The information age is now upon us, and history is repeating itself. But this time, it’s a bit different. In a recent movie about Steve Jobs, there’s a very pointed moment when Jobs (played by Ashton Kutcher) says that computers are tools created for the mind. To me, that’s essentially what’s happened during the information age: we’ve created productivity tools for the mind.
When people are asked to define the history of “hard work,” it’s natural to think of physical labor. Cutting rocks, lifting them, carrying them into place. It’s intuitive and natural to understand that after 12 hours a day of doing this hard work, a person would be exhausted, and their productivity would go down with each additional hour of work. This is the problem that was solved in the industrial age. Machines were invented to move these rocks, and do all of the physically-intensive work faster than humans. Humans could now do their jobs much faster, and the productivity gains made it possible to reduce the number of working hours, without sacrificing profitability.
The productivity gains of the industrial age are easier to understand. It makes sense to all of us, why machines could help us reduce the long factory hours to an eight-hour workday. But when the conversation transitions into today’s productivity issues (and specifically in the world of knowledge workers and computer-based work), it’s harder for most people to identify and understand.
In this era, the machines now do most of the physical work. Now, we do the work that only our minds can do. We’re exercising our minds now, much more than our bodies. In fact, many of us are sitting at office desks so long that the sustained immobility is actually creating health issues. This exercising of the mind is very taxing on both your body and your mind.
That’s why we still get tired and need to sleep at night. It’s to regenerate your body, but it’s also to regenerate and reset your mind. Our minds must be sharper now, and rested, in order for us to not go crazy.
In the information age, we’ve created tools for the mind, because that’s what we needed next. The industrial age gave us the tools to do the work of our bodies, but now we need tools to further leverage our minds. Thanks to innovators like Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, and thousands of other contributors to the technologies of the information age, many of those tools have been created. As a result, our minds have been given the same gift as our bodies received 100 years ago: we’re able to accomplish our work in a much shorter period of time. In fact, we’re able to accomplish work now that was not even possible before.
But unlike last time, these productivity gains weren’t passed on to the workers. Not yet, anyway. Instead, we’re simply working more hours. We’re using our higher levels of productivity to (attempt) to accomplish more work. But that just doesn’t work, because our minds don’t work the same way our bodies do. What’s happening now is that we’re overworking the mind.
We’ve got unprecedented amounts of stress, mental illness, and breakdowns that manifest as physical illnesses. An eight-hour workday, for a knowledge worker, is like a 16-hour day for the industrial laborer. It’s pushing the majority of humans past their limits, and with the productivity gains of today and tomorrow, it’s no longer the best business decision to keep doing this.
What’s really happening today is this: knowledge workers are accomplishing two to three good hours of work in a day. They might be stretching it across an eight-hour day, but the truth is, they’re likely only accomplishing two to three hours of solid, productive work.
Why? Because they can. Because we’ve now got these technologies that have enabled our minds to become massively more productive, and this trend will only continue. Many of your most talented employees and co-workers already know this, but they have no incentive to admit it. Our current workweek trains people to spread out their work to fill their workdays, and rewards them for doing it.
Because we’ve had a huge increase of productivity, and it’s happened so quickly, it’s also possible that people are just working inefficiently. They’re not realizing their work could’ve been finished in three hours, instead of eight. But again, what incentive do they have to think this way, and innovate?
If a worker’s job is to move 10 items and they have eight hours to do it, and a new machine now enables them to move more items than before, what do you think typical worker will do? Obviously you need a little more information to solve this problem.
Let’s say you think that this machine will make the worker twice as fast (you don’t know because it’s new), so you ask the worker to double their work to 20 items. The worker, upon beginning to do the work, quickly realizes that it’s possible to move 100 items a day. That’s how technology today is, it’s better than people realize, and it keeps getting better every year.
But this worker, knowing he’s got to stay at work for at least eight hours, has no incentive to move more than 20. In fact, if he moves more than 20, then he’s got no room for “improvement” when performance reviews come around.
The worker has every incentive to move exactly 20 items. Is it any surprise to us then, when he only moves 20 a day?
This is exactly what’s happening now, in the information age. You’ve already got these efficiencies and gains in productivity, whether you know it or not. There’s just no incentive for workers to find or utilize that productivity, in most companies.
That’s why I believe most people are just stretching out three hours’ worth of work across their 8-10 hour workday. I’m not saying the people are lazy, either. I’m saying they’re doing what they’re incentivized to do.
The better bargain, for both the employer and the employee, is to incentivize productivity by working faster and getting the hell out of there. Receiving the same pay (or more), with more time to go live your life. That’s quite a reward, and people would be incredibly motivated by that.
But instead, we all fill our time at work, because we’re paid on a 40 hour workweek.