Constant connectivity has the potential to make accomplishing our jobs easier, but it may also contribute to “half-work” that saps workers of their energy without resulting in greater productivity. For some, constant availability and long hours are a sign of diligence, but it may significantly contribute to reduced productivity in the long run.
In A. G. Sertillanges’ classic book, The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods, he outlines a vocation for academics that has application well beyond the ivory tower. His advice about “half-work” is useful in a world filled with distractions and constant connectivity.
Avoid half-work more than anything. Do not imitate those people who sit long at their desks but let their minds wander. It is better to shorten the time and use it intensely, to increase its value, which is all that counts.
I cannot count the number of times I have found myself staring at a computer screen, wondering where the last fifteen minutes have gone because I have started work without a clear goal in mind and allowed myself to get distracted. This sort of half-work has the potential to rob me of time at my workplace and, as well, to steal time from other projects (like writing on the productive use of time) that I do for fun.
Given that my primary tool for working—my computer—is also now a major vehicle for entertainment, the possibility of being distracted has only increased. After all, if I am struggling with how to answer an email from one of my coworkers, my web browser is only a click away, with an endless stream of news articles, shopping opportunities, and humorous videos. Many companies also provide a wide range of intranet news about happenings in other corners of the enterprise, with videos, discussion boards, and similar distractions the internet offers.
On the other hand, since the email to my coworker must get answered, the report written, and the task completed, any time spent on distractions expands the hours I need to be connected to work (whether at the office or at home) and reduces the time I have for other vocations. This is unhelpful and unproductive.
Sentillanges exhorts his readers toward focused production:
Do something or do nothing at all. Do ardently whatever you decide to do; do it with all your might; and let the whole of your activity be a series of vigorous fresh starts. Half-work, which is half-rest, is good neither for rest nor work.
American knowledge workers tend to work more hours than we used to, leading some to describe “workism” as a replacement for religion. We are increasingly asked to be accessible off-hours for communication. And, significantly, many American companies have expanded opportunities for alternative working arrangements—working remotely, flexible hours, etc. Such flexibility has its benefits, but it also creates a culture that can draw us into continually doing half-work.
For example, if I get a text about something at work in an evening, I can either ignore it until morning or log in and find the answer. Maybe finding the answer takes only five minutes, but that is when I find another (often less pressing) email in my inbox that I might as well answer along the way. However, I am only half-interested in what I am doing, because the book I was reading was much more interesting. And then I have a question about something that I read a few minutes ago, so before I respond to the query, I look for that unrelated answer. The next thing you know, 45 minutes have elapsed and I’ve neither worked diligently nor rested effectively. My time is gone, but I have little to show for it. I was somewhat productive, but it robbed me of needed rest.
These sorts of interactions with work, which come in widely varied forms, drastically inflate the number of hours we are “working.” Often, they do not increase our productivity overall, but reduce it. Again, Sertillanges is helpful: “The principal question does not lie in the number of their hours; but in the use and in the mind.”
And yet, the number of hours we “work” is often used as a metric for how dedicated we are to our jobs. Among salaried employees, a tendency exists to half-boast, half-complain about how much work is consuming our time an attention.
“I worked over 60 hours last week,” one man complains, when defending himself for a due date that was missed.
“I was at the office until 9:00 pm on Tuesday,” a woman states with a weary look on her face.
Both of these statements may be true, but they fail to answer the more significant questions:
- How productive was that time spent at work?
- How much of that time was spent truly dedicated to productive activity?
- Did that extra time steal needed rest from the individual and thus reduce his or her productivity in the long run?
Although it is possible to “sprint” through projects in the short term, working long hours to complete an important goal, humans were built for a balance of work and rest. This is one reason why God commanded Israel to take a sabbath (Ex. 20:8).
We need space in our lives for rest and to pursue our other vocations. Expanding the footprint of work in our lives and shrinking the space for other vocations (like parent, church member, spouse, and citizen) is a recipe for unhappiness and unfruitful labor. Neither of those things glorifies God.
Paul reminded the Colossians,
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ (Col. 3:23–24).
This includes both our paid and unpaid vocations. Serving God is a whole-life activity, so that our calling as a parent is no less important (and perhaps much more important) than our calling as a mid-level manager, computer programmer, or loan processor.
Eradicating half-work from our lives and focusing on the task at hand will take a significant adjustment in our attitude and habits. However, as we seek to work heartily for Christ, it may be that spending less time on work with a greater focus will be much more God-honoring than investing abundant time with a distracted mind.
Editor’s note: Learn why everything we do matters to God, not just our work in How Then Should We Work?
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