4 things you should probably never do at work.

I don’t like lists, and I don’t really like career advice, because both tend to play on peoples’ need for simple answers and to have obvious advice thrown at them telling them what they already know. But here we go. I hope that in addition to these items, readers will be patient enough to find the connecting theme, which I’ll reveal at the end. Here are 4 things one should never do at work. I say this not from a position of moral superiority, having made most of these mistakes in the past, but with the intention of relaying some counterintuitive observations about work and what not to do there, and why not.

1. Seemingly harmless “goofing off”. I’m talking about Farmville and Facebook and CNN and Reddit Politics and possibly even Hacker News. You know, that 21st-century institution of at-work web-surfing. It’s the reason no decent website publishes timestamps on social interaction, instead preferring intervals such as “3 days ago”; being run by decent human beings, they don’t want to “play cop” against everyday bored workers.

I don’t think it’s wise to “goof off” at work. That’s not because I think people are at risk of getting caught (if goofing off were treated as a fireable offense, nearly the whole country would be unemployed). Direct professional consequences for harmless time-wasting are pretty rare, unless it reaches the point (3+ hours per day) where it’s visibly leading to unacceptable work performance. Moreover, I say this not because I’m some apologist trying to encourage people to be good little corporate citizens. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s a counterintuitive and entirely selfish reason why wasting time on the clock is a bad idea: it makes the time-wasters unhappy.

Yes, unhappy. People with boring jobs think that their web-surfing makes their work lives more bearable, but it’s not true. The distractions are often attractive for the first few minutes, but end up being more boring than the work itself.

Here’s the secret of work for most people: it’s not that boring. Completely rote tasks have been automated away, or will be soon. Most people aren’t bored at work because the work is intrinsically boring, but because the low-level but chronic social anxiety inflicted by the office environment (and the subordinate context, which makes everything less enjoyable) impairs concentration and engagement just enough to make the mundane-but-not-really-boring tasks ennui-inducing. It’s not work that makes people unhappy, but the environment.

Working from home is a solution for some people, but if there isn’t pre-existing trust and a positive relationship with manager, this can cause as many problems as it solves. In the age of telecommunications, “the environment” is not defined by the Euclidean metric. It’s the power relationships more than the noise and crowding that make most work environments so toxic, and those don’t go away just because of a physical separation– not in the age of telecommunications.

I read once about a study where people were expected to read material amid low-level stressors and distractions and they attributed their poor performance not to the environment but to the material being “boring”, while control-group subjects (who comprehended the material well) found it interesting. In other words, the subjects who suffered a subliminally annoying office-like environment attributed their lack of focus to “boring” material, when there was no basis for that judgment. They misattributed the problem because the environment wasn’t quite annoying enough to be noticeably distracting. The same thing happens at probably 90 percent of jobs out there. People think it’s the work that bores them, but it’s the awful environment making it hard to concentrate that bores them. Unfortunately, ergonomic consultants and lighting specialists aren’t going to solve this environmental problem. The real problem is the power relationships, and the only long-term solution is for the worker to become so good at what she does as to lose any fear of getting fired– but this takes time, and a hell of a lot of work. No one gets to that point from Farmville.

How does Internet goofing-off play into this? Well, it’s also boring, but in a different way, because there’s no desire to perform. No one actually cares about Reddit karma in the same way they care about getting promoted and not getting fired. This reprieve makes the alternative activity initially attractive, but the unpleasant and stressful environment remains exactly as it was, so boredom sets in again– only a few minutes into the new activity. So a person goes from being bored and minimally productive to being bored and unproductive, which leads to a stress spike come standup time (standup: the poker game where you cannot fold; if you don’t have cards you must bluff) which leads to further low productivity.

Also, actually working (when one is able to do so) speeds up the day. Typical work is interesting enough that a person who becomes engaged in it will notice time passing faster. The stubborn creep of the hours turns rapid. It’s Murphy’s Law: once there’s something in front of you that you actually care about getting done, time will fucking move.

