Taming the Work Week: A review

Taming the Work Week is a short e-book by M. R. Nelson, aka Wandering Scientist aka Cloud.  In it, she makes the argument that everyone has a work limit, and that working beyond that work limit not only leads to diminishing marginal return (she doesn’t use that language), it can also lead to costly mistakes that actually create more work.

She notes that although research is clear that for early 20th century factory workers, 40 hours/week is the limit, we have no idea what the work limit is for knowledge workers.  And we really don’t.  It probably depends on a lot of factors (task mix, personal ability, etc.).  However, she provides steps for individuals to figure out whether they are working efficiently, and if not, how to work more efficiently.

It’s a short book with a lot of good tips.

Some may work better for some people than for others. For example, if you get more of your socialization at work than at home or after work, you may need that daily down-time with your colleagues interspersed with work, rather than waiting until you get home.  You won’t be as efficient or productive per-hour at work, but you’re also filling that socialization need on a regular basis.  On the other hand, if your home and social life provide a lot of social interaction already, cutting down on interruptions could greatly increase your productivity, allowing you to get out of work earlier without guilt.

Similarly, just going home when you’re not being productive doesn’t work for me because suddenly I become less productive earlier and earlier in the day as the days go on because I’m rewarding bad behavior and I have no self-control.  Instead, I need to task-switch from doing thinky research work to doing unrelated scut work like teaching prep or service.  That way I’m still being productive on stuff that has to get done eventually and I’m not training myself to leave before it’s time to pick up the kids (which is my hard deadline at the end of the day).

Nelson acknowledges these different kinds of different work styles.  Probably my favorite part of the book is where she provides some of the standard “how to be efficient” advice and points out when it doesn’t work for her and why. (Just going home doesn’t work for her either, but for different reasons.)  This added discussion of “why” really illustrates how you can think critically about the advice that’s out there to craft your own methods to improve your efficiency.

The biggest downside to this e-book is that the writing is uneven– it starts out stilted (carefully avoiding using contractions, for example), then shifts to a more conversational tone that is much easier to read.  Keep reading past the opening section or two– it’s worth it.

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23 Responses to “Taming the Work Week: A review”

  1. Griffin Says:

    This book sounds similar to parts of Overwhelmed by Brigid Shulte. Have you read it? Her title is misleading, or at least it was to me. I thought it was going to be a whiny book about the cult of busy. It is about the cult of busy, but not in the way I thought it would be. The book is heavily researched and has given me a lot to think about.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Nope. I have a big pile of non-fiction on my bookcase that I have yet to read, and Overwhelmed is not in it. Next up is Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, which is also heavily researched and about limited resources.

      As you’ll see tomorrow Wednesday, I’m taking a break from reading about manufactured problems.

      Glancing at the amazon reviews I see she complains about her husband in the book too. That made Gretchen Rubin completely unreadable for me. (Though #2 didn’t mind.) No, I’d rather spend my free reading time on romance novels.

    • Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

      I always enjoy reading stuff by Cloud! I find her thoughts on management most interesting, given that she’s spent many years trying to help her team members have reasonable lives.

      I’ve been working through Overwhelmed, since I have to review it for somewhere else. You are right that it is misnamed, which is bothering me. It could have been called “Actually I have plenty of time, I just had some psychological and personal issues I needed to work through. Maybe you do too.” That’s less snappy, though. Schulte’s reporting is always fun. I would have paid a lot to be a fly on the wall for the Pat Buchanan interview.

  2. gwinne Says:

    Hmmm. I really liked Overwhelmed, as it contains a fair amount of legitimate cultural analysis (and it recognizes that not everyone’s time is the same–as opposed to personal discussion of how to manage one’s time and efficiency, which generally leave me wanting the writer to come live my life for a week…)

    • hush Says:

      I read it recently for one of my book clubs, and I liked “Overwhelmed,” too. I enjoyed the chapter on “Hygge in Denmark,” as well as the Pat Buchanan interview, and I applaud her for the “Appendix: Do One Thing” — full of Many Actual Solutions to the vast array of problems she identified (esp. all of page 283).

      I disagree with her that there is this national American problem of all of these so-called “overscheduled kids” out there though – it was a huge unstated premise of hers. Nope, not buying that claim until I see some actual research saying so.

  3. Rented life Says:

    Sounds interesting though I wonder how it works for someone like me. I work from home exclusively. So does my boss and many of my colleagues. There’s some stuff I like–if I have an idea at 10pm the office is downstairs. Other times I miss the lack of social interaction (just a quick chat in lunch would be nice sometimes). And it’s easy to get distracted.

  4. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    This post reminds me of the painful bullshittio that always gets spewed during the NCAA hoops tourney about the “BILLIONS AND BILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN LOST PRODUCTION BY LAZY WORKERS ON THE INTERNET WATCHING HOOPS GAMES”. What these f*cken asshole “journalists” writing about that shitte don’t realize (or lie about not realizing for pro-plutocrat reasons) is that workers are gonna dicke around on the Internet, whether it’s NCAA tourney time or not. So subtracting the amount of time workers spend looking at NCAA hoops games/results from their total workday without offsetting it by the amount of time they would have spent looking at some other shit on the Internet (and by the amount of extra time salaried workers spend at work during NCAA tourney time to get their work done if they dicked around extra) is completely economically bankrupt. I f*cken HATE how the news media cover economics.

    • Cloud Says:

      Actually, the book is nothing like that at all. I don’t think the internet is inherently bad for productivity and actually build web-surfing breaks into my day. But I don’t watch basketball. I’m more into rugby and random geeky crap online. And I never, ever cared if people on my team were surfing the web at work. I cared that they got their work done and I cared that they be able to get that work done without having it take over their entire lives.

      And I don’t work in the news media. I’m a scientist and techie and I manage people and projects.

  5. Cloud Says:

    Thanks for the nice review, guys! And I appreciate the comment about the tone being uneven. I’ll have to be more careful about how I revise the book I’m working on now. I suspect the problem arose because I used blog posts as the basis of the core of the book, and then expanded from that.


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