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Work time is more than just laptop time
Recently a group of us in engineering discussed how different people think about and define 'work', and how connected (or disconnected) this is to sitting at a desk.
We found that while some colleagues felt comfortable 'working' away from their desks, others did not—and some folks even felt guilty if they didn’t get eight hours in at their desks.
Here we share some learnings, advice, and quotes to help others feel more comfortable working away from their desks.
Last updated5 Jan 2023
Not all types of work are equal
When we sit at our desks, we're usually 'executing': writing, reading, programming, having a meeting, etc.
But execution isn’t the only type of work we do—we also need to think, ponder, and reflect.
The time you spend pondering something while driving (I do that a lot), or lying in bed solving a problem; or the time you spend—and have spent—honing your skills and becoming better (through reading, taking courses, etc.) is time that helps you deliver work.
You shouldn't be embarrassed that not all that time is in front of a keyboard.
This thinking time is essential for us to execute effectively—the best part is that you don’t need to be at your desk to do it, and in fact you’ll probably get better results if you get away from your desk.
Personally, I like recording my ideas using voice notes during my walks. This helps me not forget anything when I get back to my desk. I also find that this speeds up the implementation phase of ideas/solutions thought of during said walk, which has reduced my feeling of guilt slightly.
Allow space for diffuse thinking
I’m sure this has happened to you: you’re taking a walk, having a swim, cooking dinner, or just woke up from a nap, and the answer to that problem you’ve been working on is right there… sweet!
This background, subconscious problem-solving, is called 'diffuse thinking'.
I wanted to share a book that speaks to this phenomenon of thinking away from your desk.
I’ve personally found this useful myself, and realized this happens with some things whether I like it or not. Sometimes there's value in banging your head off the wall, but often (and especially with creative stuff) you might need a bit of space. Absolutely nothing wrong with that.
The key is probably that the activity needs some component of physicality (even swiping around Tetris blocks) and not be very cognitively demanding, emotional, or numbing (meaning not learning materials or YouTube or social media, etc). You have to try and choose an activity, like a nice walk (without earphones), where your mind is free to roam while your body is busy.
In A Mind for Numbers, Barbara Oakly makes an analogy between thinking modes and a flashlight: you can set a flashlight to a tightly focused beam of light that can penetrate deep on a single point (focus thinking), or you can zoom out into the diffuse mode where light is cast broadly but is less intense (diffuse thinking).
Using this analogy, if you were trying to build a brick wall in the dark, you might use a focused light to ensure each brick is perfectly set, but you would need to zoom out from time to time to make sure the wall is straight.
I've mentioned this book before: Slack by Tom DeMarco. Top-level summary: stop trying to maximize efficiency, and make time in your workday.
You can’t turn diffuse thinking off—it’s how your brain works—but you can influence and leverage it.
By spending every work hour in front of your monitor, bouncing from task to task, going from call to call, you are holding yourself in focus thinking, and not allowing time for diffuse thinking.
The thing is, THINKING will happen—we cannot stop it—but the eureka moment to me was that the less space I left for intentional thinking, the more unintentional thinking I was doing.
Know your limits and change your environment
Taking a walk or going for a run, especially after a few back-to-back calls, helps clear my mind and process the conversations I’ve had. Without fail, if I try to dive into some execution work without a reset, I struggle to focus because the threads from the earlier calls keep surfacing.
The same can be said when banging your head against a problem. Recognizing when you're getting frustrated, and standing up and walking away, is key to being productive.
I can totally relate: I’m a different, less productive, and less pleasant human when I don’t take time to reset or drift while at yoga, running, cycling, sailing, walking, or school runs before/after/between work.
Tips for dealing with guilt
One common blocker for us is that making space for thinking time is often wrapped in guilt.
One way I have dealt with the guilt is to recognize that thinking time is not optional, it’s crucial for me to do my best work.
Another way to help with guilt is to set clear expectations with your team.
Clint Calleja, Director of Engineering at Hotjar, asked himself: "why do I not always manage to follow up when I book focus time on my calendar?"
And he said the answer "seems to be a mix of self-expectations around being available to help others, and feeling guilty if I leave messages unanswered. To remedy this, I have been trying to set the expectations clearer with the teams I’m working with:
I usually reply within 2 hours, and I’m going into the zone for 3
If I get an urgent request from someone, I don’t immediately look into the request, but share the expectation of when I think I have space to look into it
I make my Slack status clear
This approach has removed the guilt factor from the equation, and has actually increased the likelihood of me utilizing my focus time as planned.
So, in summary
Respect yourself, and give your future self the time to think intentionally
Set expectations, and remove guilt out of the equation"
Thinking time is not optional—it’s essential for you to do your best work.
When you're getting frustrated, or have just left a series of back-to-back calls, get away from your desk, get some fresh air, and enjoy a change of scenery—it will do wonders for your productivity, mindset, and motivation.
Feeling guilty is not uncommon, but setting clear expectations with your team and recognizing that it's just part of your day should help keep the guilt away.
Ask yourself: how often do you 'work' away from your desk, and what do you want your future of work to look like?
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