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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What the Most Successful People do at Work: A Book Review

Laura Vanderkam sent us her new e-book, “What the most successful people do at work.”

As with all of Ms. Vanderkam’s writing, this was a very easy read.  She’s got the Malcolm Gladwell thing down.  (Well, maybe not Malcolm Gladwell… there’s not quite as much suspense, but she has breezy edutainment down cold.)

The book touches upon a number of topics about productivity.  Unfortunately, it just touches upon them, giving a vivid example from a single case study for each idea, and maybe another from her own life, but in most cases not going into any depth about how universal each of these ideas is.  And it turns out there’s a lot of research out there on psychology.

Early on, she talks about getting in the zone.  There’s been books written on how to get there and what it means to get there, only instead of calling it “in the zone,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term, “flow.”  Laura V. is a far better writer than Mihaly C., and we’d love to see her do his material justice.

(#2 thinks C. is a fine writer!  #1 had a hard time with one of them– the other was easier, but not what one would call fun.  V. books are actually fun.)

Understanding sunk costs is a basic concept of productivity from economics– don’t throw good money (or time!) after bad.  Understanding them can also help productivity by keeping you from lingering emotionally.

The idea of a planning period also has research and randomized controlled trials to back it up.  Our favorite productivity researcher, Robert Boice, talks about the importance of planning and schedules and routines or habits.  And, of course, there’s the new best-selling book on The Power of Habit out there.  Something that should be noted that isn’t included in the research… whenever you’re working with other people, they will often drop the ball.  So it’s important to have secondary plans.

One chapter that’s completely missing from this ebook is the research on creativity:  the need for regular breaks to allow your subconscious to puzzle things out.  The breaks may be mentioned, but there’s hard science and reasons why, and not just about Willpower (another recent best seller) or energy levels.

The chapter on meetings had good ideas, but was a little disorganized.

I am reminded that I should do more networking.

The book’s discussion of progress on a goal brought to mind Virginia Valian’s solving a work problem.  (And, of course, there’s a huge dry psychology literature on goal setting, that we bet Laura Vanderkam could sex up.)

The book ends suddenly– a page or even a paragraph summing things up would make it seem longer!

Overall, I felt like this book was only the article portion of something that could be a real book.  It felt a lot like the book prospectuses I occasionally review for publishers.  It left me wanting Ms. Vanderkam to write a real book on productivity.  Something that ties all the research out there together into one magnum opus, but an opus no longer or more difficult to read than say, NurtureShock, with a chapter dedicated to each idea.

Such a book will require research.  And there’s a lot of research on productivity out there.  Best-selling recent books on Habit and Willpower are only the tip of the iceberg.

As she says, it’s priced at ebook novelette price, not full book price.  But I think she’s got a $24.95  (or $13.95 if you buy from Amazon) book in there that isn’t just a “What the most successful people” compilation.  So, yes, it’s well worth $3.99 (Buy it!), but it will leave you wanting something more substantial.   And I do think she’s the right person to give us that more substantial best-selling book on productivity.

Would you buy an in-depth book on productivity by Laura Vanderkam?  One that translates the academic research into real action items you can use?

mothers helpers

A mother’s helper is basically a nanny who only works when you’re also there.  Ze generally also does light cleaning.

With infant childcare there are several options.  You can go the nanny route, and work at the office while the nanny stays home with the baby.  You can do in-home childcare, which is similar except the care provider is in hir home rather than yours.  You can do center daycare, which is regulated by the state and includes many people taking care of many children.

We decided to go the mother’s helpers route for several reasons.  First, it was suggested to me by a famous woman in my field who had done the daycare route and was constantly sick (and the baby was constantly sick) and she wishes she’d done the mother’s helper route instead.  Oddly, when she had a second child she went the daycare route again and completely disremembers having any such conversation with me.  (She’s not the first famous person in my field to pour hir heart out to me and then forget I exist…)  Second, with our first baby, I was terrified of having a nanny looking after the baby unsupervised.  What if ze left the baby to cry all day?  What if ze shook the baby?  The fact that I didn’t trust myself alone with the baby added to that paranoia.  Third, the daycare centers didn’t have an opening for an infant until 8 months *anyway*.

Enter college students.

We always had at least two mother’s helpers at a time. When one was out sick with the plague it meant we didn’t lose an entire week.  (And presumably if one had to leave the job we would have been left partially in the lurch.)

With our first child we had some stunningly great mother’s helpers, and DC got very different things out of each (for example, that first semester, H was super active, M was basically a pillow for DC to recuperate from hir wild days with H).

With our second child we’ve had more scheduling difficulties, and we did have one quit before midterm to take a daycare job, despite having assured us when we hired her that she would stick out the semester.  So it’s been a bit stressful from that aspect.  However, I’m not sure that alternatives would have been any less stressful.  Fortunately this semester I have leave from teaching which I did not my first year, and DH is a lame duck with his job, so it’s been easier to weather these interruptions.

The mother’s helpers job is basically to entertain the baby when ze is awake and to either hold the baby when ze’s asleep or keep an ear out if ze is sleeping in the bassinet or pack-n-play or on the floor.  When I’m gone, they bottle feed the baby.  When I’m there they bring hir to me when ze is hungry and do light housework, starting with the kitchen.  When the baby is upset, ze goes to DH or me and we comfort.

As good as the childcare my kid is getting, I have to say my favorite part is having a clean kitchen at the end of the day.

What childcare arrangements have you or your kids done?  How did those work out?