People who fuck around on the Internet at work are lengthening (subjectively speaking) their workdays considerably. Which means they absorb an enhanced dose of office stress, and worse “spikes” of stress out of the fear of being discovered wasting so much time. Since it’s the social anxiety and not the actual work that is making them so fucking miserable, this is a fool’s bargain.

Don’t waste time at work. This isn’t a moral imperative, because I don’t give a shit whether people I’ve never met fuck off at their jobs. It’s practical advice. Doing what “The Man” wants may be selling your soul, but when you subject yourself to 8 hours of low-grade social anxiety whilst doing even more pointless non-work, you’re shoving your soul into a pencil sharpener.

2. Working on side projects. The first point pertains to something everyone has experienced: boredom at work. Even the best jobs have boring components and long days and annoyances, and pretty much every office environment (even at the best companies) sucks. This is fairly mundane. What I think is unique about my approach is the insight that work is always a better antidote for work malaise than non-work. Just work. Just get something done.

People who fuck around on Facebook during the work day don’t have an active dislike for their jobs. They don’t want to “stick it to the man”. They don’t see what they’re doing as subversive or even wrong, because so many people do it. They just think they’re making their boredom go away, while they’re actually making it worse.

Some people, on the other hand, hate their jobs and employers, or just want to “break out”, or feel they have something better to do. Some people have good reasons to feel this way. There’s a solution, which is to look for another job, or to do a side project, or both. But there are some who take a different route, which is to build their side projects while on the job. They write the code and contact clients (sometimes using their corporate email “to be taken more seriously”) while they’re supposed to be doing paid work. This doesn’t always involve “hatred” of the existing employer; sometimes it’s just short-sighted greed and stupidity.

Again, I’m not saying “don’t do this” because I represent corporate stoogery or want to take some moral position. This is a practical issue. Some people get fired for this, but that’s a good outcome compared to what can happen, which is for the company to assert ownership over the work. I’ve seen a couple of people get personally burned for this, having to turn in side projects over which their companies asserted rights for no reason other than spite (the projects weren’t competing projects). They lost their jobs and the project work.

If you have a good idea for a side project at work, write the key insights down on a piece of paper and forget about them until you get home. If you must, do some reading and learning on the clock, but do not use company resources to build and do not try to send code from your work computer to your home machine. Just don’t. If you care about this side project, it’s worth buying your own equipment and getting up at 5:00 am.

3. Voicing inconsequential opinions. The first two “should be” obvious, despite the number of people who fall into those traps. This third one took me a while to learn. It’s not that voicing an opinion at work is bad. It’s good. However, it’s only good if that opinion will have some demonstrable career-improving effect, preferably by influencing a decision. A good (but not always accurate) first-order approximation is to only voice an opinion if there’s a decent chance that the suggestion may be acted upon. This doesn’t mean that it’s suicidal to voice an opinion when an alternate decision is made; it does mean you shouldn’t voice opinions if you know that it won’t have any effect on the decision.

No one ever became famous for preventing a plane crash, and no one ever got good marks for trying to prevent a plane crash and failing. There’s no, “I told you so” in the corporate world. Those who crashed the plane may be fired or demoted, but they won’t be replaced by the Cassandras who predicted the thing would happen. (If anything, they’re blamed for “sabotage” even if there’s no way they could have caused it.) Instead, they’ll be replaced by other cronies of the powerful people, and no one gets to be a crony by complaining.

This rule could be stated as “Don’t gossip”, but I think my formulation goes beyond that. Most of the communication that I’m advising against is not really “office gossip” because it’s socially harmless. Going to lunch and bashing a bad decision by upper management, in a large company, isn’t very likely to have any professional consequences. Upper management doesn’t care what support workers say about them at lunch. But this style of “venting” doesn’t actually make the venters feel better in the long run. People vent because they want to “feel heard” by people who can help them, but most venting that occurs in the workplace is from one non-decision-maker to another.

