A waste of time

pocket watch 

A while back I wrote a blog post about the apparent waste of time involved in things like reading email, loading web pages, etc. At the end of the post I suggested that the simplistic measure of time as money that I was using should be viewed with great suspicion, though it is precisely the kind of measure that we routinely use. This post is mostly about why we should be suspicious.

But first, my basic initial argument, restated and stripped to its bones, is simple. According to the vacation request form that I have to fill in (and, after taking vacation, repeat the process) an Athabasca University working day is 7 hours, or 25,200 seconds, long. There are about 1,200 employees at Athabasca University so, if each employee could save 21 seconds in a day (25,200/1200 = 21), it would be like getting another employee. Equally, every time we do something that loses everyone 21 seconds a day for no good reason, the overall effect is the same as firing someone. I observed then that we have lately adopted a lot of ICT systems that waste a great deal more than that. Since then, things have been getting worse. We are about to move to an Office 365 system, for instance, that I am guessing will cost us the time of at least 5 people, maybe more, compared with our current aged Zimbra suite. It’s not rocket science: a minute of everyone’s day easily accounted for in loading time alone, which I have  checked seems to be roughly 20 seconds longer than the old system, and most people will load it many times a day. At the start, it will take way more than that, what with training, migration, confusion and all and, if my experience of Microsoft’s Exchange system is anything to go by, it is going to carry on sapping minutes out of everyone’s day for the foreseeable future thanks to poor design and buggy implementation. So far, so depressing.

But what have we actually lost?

The simplistic assumption that time is money has a little merit when tasks are routine and mechanical. If you are producing widgets then time spent not producing widgets equates directly to widgets lost, so money is lost for every second spent doing something else. Even that notion is a bit suspect, though, inasmuch as there are normally diminishing returns on working more. Even if a task requires only the slightest hint of skill or judgement, the correlation between time and money is a long, long way from linear. Far more often than not, productivity is lower if you insist on uninterrupted working or longer hours than it would be if you insisted on regular breaks and shorter hours.  At the other end of the spectrum, it is also true, even in the most creative and open occupations, that it is possible to spend so much time doing something else that you never get round to the thing that you claim to be doing, though it is very hard to pin down the actual break-even point. For instance, a poet might spend 23.5 out of every 24 hours not actually writing poetry and that might be absolutely fine. On the other hand, if a professor spends a similar amount of time not marking student work there will probably be words. For most occupations, there’s a happy balance.

But what about those enforced breaks caused by waiting for computers to do something, or playing a mechanical role in a bureaucratic system, or reading an ‘irrelevant’ all-staff email? These are the ones that relate most directly to my original point, and all are quite different cases, so I will take each in turn, as each is illustrative of some of the different ways time and value are strangely connected.

Waiting for the machine

As I wait for machines to do something I have from time to time tried to calculate the time I ‘lose’ to them. As well as time waiting for them to boot up, open a web page, open an application, convert a video or save a document, this includes various kinds of futzing, such as organizing emails or files, backing up a machine, updating the operating system, fixing things that are broken, installing tools, shuffling widgets, plugging and unplugging peripherals, and so on. On average, given that almost my entire working life is mediated through a computer, I reckon that an hour or more of every day is taken up with such things. Some days are better than others, but some are much worse. I sometimes lose whole days to this. Fixing servers can take much more. Because I work in computing and find the mental exercise valuable, futzing is not exactly ‘lost’ time for me, especially as (done well) it can save time later on. Nor, for that matter, is time spent waiting for things to happen. I don’t stop thinking simply because the machine is busy. In fact, it can often have exactly the opposite effect. I actually make very deliberate point of setting aside time to daydream throughout my working day because that’s a crucial part of the creative, analytic and synthetic process. Enforced moments of inactivity thus do a useful job for me, like little inverted alarm clocks reminding me when to dream. Slow machines (up to a point) do not waste time – they simply create time for other actitivies but, as ever, there is a happy balance.

Bacn

pig, showing cuts of meat

Bacn is a bit like spam except that it consists of emails that you have chosen or are obliged to receive. Like spam, though, it is impersonal, often irrelevant, and usually annoying. Those things from mailing lists you sometimes pay attention to, calls for conference papers that might be interesting, notifications from social media systems (like the Landing) that have the odd gem, offers from stores you have shopped at, or messages to all-staff mailing lists that are occasionally very important but that are mostly not –  I get a big lot of bacn. Those ‘irrelevant’ allstaff emails are particularly interesting examples. They are actually very far from irrelevant even though they may have no direct value to the work that I am doing, because they are part of the structure of the organization. They are signals passing around the synapses of the organizational brain that help give its members a sense of belonging to something bigger, even if the particular signals themselves might rarely fire their particular synapses. Every one is an invitation to being a potential contributor to that bigger thing. They are the cloth that is woven of the interactions of an organization that helps to define the boundaries of that organization and reflect back its patterns and values. The same is true of social media notifications: I only glance at the vast majority but, just now and then, I pick up something very useful and, maybe once every day or two, I may contribute to the flow myself. The flow is part of my extended brain, like an extra sense that keeps me informed about the zeitgeist of my communities and social networks and that makes me a part of them. Time spent dealing with such things is time spent situating myself in the sets, networks and groups that I belong to. Organizations, especially those that are largely online, that are seeking to reduce bacn had better beware that they don’t lose all that salty goodness because bacn is a thin web that binds us. Especially in a distributed organization, if you lose bacn, you lose the limbic system of the organization, or even, in some cases, its nervous system. Organizations are not made of processes; they are made of people, and those people have to connect, have to belong. Bacn supports belonging and connection. But, of course, it can go too far. It is always worth remembering that 21 seconds of bacn is another person’s time gone (for a large company, it might be a second or less) and that person might have been doing something really productive with all of that lost time. But to get rid of bacn makes no more sense than to get rid of brain cells because they don’t address your current needs. An organization, not just its members, has to think and feel, and bacn is part of that thinking and feeling. As ever, though, there is a happy balance.

