Work in Disguise: Two Strategies to Find Out If You Are Truly Taking a Break

One of the most challenging aspects of knowledge work is one that is often overlooked: much of what we call knowledge ‘work’ is actually quite fun. Think of an entrepreneur, a software developer who likes to write code, think of a manager who likes to see her objects develop in fruitful ways, think of a teacher who likes to teach!

I myself like very many aspects of the tasks that occupy me at present. However, as difficult as it is for me to acknowledge, if I take a good, pure break; a break in which I am not in the least worried about the pursuit of my current professional passions, then, on my return back to work, I feel very positive and productive. In fact, many of my best ideas come to me right after a break or within a break.

However, the question arises what exactly makes up this good, pure break. What does it mean for me to be not working – not working at all? Since there are many other ‘projects’, which I pursue with great pleasure but which effectively could also be characterized as knowledge ‘work’.

To identify which activities are ‘work in disguise’ and therefore do not qualify to be part of a good, pure break, I came up with the following strategies:

Useful Tests

The useful test is relatively easy to apply. For the activity in question, ask yourself whether you would deem it useful in the general scheme of things. Will this help you to advance your career? Will it help you to become a better person? Will it earn you money now or in the future? If you can answer any of these questions with yes or if the activity is useful in any other way, then it does not pass the Useful Test and thus it should be carefully considered to be part of a good and honest ‘pure’ break.

Self Observation

The second strategy is a bit trickier to apply. This strategy entails to reflect upon how you worked AFTER pursuing the activity in question; where ‘after’ does not have to mean in direct succession; it could be the next day or a couple of hours later. The key point is not to look at how you feel during or directly after the activity. Instead, look at how effectively you work when you pick up on your main work again. In particular, focus on how easy the work feels to you: Do you have to drag yourself to get started, or does the work literally pull you in with the warm embrace of optimistic confidence? If the former is the case, the activity in question might not be well-suited for a healthy break.

Is this a strange problem to have: Being in danger to work too much and too often? My observation of the world tells me that not everybody is haunted by this very problem. However, I would expect there is many a founder/student/researcher/programmer/artist out there who is being less productive and happy because of wanting to work too much and, more importantly, because of the inability to relax truly and guilt free. Take some time off and enjoy the fruits of your non-work in form of a clearer mind, a more positive attitude and more creative ideas when you need them.

Why the Ideal Task is Necessary, Rewarding and Fun

When it comes to organizing our lives, structured and logical approaches are in no short supply. Divide large projects into small tasks. Prioritize what is more important over what is less so. Identify the critical path of tasks leading most surely to success. All these are activities of the conscious and deliberate mind.

Some psychologist like to call this dimension of our mind System 2. System 2 takes care of conscious reasoning and helps us to think through things logically. As might be implied from the very designation of this system, there is a corresponding System 1. This system is generally responsible for subconscious and automatic activities of our brain; which helps us to drive cars and climb stairs without us having to ‘think’ about it explicitly. Some people also like to call these two aspects of our mind the conscious and the subconscious in a dramatic simplification of scientific terminology.

However, notwithstanding the terminology employed, System 1 and System 2 don’t get very far without each other’s help. If we would be consciously thinking about every action we have to take, we would move as fast as a computer from the 1960s rendering msn.com. If we wouldn’t be consciously thinking about anything … well, no need to think too much about that.

It is concerning then that modern methodologies to organize our work rest firmly on the principles of system 2. Anybody who has employed these systems on any significant scale certainly can relate to the picture of being stuck moving at a speed which feels like it could be so much faster. System 1 is undoubtedly the system with more raw power; even if this power is often not directly available to us. However, there are various ways how we can harness the abilities of system 1 – especially if we speak its language of values and emotions.

Thus, I have a proposal here how we could bring a bit of System 1 into the way we organize our tasks. Specifically, I propose that for every task we need to undertake we assess the following three dimensions:

  • Necessity: Does this task need to be done.
  • Reward: Do I expect that completing this task will feel personally rewarding.
  • Fun: Do I think it will be fun to complete this task.

Depressingly, I have little doubt that many of our To Do items will score heavy on the first dimension, necessity – while being less accentuated for the latter two. All the more reason to think carefully about these dimensions and asses their impact for our well-being and productivity.

Necessity

If we do not do what needs to be done, we won’t progress in life. Increasing the level of necessity of our tasks is an exercise in reduction. Cutting out the tasks which are really not that important to have more time for what really matters. There are many systems available to accomplish this, for instance the very popular Getting Things Done.

Reward

We all had these days were we are running around like crazy all day working on one important matter after the other. Only to be rewarded with the stale feeling at the end of the day that really we haven’t accomplished anything at all. On the other hand, sometimes we do something small and seemingly unimportant – such as sending a short message to our loved one or finally sending off this message to Aunt Mary -, which leave us with a feeling of grand satisfaction with ourselves and our life. A lot of the research in the field of Positive Psychology has looked into the various aspects which moderate what leaves us feeling good and what doesn’t.

To some degree it is our individual preferences which affect how rewarding a task feels. Is family the most important for you in your life? Then picking up your daughter from school will certainly feel rewarding. Do want to become the most successfully mergers and acquisitions lawyer in history. Then putting in another hour for the next big case will feel rewarding without a doubt. However, while we are usually quite good at figuring out which tasks will be necessary and which not when we put our mind to it (that is system 2, of course), we are often complete failures at figuring out what tasks will be truly rewarding. Also, just as necessity is not fixture and can change based on our goals, how rewarding something feels is not unalterable. It depends to a large degree on our attitude towards the task.

Keeping this in mind, I have assembled a few rules of thumb to make the tasks we need to do more rewarding and to figure out ways to identify tasks which are rewarding:

  • Do things for others.
  • Attempt difficult things.
  • Think about how a task relates to your life goals (Surely, there’ll be some connection).

Fun

We are usually quite good at indulging in things which are fun to do. Watching our favourite drama show with a good cold beer, go out drinking and bet on horse races, checking the latest gossip about Aunt Mary on Facebook – the opportunities are endless. Unfortunately, many activities linked to issues of greater import in our life, such as family chores and – behold – work, do not overlap with what we consider fun (the exceptions proving the rule).

Unfortunately, we are not great experts in fun either (that is after passing into the second decade of existence). Since, often what we consider fun in the beginning quickly turns into a habit – until we forgot why we started doing it to begin with (think watching television, drinking and betting on horse races and checking Facebook). Thankfully, how entertaining an activity is not only determined by what we do but also by how we do it. Clearing out the rain gutters just becomes this much more fun if you do it with your best buddy while wearing fish masks.

Thus, here a preliminary short list of ideas how any tasks can become more fun.

  • Do things with others.
  • Do things differently or with different tools.
  • Do new things.
  • Do little things in a weird and stupid way.

You might have guessed the punchline of this article from its subtle title: Key to a successful organization of your tasks is to maximize how necessary, rewarding and fun your tasks are. This would assure you are getting more done while being more productive and altogether more happy.

However, this is easier said than done. Thus, if we cannot find tasks that fall within each of these categories, at least we should try to have a healthy mix of tasks falling within the different categories. For instance, to assure that in a day or week, we have some tasks which are necessary but also some tasks which are fun and rewarding.