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My beautiful polychronous workstyle

We take our technology enabled working lives for granted these days but anyone over the age of thirty five will recognize that the typical working day has changed quite profoundly in the last twenty years.

Whether through the growth of remotely networked laptop usage from the late 90’s, the mobile email revolution of the last five or so years, or today’s generation of web apps such as Xero – many business people are as much unshackled from the old nine-to-five office cube culture as they are free to dip in and out of work during our personal time or to momentarily attend to what were previously deskbound tasks from behind the wheel of a pick-up-truck between jobs.

So, I thought it would be cool to try to visualize an abstract of how much a day in the life has changed over the last twenty years. I threw a bunch of fifteen-minute time slots into a spreadsheet and estimated how much of my typical attention was spent focused on personal activities versus business activities from when I awake at six thirty in the morning through to hitting the sack at night, with the maximum focus on one kind of activity being 100%.

The comparison is striking; while there’s still a broad general separation of work and personal time, the boundaries are much more blurred and blended. But what changes multiple times a day is the priority or intensity of focus on one class of task versus the other, and this happens all throughout the day. Business intensity is low when you’re tethered only by a smartphone and email becomes essentially a background task while you’re doing something personal or travelling, and then your business intensity peaks when you’re using your laptop, in a meeting or on a phone call when personal email then shifts down to becoming a background task. But neither class ever shuts down completely.

Compared with what I remember being a typical working day in 1990; before the mobile phone, internet, email or social media, and when in order to do any work at all you needed to be physically located with your all your cow-orkers, at a desk and near a landline telephone – the comparison is pretty stark.


In 1990 you would submerge into the office at 9am, essentially isolated from your personal lives unless there was some family emergency, sit with your co-workers and focus 100% to compress everything you needed to do into generally unbroken blocks of time. You’d then come up for air at 1pm – at the same time as everyone else to regulate the downtime efficiently – which was your only chance to visit the bank to pay personal bills (no internet or telephone banking then) or run any errands. You’d finish up around 5pm and if you ever took work home with you then you were considered either a workaholic or sucking up big-time for a promotion.

In 2010 you’re only totally off the grid when you are asleep.

You’re handling email 30 seconds after you’re awake, handling personal bills or ordering flowers for your wife between calls, dropping out for three minutes to wish a friend ‘happy birthday’ on FaceBook, dealing with email while waiting to pick your kids up from school or pushing a shopping cart around on a Saturday afternoon.

Of course, all this exercise did is visualize estimated attention or focus, not personal productivity. But it’s probably fair to say that if productivity could be charted, it would be several magnitudes greater than in 1990.

 

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3 comments

Carl Reader
17 September 2010 #

Hi Gary,

Great article, working lives have definitely changed. However, I do wonder whether lack of focus affects both personal and business life nowadays?

All the best
Carl

Gary Turner
17 September 2010 #

Thanks, Carl. It’s a tricky one; some people like keeping on top of email after hours because it keeps the queue down for the next day. If that makes them happier people then that’s a good thing, but if it’s at the expense of family time on a regular basis, then maybe not so good for others.

And obviously there are careers and professions that don’t lend themselves to this way of working, a neurosurgeon can’t feasibly do three minutes of work in a pizza restaurant and many other jobs require 100% focus. But certainly for the classic – if a little outdated – Microsoft labelled ‘knowledge worker’ where your laptop or smartphone is your workstation and toolkit, then location and timing can be flexible.

I guess we’ll have to wait another twenty years to see if there’s been some wider social impact if more people blend their working lives and personal lives in this way.

[...] the same time I was inspired by a blog post from Gary Turner titled “My beautiful polychronous workstyle”. In his post Gary compares working life today with a time not really that long ago… he writes: [...]

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