The “one-off” problem of work

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This idea cuts two ways.

The first way: all the little bullshit “Hey, got a minute?” things that pile up across a workday, a work week, and a work year. All told, they cost the U.S. about $588B in lost productivity.

That should matter, but as long as bonuses are fat and growth can be proven, the lost productivity is largely just tolerated.

The second one-off problem is courtesy of this article about high performers:

They ask high performers to help on many small efforts unrelated to their work. “As a high performer, you have demands as a culture carrier, a mentor, and a resource for others,” Lisa says. Similarly, Karen describes how this practice affects herself and her high-performing team members: “They are constantly being asked to help in small ways. ‘You’re good at making slides. Can you make this one slide?’ ‘You’re good at WordPress. Can you add this page?’ I’m just realizing how much time I’ve spent on all these one-off requests the last few weeks. And that’s why I don’t feel like I’ve gotten anything done.” While this issue is often framed as a personal problem for people who don’t know how to set boundaries or say no, it’s more fairly seen as an organizational problem where the most hardworking people are “rewarded” with more work.

This is very real and not often addressed. It’s called “the high performer curse.” In short, the only reward for being good at work isn’t necessarily more money or more vacations. It’s more fucking work.

These are the two main “one-off” issues of work. Both speak to the same set of problems, though:

  • We don’t really respect the time of people we work with
  • We couch this up in “outsourcing” ideas, i.e. “Well, Will is good at PowerPoint, so he’ll want to help with these slides,” even though Will has a ton of stuff on his plate
  • People aren’t good at setting boundaries on their time
  • Work is this weird animal where you feel bad about letting other people down, so you take on more work, but then when you take on the additional work, you paradoxically let more and more people down
  • “One-off” things don’t seem like a big deal or a time suck, but take 2–3 per day and add them up across a week, year, half-decade, etc. It’s a lot of time wasted.

Can we fix this?

Not really. It’s a function of time management skills and priorities, largely. Most people are good at neither of those. If you’re good at time management, it actually has a lot of professional validity, but most people don’t understand that. I don’t know if that’s some Protestant work ethic “work is virtue” stuff — wanting more on our plates to seem relevant and important and good and just — or if it’s just people being idiots. Jury’s out.

Much the same way: you don’t increase productivity with “hacks.” You largely do it through self-awareness and alignment around priorities. Again, many miss this. I would assume there is some “thought leader” somewhere who has a defined life “hack” of “Make Will do your PPT slides to save time.” Well, now Will can’t get home for his kid’s bedtime. Thanks, thought leader.

Bottom line: try to respect the time and needs of those you work with. Understand these little “one-off” activities add up to lost productivity, lost time, and lost meaning.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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