Is it Balance, or Workism?

While we tend to focus on work/life balance, perhaps the better question is: how effective are we at using the time we use for work? From a recent study (which you may have already seen):

  • Workers average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive device time a day
  • 21% of working hours are spent on entertainment, news, and social media
  • 28% of workers start their day before 8:30 AM (and 5% start before 7 AM)
  • 40% of people use their computers after 10 PM
  • 26% of work is done outside of normal working hours
  • Workers average at least 1 hour of work outside of working hours on 89 days/year (and on ~50% of all weekend days)
  • We check email and IM, on average, every 6 minutes

This is odd—we are starting work earlier, finishing later, and working over weekends, but we still only “work” less than three hours a day.

The first question must be: is this right? How are they measuring productive versus unproductive device time? What is “work time,” really? I know I don’t keep any sort of recognizable “office hours,’ so it seems like it would be hard to measure how much time I spend on the weekend versus during the “work day.”

On the other hand, no matter how flawed they might be, these numbers are still interesting. They do not, it seems to me, necessarily tell of “overwork.” Instead, they tell a tale of spending a lot of time work while not actually getting anything done.

Here is the thing: we already all know the strategies we could use to help bring the productive time up, the nonproductive time down, and “personal time” up. I try to macrotask as much as possible—take on one job for as long as it takes to reach either my limit of being able to focus on it or a point where I need to stop to do something else. During this time, I try not to look at social media, email, etc. There are commercial solutions to help you focus, as well.

So if we know there is a problem, and we know there are solutions, why don’t we fix this?

The first option—we don’t think this is really a problem. For instance, it could be that we don’t understand our own behaviors well enough to realize we are killing our own productivity by checking email constantly.

A second option—We are more afraid of missing out than we are of not getting anything done. Or perhaps we are replacing actual productivity with having an empty inbox, or a caught up news feed. Maybe we are afraid to just delete all the email we’ve not read, or mark the entire slack channel read without actually reading it.

A third option—these technologies are addictive.

Any of these will do, of course, and they are all probably partly. But I think there is another problem at the root of all of these, a problem we don’t want to talk about because it isn’t something you say in polite company. Perhaps—just maybe—the problem goes back to a spiritual ailment. Maybe we are trying to build the meaning of our lives around work.Maybe we need to realize just how much workism has infected our lives—our attachment work as the primary means through which we gain meaning in life.

And that problem, I think, is a bit harder to solve than just installing an application to rule the other applications, forcing you to focus.


  1. Michael Marrs on 8 March 2019 at 5:42 pm

    This is why my friends outside I.T. (they mainly work in construction and trades and education) find it weirdly ammusing that we I.T. people spend a lot of time after “normal working hours” still anxious and worried about work. In fact they get compensentated if they have to work over-time, in I.T is rare that we do. In fact I think its expected to have to work some nights and weekends for a maintenance window or some rush presentation. My friends in the trades don’t typically work after they get home, its their time and if they are a plumber they don’t go fidgetting with pipes to “get ahead of the pack”. If they want to work weekends its usually for cash money and at a substantial premium. They are in control of their lives and get to decide how much they want to work and what the time versus renumeration trade-off is. In I.T. when a manager says we have to work this or that night or weekend, no one bats an eye and no one says what rate will we get paid?

    • Russ on 9 March 2019 at 9:04 pm

      I do think this is part of the problem in IT — our world changes so fast, and we just “expect” to have to work constantly to get ahead. I know there is also some passion to it, but I think we are sometimes our own worst enemies when it comes to this sort of thing.