The joy of being idle (at work)

George knows the importance of idle time at work (

I recently read a book called The Problems of Work in which L Ron Hubbard described his theories on work, how it is an inherently natural part of our lives, and the problems we have imposed upon work in our attempts to squeeze out more productivity and to overly control the outcome.  For, as Hubbard puts it, problems occur when control on work is misplaced.  I am fascinated by this in that work has been a big part of my adult life and I get lots of satisfaction from it, and have tried to reconcile this with the notion of ‘work-life balance’, which I conclude at this point of my life as being misguided bunkum – the sort of white-wash that only causes grief and separation in our lives at a time when we should be looking for wholeness.

Work for me has changed over the years.  When I joined the Royal Australian Air Force in 1992, work started at 7.30am and 4.30pm Monday to Thurs, with an early knockoff on Friday.  It meant that you could almost squeeze in a long weekend, every week.  Then I moved to Logistics Command in Melbourne and the times became closer to the norm (8.30am to 5.15pm) but we gained a tea lady and interesting places to go for lunch.  We spent time celebrating important milestones, recounting cool Air Force stories, talking of policy and politics and this time away from the task at hand was an important part of culture.  Some may say that this was idle time, others that it was building camaraderie.  Then I joined Accenture and the overnight, out-of-town, cut and thrust world of consulting became the norm.  Gone were the regular hours and the tea lady with the coffee scrolls and hot coffee, only to be replaced by eating on the run, pumping out the greatest volume of work you could, and trying to keep yourself sane in the process.  I would on occasion work through the night and well into the next day, got better at conflict resolution and was driven to be better at my work.  There was no time to stop between jobs either, because the focus was in securing the next job or in practice development (ie working on things you couldn’t bill for). I learnt so much during my time at Accenture that I apply even today and am very grateful for this.  I moved on to a few IT consultancies after that with varying degrees of cut and thrust, interspersed with idle time and in some roles being more idle than working – which was difficult for me to deal with at the time.  Being idle, I felt, was not being visibly productive and if I wasn’t visibly productive then what was the point of me being there.  Then idleness was brought into stark contrast when I started working for Infosys in 2004.  Their culture was struggling to find a middle path between driving to deliver on the time-frames their clients expected whilst respecting the need for idle time.  It seemed to me that everything would be delivered when it was ready and at the perfect time and relaxed periods of work were interleaved with periods of panic.

Idleness is an important part of work that I think we have lost in the pursuit of being visibly productive.   In my earlier work career, it was important to spend idle time at morning tea or lunch to catch-up with the lives of the people you worked with, or to explore something completely different, or to go for a walk with no particular purpose than to be.  My time at Accenture and then Infosys showed me the spectrum of idleness.  Accenture drove for no idle time, whilst Infosys encouraged idleness as an important part of its culture.  In his book How to Be Idle: A Loafer’s Manifesto, Tim Hodgkinson, talks about how spending more time being idle can change your life.  I do believe we can be more productive by having some work-sanctioned idle time.  Facebook give their employees 20% of their work time to pursue something of interest that is not work related (listen to the full Masters of Scale podcast episode with with Mark Zuckerberg for more).  Not all businesses realise a profit margin like Facebook that provides the luxury of this amount of idle time, but it does help to demonstrate that some of our newer juggernauts are seeing its value.

Back to L Ron Hubbard, and the Problem of Work.  One of the important theories he puts forward is that every worker must have control over their work, and be willing to accept control from higher up, and to exercise control over people they supervise.  You work is at its best when it you control only that within your realm of responsibility.  Go outside of this and problems manifest.

My work now has changed again being part of Charlie Mac.  I choose where I work and the amount of idle time I need to be effective.  After answering emails, taking phone calls, writing proposals and managing Charlie Mac, I can, on average, work around 5 hours a day on direct work for clients.  I can work more, and sometimes do when a tight deadline demands it, but it means that something gets deferred to a later time.  I work in my office, at a small writing bureau in our lounge (when the office is way too cold), in cafes and frequently at the offices of our clients.  I like variety and I think I do my best work when I change my environment now and again.  For example, this article was written whilst my wife Leanne and I were having a quiet afternoon of lunch, lounging and fun banter.

My point is that work should be fun and an expression of who we are.  We should have time to be idle to explore aspects of ourselves, and this will ultimately make us better at the work we then do.

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