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If You Don’t Choose Your Work Habits, Your Habits Will Choose You


The Nature of Our Business

When Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow began her multi-year study of consultants at the high-pressure Boston Consulting Group (BCG), she was quick to identify a defining behavior of her subjects: they were always connected. The pressure for them to check their email at all waking hours was intense — a point captured in the title of Perlow’s 2012 book on her research, Sleeping with Your Smartphone.

As Perlow summarized in an HBR article on the topic, the BCG consultants, like many knowledge workers, see this constant connectivity simply as “the nature of our business.”

To me, however, the important question lurking behind this topic is how did this behavior become so natural?

And it’s here that Perlow’s research on BCG uncovers an interesting answer…

The Cycle of Responsiveness

There was never a BCG board meeting or company wide strategy session where it was decided that significantly increasing consultant connectivity would boost profits or improve morale.

Instead, as Perlow documents, this behavior emerged in an undirected and incremental manner within the organization…

  • It would start with a legitimate need: perhaps a consultant (let’s call her Alice in this example) begins checking her email later at night to match the distant time zone of a client.
  • Once online, Alice might answer a few stray emails from her coworkers to get ahead on her inbox processing.
  • These coworkers, seeing that Alice seems to be online at night develop an expectation that a message sent late in the day will be answered before the next morning…so they start to send more messages of increased urgency after hours.
  • Alice responds to this pressure by spending more time online during the evening to answer these messages quicker.
  • This resets the expectations of Alice’s peers to the point where they now expect a response within an hour at any point in the evening.
  • And so on…

Repeat similar “cycles of responsiveness” (to use Perlow’s term) all across an organization and it doesn’t take long before a company evolves a culture of constant connectivity — the new behavior, seemingly overnight, becoming “the nature of our business.”

The key point in Perlow’s description is that this cycle is haphazard. It’s driven by convenience, expectations, and human nature — not a careful process analysis. We have, in other words, no reason to believe that this behavior is a particularly effective way to conduct business — and yet most modern knowledge workers accept it as an immutable law.

The Need for Workflow Engineering

A few months ago, I introduced the concept of workflow engineering. The basic idea is that knowledge workers should subject their workflows to the same metric-driven analyses that massively increased the profitability of the industrial sector in the early 20th century.

The cycle of responsiveness summarized above underscores the importance of this philosophy. When you don’t subject your professional behavior to scrutiny, and instead just accept the emergent status quo as the “nature of our business,” you may not be happy with what evolves.

In the end, it may turn out that our smartphone addictions are a boon to our productivity (though I doubt it), but as it stands we don’t know either way, as this is just one of many behaviors in 21st century knowledge work that we’re content to allow to emerge without constraint or evaluation.

Put another way: until we’re willing to work seriously on how we work, we’re in for an unpredictable and bumpy ride.

21 thoughts on “If You Don’t Choose Your Work Habits, Your Habits Will Choose You”

  1. I work in a non-profit organizational culture where the convenience and well-being of the individual have naturally evolved to be considered paramount. I once asked a coworker if he felt it would be okay to take a break from a monotonous task that had me reeling. “I know you’re on a deadline and this job has high priority,” I said, “But would it be all right…” He looked me very surprised and said, “Your HEAD has the highest priority.” Thank heaven, I can survive quite comfortably by putting $15 on my pay-as-you-go smartphone every three months, and answering emails when I’m damned-best-prepared to do so, early in the a.m.

  2. For many groups of knowledge workers, there has been no incentive to be more efficient. For consultants, lawyers, accountants, etc., inefficiency has been a profitable business model (the billable hour). So one thing that drives this behavior is that every time those consultants send or respond to an email, they are billing the client for this activity: they are making money. While I definitely agree that efficiencies must be introduced into knowledge work, doing so will require that inefficient behavior not be financially incentivized.

    • I agree. The reason these inefficient systems are still in place — in health care too — is that we are confronting a great deal of complexity in reorienting the system and many different levers/actors. On a personal note, each time I follow Cal’s advice and take extended breaks from my inbox, I continually get the same results: nothing in my inbox is all that crucial when I return.

  3. I once worked at a company where people couldn’t figure out how I was not working all times of the day and night. I told them I did not reply to emails and voice mail at night time. I would review the subjects and if something appeared to be important I would read the email but that was all. A few key clients have my number should a real emergency pop up. Amazingly, everything could wait till the morning.

    I think this made me more productive because I would work better throughout the day and not be exhausted all day.

    • Completely agree, Mike! Setting the priorities is the essential thing to do. Productivity requires a steady schedule and constant development, which couldn’t be done with regular distractions.

  4. I definitely see this pattern to be true and important to break.

    Some keys to moving forward in that area that I’ve observed is getting off the dopamine addiction and learning to savor the task at hand. As you’ve talked about in previous posts, this is something that you need to gradually train your brain to do by withholding the input.

    I’ve also found planning what you will do instead of constant connectivity is really important. If you’re not clear on the alternative and the opportunity cost of not focusing, it’s hard to stay away from the siren call of email and phone.

    To your brilliance!

  5. Workflow engineering is crucial to my success as an Assistant Professor working toward tenure. One useful practice has been journaling first thing in the morning, instead of plugging into email.

    Speaking of journaling, if you haven’t already heard, you might be interested to know that Deep Work was briefly mentioned on a recent Tim Ferriss podcast in the context of good work habits.

    The context: Tim asked author Ryan Holiday how he applies principles of stoicism to his daily life. His answer included journaling every morning, and one of the things he writes down each day is how many hours of deep work he accomplished the previous day.

    The details: Show #169, at about 1:23:00

  6. poor time management skills is a primary reason why students aren’t ready for “real world challenges” on the job and why so many hire the service in a panic.
    Writing is a “threshold skill” for hiring and promoting professional employees, so if your goal is to get your dream job and climb the corporate ladder in your chosen field, use your college years to strengthen your writing and time management skills

  7. I wonder how much of this is due to the cutback culture in today’s businesses. Since you never know when some decision will be made to cut staff to reduce costs, employees are always on edge, trying to show what they perceive as value to the company. Rarely is there any metric that can be measured that justifies “Alice” always being available. It would be interesting to study whether companies take this behavior into account when cutbacks are announced. I suspect that unless you are a consistently top performer for your company (and most of them have probably been trained to act this way), this is one way to make yourself appear indispensable. As a boss, I would wonder what kind of job you are doing that everything is a crisis that needs your immediate attention.

  8. It’s up to us to set our cycle of responsiveness, and important in both professional and personal lives (it’s one way we teach others how to treat us). This cycle exists in marriages (which are, of course, more important than jobs), and in parenting. (How do I need to change my level of response/reaction to something my children do?) Thanks for the post; I included it in my most recent roundup on my blog along with a few other articles.


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