Being a cog

cogs

I’ve saved this one till last because it is not like the others. Being a cog is about the kind of thing that requires individuals to do the work of a machine. For instance, leave-reporting systems that require you to calculate how much leave you have left, how many hours there are in a day, or which days are public holidays (yes, we have one of those). Or systems for reclaiming expenses that require you to know the accounting codes, tax rates, accounting regulations, and approvers for expenses (yes, we have one of those too). Or customer relationship management systems that bombard you with demands that actually have nothing to do with you or that you have already dealt with (yes – we have one of those as well). Or that demand that you record the number of minutes spent using a machine that is perfectly capable of recording those minutes itself (yup). This is real work that demands concentration and attention, but it does nothing to help with thinking or social cohesion and does nothing to help the organization grow or adapt. In fact, precisely the opposite. It is a highly demotivating drain on time and energy that saps the life out of an organization, a minute or two at a time. No one benefits from having to do work that machines can do faster, more accurately and more reliably (we used to have one of those). It is plain common sense that investing in someone who can build build and maintain better cogs is a lot more efficient and effective than trying (and failing) to train everyone to act exactly like a cog. This is one of those tragedies of hierarchically managed systems. Our ICT department has been set the task of saving money and its managers only control their own staff and systems, so the only place they can make ‘savings’ is in getting rid of the support burden of making and managing cogs. I bet that looks great on paper – they can probably claim to have saved hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars although, actually, they have not only wasted tens of millions of dollars, but they have probably set the organization on a suicide run. But they could as easily have gone the other way and it might have been just as bad. Over-zealous cog-making is harmful, both because ICT departments have a worrisome tendency to over-do it (I cannot have assignments with no marks, for example, if I wish to enter them into our records system, which I have to do because otherwise the cog that pays tutors will not turn) and because systems change, which means many of the cogs inside them have to change too, and it is not just the devil’s work but an accounting nightmare to get them all to change at the right time. Well-designed ICT systems make it easy to take out a cog or some other sub-assembly and replace it, and they use tools that make cog production fast and simple. Poorly designed systems without such flexibility enslave their users, just as much as those that have to submit to cog-retraining are enslaved when their systems change. As ever, there is a happy balance.

Wasting time?

I’m not sure that time is ever lost – it is just spent doing other things. It can certainly be wasted, though, if those other things do not make a positive difference. But it is complicated. Here are just a few of the things I have done today – not a typical day, but few of them are:

  • reading/responding to emails from staff, students and others: roughly 2.5 hours
  • writing a forward for a book: roughly 2 hours
  • writing this post: roughly 1 hour
  • walking: roughly 45 minutes
  • making/consuming food and drink: about 30 minutes
  • reading/ making notes on books and papers: roughly 1 hour
  • replying to interview questions: approximately 45 minutes
  • checking my boat didn’t die in the rainstorm: roughly half an hour
  • cleaning and tidying: maybe half an hour
  • writing a book: about 20-30 minutes
  • replying to student posts: roughly 1 hour
  • marking: roughly 1 hour
  • waiting for computers: perhaps half an hour
  • grooming/washing/etc: maybe half an hour
  • checking/listening to the news and weather: roughly 45 minutes
  • taking an afternoon nap: about half an hour
  • Skyping: roughly 15 minutes
  • Deleting spam from the Elgg community site: about 10 minutes
  • Drying a wet dog: about 5 minutes
  • serious thinking: roughly 12 hours

There are still a couple of hours left of my day before I read a book and eventually go to sleep. Maybe I’ll catch a movie while reading some news after preparing some more food. Maybe I’ll play some guitar or try to get the hang of the sansula one more time. With a bit of luck I might get to chat with my wife (who has been out all day but would normally figure in the list quite a bit). But I hope you get the drift. I don’t think it makes much sense to measure anyone’s life in minutes spent on activities, except for the worst things they do. Time may be worth measuring and accounting for when it is spent doing the things that make us less than human, but it would be better to not do such things in the first place. I have put off responding to the CRM system today and only spent a few minutes checking admin systems in general because, hell, it’s Monday and I have had other things to do. It is all about achieving a happy balance.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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