It always starts small, and – in the beginning – it always makes sense: “I’ll just stay here over lunch to take care of some things I didn’t get done this morning”, or “ I’ll stay a bit later to work on that report for tomorrow”, or – more and more – “I’ll use a bit of Saturday morning/Sunday evening to be ready for next week”. Soon it is not just working a bit here and a bit there to get ahead of things, but a matter of survival to put in all those extra hours just to keep up.
Somewhere along the way the old 9 to 5 became 8 to 6, or even 7 to 11 and, hey presto, I’ve got no time for me. Nowadays it is common to lament the constraints of 24/7, with a mirage over the time horizon indicating that everything would be fine if only it was 27/11, at least on the busy days.
But you can’t slow things down by speeding up and doing more. It sounds obvious of course, and – when you think about it – it is obvious: working on weekends just increases the volume of work to be done the following week, e-mailing through the night just creates an arms race of responses into the early hours.
Still, the pull to try to go faster and do more to catch up with the speed of what is coming at and past us is very seductive.
It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes the only way to deal with the speed is to slow things right down, to get a handle on the speed.
Physically, this is clearer: in order to be the best in the world, sometimes Mo Farah has to be Less Farah, sometimes even No Farah. Usain Bolt has to – at least part of the time – be Usain Halt. But many of us are trying to do the work equivalent of the 100 meter sprint – over and over again, day after day – on the sleep equivalent of a broken leg.
As someone who lives in London, I see a version of this on the street every day: people who are trying to walk faster than their bodies are physiologically capable of walking. At the speed they are trying to move, they’d actually be physically better off to break into a run. That is unseemly in a suit, so instead they bustle through the streets, looking like over-dressed competitors in an Olympic race walking event. With every step more tense, twisting tissue and sinew to ‘get ahead’. Like the French cartoon character Lucky Luke, they aspire to be somehow ‘faster than their shadows’. If they get into their cars they speed past those driving at a sane urban speed, just to pull up short at the next red light.
Without the time out required to get perspective, everything seems important, and I have to do everything, now. In those circumstances, just moving faster seems a good option. Once perspective is gone, it seems to be the only option.
If I take some time off – on a holiday, over the weekend, or even just not checking mail in the evening after closing time – my decisions get better. I don’t just keep grinding it out, trying to get strategic by processing ever more detail. I start to notice what is really important so I can leave the rest, or delegate it to someone more qualified or more motivated to do that thing.
When running at full tilt I don’t even have time to think of passing it off to others. I’ve seen this over and over again in my work with people leading teams. Things are stuck not because there is no one to do them, but because the person who has them on their plate doesn’t have (or take) the time to clarify who should be doing them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of flexible working. Work when it suits you, and take your rests when it suits you. But in a culture that seems to demand responses within the hour, the rests seem to have been pushed aside. Try telling the junior people in an organisation that they can have weekends off when they know the boss is working through.
You will probably never be finished. There will be no ‘right’ time to stop and rest. But either we choose the time to rest and refresh, or it will come looking for us by fair means or foul. If you’ve ever fallen sick on day one of your holidays you know that your body will take care of resting itself if you don’t take care of it.
Protect your right to do nothing; it is one of the ways to make sense of all the doing.
To finish, one of my favourite quotes on the subject:
For fast-acting relief, try slowing down
– Lily Tomlin