you can work right up to the minute you are ready to go to sleep. That’s something you simply can’t do if you think of work as something you have to attack.