Out of the Headlights

I got some interesting reader comments by email for last week’s post, Deer in Headlights. One common objection was: “But it’s not my fault!”

Of course it’s not. At least not exclusively.

Deer in headlights isn’t just a hart problem. It’s a hard problem. And it’s also a herd problem, from all I can tell:1 It cannot be solved by individuals alone, because our whole society is mad about getting things done – without ever asking whether any particular thing needs to get done in the first place.

So what shall we do about that?

No Need for Greed

There’s this famous old self-help advice: “Learn to say no!”

And I agree with it, of course: We permanently get so many ridiculous requests, there’s nothing wrong with declining a few of them.

That said, there are two sides to saying no: There’s the guy asking for a favor, and the other rejecting it.

If we want to avoid task overload on a societal level, we have to see things from a wholesome perspective: We may say no to some stupid requests. But even more important it is to stop making stupid requests to others. This means:

  • Think (and research) first before sending emails asking for information.
  • Consider if it’s necessary to interrupt your colleague for question X.
  • Be respectful of other people’s time.
Also: Whenever you approach someone to ask for a favor, don’t be greedy: Ask what you need to ask, but make it easy for them to say no.

Don’t fear that such a behavior will leave you alone in the dark. Most people are both kind and resourceful, and they are happy to help. But then, they might also be over-stretching themselves at times. By asking for favors, you might make their life worse. Thus, always include a simple and honest exit clause, so they can say no without losing their face.

All or Something

Even if we reduce our task load a little, overwork still is a widespread disease. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. The other day, I enjoyed reading a post by Emile of 37signals on the “all or something” approach to building a startup:

“The marginal value of the last hour put into a business idea is usually much less than the first. The world is full of ideas that can be executed with 10 to 20 hours per week, let alone 40. The number of projects that are truly impossible unless you put in 80 or 120 hours per week are vanishingly small by comparison.”

A similar idea is pursued by the New Economics Foundation, advocating a standard 21-hour work week:

“A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” (via New Escapologist)

For startups and the employed alike, dedicating less time to work in exchange for more idleness (or other projects) is indeed possible. If we accept to have a little less money, we can have all the free time that we want.

I know that most people will see this as a pipe dream. What they forget is that society is what we make it. Just because certain rules were fixed decades or even centuries ago, this doesn’t mean we cannot go beyond them.

  1. Memo to self: Stop making these ridiculous jokes. []

Comments 3

  1. Cristhyano March 8, 2012

    That’s what i think too. I look around here and see everyone faking their jobs and really doing something for less than 3 hours per day. With my plans for the future i can have the same income that i got now working only 2 hours a day, 5 days a week. If i work 4 hours a day i’ll get the double. And this if i charge the minimum price, when i get more experience i will need to work less than an hour per day to have the same income i got right now.
    To hell with the rat race.

    • Fabian March 9, 2012

      Oh yes, Cristhyano, that’s another good point: How much time to we really spend working while being at an office? I too have noticed that too much time is spent merely *looking* busy. I believe that part of the chunk is much better spent in a park, a bed, or a beach!

  2. ChrisF March 13, 2012


    – Think (and research) first before sending emails asking for information.
    – Consider if it’s necessary to interrupt your colleague for question X.
    – Be respectful of other people’s time.

    ..and always be prepared and respect a ‘No’.

    When people ask others and get angry/annoyed with the person they’re asking for saying ‘No’ you have to wonder if they realised they were offering a choice or were simply making a ‘polite’ demand. How will blaming another for refusing a request, choosing the other of one of two possible replies encourage them to listen to the requests of others?

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