Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Tyranny of Productivity

Recently, I had to step back from some of my duties at work in order to spend time on the couch with my foot up so that a fractured bone could heal. The experience has led me to take a hard look at the kind of life I am living, and how work has almost completely taken over my life.

The first observation is that when I broke the bone in my foot, I did not at first make any adjustments to my work schedule at all, except to attend doctor's appointments every few weeks and one cast-fitting appointment. I did have to change my means of mobility, hopping on crutches with a cast on my foot, and getting a special parking pass to park closer to my office and to buildings where meetings were held. Whenever possible, I did change the location of meetings to be closer to my office. But, remarkably, it did not even cross my mind to take days off work, or to cut back on my hours. I continued on working my eleven- and twelve-hour days, exhausted and in pain.

Looking back on it, it seems clear that my priorities were all wrong. How could I have been so oblivious to my body's needs and to my own health? How could I have been so focused on my obligations and projects at work that I looked at the broken foot as a temporary and annoying nuisance that hopefully would go away soon and in the meantime I tried to get on with things the best I could? I assumed that the bone would heal all by itself, on schedule, without any assistance from me. 

Productivity is a hard taskmaster. And administration, perhaps especially in academic institutions, demands devotion of all of one's time to the pursuit of productivity. In the academic culture of overwork, there is always too much to do, and multiple competing tasks. It is common to triage, completing those most urgent and important things first, and deferring, delegating, or neglecting those that cannot be addressed in the time available. Because of the excessive number of things to be done and the guilt one feels for not completing promised acts, work time becomes stretchy. The work day stretches to accommodate work demands, via earlier starts ("breakfast meetings"), staying later (in my case often to 8 or 9 at night), by holding evening events, by working on weekends, or by working through holidays. 

After awhile, you don't even remember who you are. You become your title, a working machine. Your body is just something you stuff food into so you have energy to work. It is something you exercise so that you can keep going at your work rather than breaking down, akin to doing regular car maintenance. Weekends are periods to refresh your mind so you can get back at it on Monday with renewed vigour, or else brief interludes into which you try to pack your whole (non-working) life.

But, if I am honest with myself, my excessive working is not completely the fault of my workplace. I was having a conversation with my daughter recently about my struggle to reduce my long hours so that my foot could heal (this was after I had been told by the doctor at the seventh week post-injury that the X-rays showed that the fracture was not healing). She said, "Oh Mom, you have always been a work-a-holic." She reminded me about my previous job and the one before that, and the long hours I have always worked, and the way I always have been wrapped up in work. 

It is true. I throw myself into my work. I always have done so. Even as a child at school, I turned every assignment into a gigantic project. I would comb the library, reading everything about the topic that I could get my hands on, design elaborate experiments and analyses, and write really long, illustrated reports. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. 

For the most part, I have had the kind of work that I could throw myself into. My work has involved creative problem solving and design, reading, learning, relationship building, mentoring, teaching, and writing. These are all things that I enjoy doing, that I am good at, and that can make a useful contribution to society.

I have tended to look at productivity as a good thing, something to aspire to and to keep me on track. Many of the things that I have accomplished in my career and in my life are because I have had my sights focused on particular outcomes and I have persisted to achieve those outcomes. I have been a productive member of the organization and of society. 

But too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. This is what has happened with me in my current job. The balance is all out of whack. I have been working too many hours for too long, and my body, health, creativity, and life have suffered. Probably my work has suffered too. The research shows that excessive work actually leads to lower productivity. Exhausted people are not at their best, cognitively. Putting one's head down to get the job done negatively impacts relationship-building and team work, which are central to the success of projects in an organization (not to mention to one's enjoyment of being a member of that workplace). Being too focused on task productivity does not allow time for contemplation. Reflection and time to muse are necessary for visioning and creativity, and excellent leadership is visionary and creative.

Paradoxically, in order to be a good leader, I need to spend less time working and I need to be less of a slave to productivity. In order to thrive as a human being, and to be healthy, I need to spend a lot less time working. 

I have known this for decades. Sometimes I have managed to do a better job of restricting work demands on my time, and letting work take its place as just one of the elements in my life, not the dominant one that has precedence over everything else. But I am my own worst enemy, because whenever I manage to get work trimmed down to size, I start saying yes to new projects, or I start looking around for new challenges. 

Now that my foot has healed and I am on the path of learning to walk again, I have resolved that I am going to keep work in its place and keep my work hours down. I am beginning the process of tiptoeing toward retirement. I will still throw myself into projects, both work-related and those long deferred creative art and writing projects that are waiting for me. But I am also going to spend time with my grandkids and Rob. I am going to travel and paint. I am going to putter in the garden and daydream. Never again will I chain myself to the kind of work that obliterates me.