I just bought a new laptop. This is no small feat, because I’ve been thinking about the purchase for at least a year now (I bought a new desktop in June instead). There’s been a lot of internal (and external) debate about features and benefits and functionality. About Arrandale processors and how many gigs of RAM one needs. About portability.
I just finished reading Jonah Lehrer’s second book, How We Decide. In it, Lehrer makes an interesting point about purchasing decisions - that when we try and give our prefrontal cortices - our rational centers - too many variables to consider, our brains get overwhelmed and they give up. Our emotional brains have strong reactions to things, and when we’re asked to make complicated decisions (like, buying laptops), we really should listen to what our amygdalas are telling us.
Tim Brown once said, “As a designer I ply my craft in the turbulent waters between the complex things we create and the human beings they are intended to serve.” Our rational brains are really good at analyzing the complexity of objects that we have, but they are poor predictors of how usable they’re going to be in our lives. That’s a good challenge for designers to keep in mind - to help people bridge the gap between functionality and usability. Function is rational. Usability is emotional.
A month ago, during Snowpocalypse-turned-Icepocalypse in Atlanta, I impulse-bought the laptop that I should have bought nine months ago. In the month that I’ve had it, it’s barely left my side - from Breckenridge to El Paso to Baltimore and back.
And you know what? It’s the best laptop I’ve ever owned.
My first reaction to the CNN article about Sheryl Sandberg going home at 5:30 was the same as Pamela Stone’s: “This is news… ?” I mean really, a woman has two kids and she goes home in time to eat dinner and hang out with them. Shocking.
But I think back to the last time I went to dinner with friends. Imagine this conversation on a Friday night:
“Man, I’m exhausted. I got up at 6 cause I had an early morning meeting. I hate tax season.” “Oh that’s nothing, I didn’t get home from the office till 9, cranked through some more work, went to bed at 1:30, and then got up at 5:30 with the dog.” “Yeah, I’ve gotten less than 18 hours of sleep this whole week.” “Forget tax season. We work 80 hours a week, every week.”
I too work in Corporate America, and let me tell you, in Corporate America, we do not brag about going home at 5 PM. I started to think, if Sheryl Sandberg didn’t have the courage to talk about this until she became the COO of one of the most recognizable tech companies in the world, what is that saying about the millions of us who aren’t in that position? About the balance of our lives?
Why has this become a badge of honor? Why are we so competitive about how little we sleep and how much time we spend at the office? We’re a culture of one-uppers competing around the wrong metrics.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m just as guilty. There are days when I get up to run at 5:15 so I can be in the office at 7 AM, but there are also days I get to the office at 8:45. There are days when I leave at 7:30 PM, but more often than not, I’m gone before 6. And I’m just as apt to chime in about crazy hours and sprints and stress and work at the dinner table as any of my consultant / lawyer / accountant / software friends.
I’m early in my career. I’m not the COO of a huge tech firm. I don’t have kids, or a family to cook for, or kids to drive to soccer practice. But does that mean that my life is my work? That my time should be spent only at the office? Do I even have any credibility to talk about effectiveness, productivity, or work-life balance?
And the real question there is, does spending more time at the office make me more productive? Does taking my work home with me every night after 11 hours at my desk make me a better engineer? Does eating lunch at my desk so I can finish a CAD model make me a better designer?
Because of (or in spite of) my type-A-sleep-deprived-11-hours-a-day-in-the-office, am I creating better devices? Am I saving more lives?
Activity does not equate to value.
We know this, but we still refuse to believe it, to internalize it. We live in a culture where the perception of a young, single professional means if they’re not in the office beyond the 9 – 5, that they’re not serious about their careers. Where if you don’t have kids to take care of, you don’t have a legitimate excuse to leave early (although one look at my dog’s puppy eyes when I get home for a walk should make you disagree). That people who skip out at five are doing less, or producing less.
My very legitimate excuse to leave work before the sun goes down.
It’s clear that time spent on a task is not the right metric to measure success. So the next step is, what are we doing about it? As young engineers, consultants, developers, accountants, lawyers, researchers, are we using the right metrics in our own lives? Unless you’re working for yourself, it’s hard to completely quash the perception issues with working a four-hour workweek, but first things first: are you productive? And if not, what are you doing about it?
A few weeks ago Brandon gave me an interesting quote from a mutual friend: a truly meaningful career is “more than a job, but less than a life.” Don’t wear your my-life-is-work mentality as a badge of honor. Understand that there are things more important than how many dimensioned drawings you can produce in a week, or how many spreadsheets you can jockey before tomorrow morning.
Understand what the organization values – what you value – and pursue that. And then stop. And go home. And walk your dog.
Some mornings I stress about my work schedule. And then that makes me stress about how little sleep I get. And then I worry that I’m not at the gym enough, and that reminds me that I’m definitely not eating right. And by then, I’m too wound up in a ball of worry to enjoy my first few waking moments with the fluffball that wakes me up every day.
The world’s greatest dog in the morning.
In the first five minutes that I’m awake, before I write my 750 words or lace up my running shoes, I spend some time talking to the dog (if you have a dog, you won’t find this strange). Some days it’s the best time I get to spend some real time with her before the hustle sets in. I try not to rush past this time to the thousand things on my to-do list every day. I try and remember that these moments are precious, try to etch in my memory how she yawns, how she puts her paws on my shoulder to stretch. It won’t always be like this, and we won’t always have this time. The days are long, but the years are short.
In a lot of ways, design is about making the days shorter and the years longer. It’s about finding balance in the day-to-day and beauty in the big picture.
Finding balance is a work in progress. For everyone. It’s not easy to say no to things that are good in favor of things that are great. It’s not easy to design your day-to-day life consciously to live out your big-picture ideal life.
There’s an awesome blog post from Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, about regrets from the dying that she cared for in the last few weeks of their lives. The most common regret that people have when faced with their mortality is not living the life that made them happy.
No one, on their deathbed, says that I wish I had gone in to work a little bit earlier. Or that they had started work a few months sooner. Take time to do what matters. Spend time with the dog (kids, friends, etc.). Read an interesting book. Take a new class. The days are long, but the years are short.