Trapped by Andrius Mazeika

Doing Time

How wrong incentives damage motivation

It is no accident that prison sentences are measured in time. The gravity of punishment mainly depends on the chunk of time taken away. Unarguably, time is the most valuable thing we have.

The largest part of our awake hours, for most us, is spent at work. This is especially true for us office dwellers, or, what Peter Drucker called - knowledge workers. He coined this term back in 1959. Most of us spend a minimum of 8 hours in the Office.

This is where the irony hits me.

Essentially, we’re all doing time. Both us and the prisoners.

The Why

The origins of the 8-hour day lie in the Industrial Revolution.

I find there are two principal reasons for why the concept of using time was, and still is, used.

The first reason: simplicity. Hundreds of software solutions for billing and tracking time attest to this. You can not use computers to easily measure creativity or knowledge output. However, you can do this with time.

The second reason is social stigma. Work is a virtue. Most of us still subconsciously subscribe to the following saying:

The Devil makes work for idle hands.

There is a tendency to believe that the more we work (where work = time spent in the office) the better. Or is it?

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic motivators

Apart from wasting our lives (time = life), using time as measurement of output puts wrong incentives in place.

Incentives are immensely powerful and often achieve opposite results. Michael Sandel provides a few such examples in his excellent book. One concerns an Israeli day care centre where parents where “incentivised” to pick up their kids on time by introducing a late pickup fine. The result - the amount of late pickups went up. Instead, parents started treating this as a paid service.

When people are engaged in an activity they consider intrinsically worthwhile, offering them money may weaken their motivation by depreciating or “crowding out” their intrinsic interest or commitment. — Michael Sandel

Time is an extrinsic incentive which puts greater value on more instead of less. This goes against the very essence of effectiveness - to do more with less. It also moves the focus from the task at hand to doing time.

The pinnacle of this problem is flexi-time arrangements where software is used to track the time spent. This puts even more emphasis (and with extreme precision!) on… doing time.

3rd worlds

We often label less developed countries as Third World Countries. However, it might be more useful to use this dichotomy on a more granular and local level. Mostly here - in the “developed” world.

In 1959, Mr. Drucker suggested that industrial age management paradigms are no longer useful for managing knowledge workers.

Nowadays there are numerous management articles on the topic yet the majority of today’s workforce is still forced to do time.

It is these organizations, the modern Third Worlds, that are still stuck in pre-1959 thinking patterns. All for the sake of “virtue” and simplicity.