The problem with venting is that, in 2012, long (8+ years) job tenures are rare, but having one is still an effective way to get a leadership position in many organizations. If nothing else, a long job tenure on a resume suggests stability and success and can result in a leadership position if it doesn’t come from that career itself. Now, it can sometimes be advantageous to “job hop”, but most people would be better off getting their promotions in the same company if able to do so. Long job tenures look good. Short ones don’t. Now, there are good reasons to change jobs, even after a short tenure, but people should always be playing to have the long tenure as an option (even if they don’t plan on taking it). Why speed up the resentment clock?

Also, social intercourse that seems “harmless” may not be. I worked at a company that claimed to be extremely open to criticism and anti-corporate. There was also a huge “misc” mailing list largely dedicated to rants and venting about the (slow but visible) decline of the corporate culture. This was at a company with some serious flaws, but on the whole a good company even now; if you got the right project and boss, the big-company decline issues wouldn’t even concern you. In any case, this mailing list seemed inconsequential and harmless… until a higher-up informed me that showing up on the top-10 for that mailing list pretty much guaranteed ending up on a PIP (the humiliation process that precedes firing). This company had a 5% cutoff for PIPs, which is a pretty harsh bar in an elite firm, and a mailing-list presence pretty much guaranteed landing in the bucket.

Opinions and insights, even from non-decision-makers, are information. Information is power. Remember this.

4. Working long hours. This is the big one, and probably unexpected. The first 3? Most people figure them out after a few years. I doubt there are few people who are surprised by points 1, 2, and 3. So why do people keep making first-grade social mistakes at work? Because they sacrifice too fucking much. When you sacrifice too much, you care too much. When you care too much, you fail socially. When you fail socially, you fail at work (in most environments). And no one ever got out from under a bad performance review or (worse yet) a termination by saying, “But I worked 70 hours per week!”

The “analyst” programs in investment banking are notorious for long hours, and were probably at their worst in 2007 during the peak of the financial bubble. I asked a friend about his 110-hour weeks and how it affected him, and he gave me this explanation: “You don’t need to be brilliant or suave to do it, but you need to be intellectually and socially average– after a double all-nighter.” In other words, it was selection based on decline curve rather than peak capability.

Some of the best and strongest people have the worst decline curves. Creativity, mental illness, and sensitivity to sleep deprivation are all interlinked. When people start to overwork, the world starts to go fucking nuts. Absurd conflicts that make no sense become commonplace and self-perpetuating.

Unless there’s a clear career benefit to doing so, no one should put more than 40 hours per week into metered work. By “metered” work, I mean work that’s expected specifically in the employment context, under direction from a manager, typically (in most companies) with only a token (or sometimes no) interest in the employee’s career growth. And even 40 is high: I just use that number because it’s the standard. Working longer total hours is fine but only in the context of an obvious career goal: a side project, an above-normal mentorship arrangement, continued learning and just plain “keeping up” with technology changes. Self-directed career investment should get the surplus hours if you have the energy to work more than 40.

In general, leading the pack in metered work output isn’t beneficial from a career perspective. People don’t get promoted for doing assigned work at 150% volume, but for showing initiative, creativity, and high levels of skill. That requires a different kind of hard work that is more self-directed and that takes a long time to pay off. I don’t expected to get immediately promoted for reading a book about programming language theory or machine learning, but I do know that it will make me more capable of hitting the high notes in the future.

Historically, metered work expectations of professionals were about 20 to 25 hours per week. The other 20-25 hours were to be invested in career advancement, networking, and continuing education that would improve the professional’s skill set over time. Unfortunately, the professional world now seems to be expecting 40 hours of metered work, expecting employees to keep the “investment” work “on their own time”. This is suboptimal: it causes a lot of people to change jobs quickly. If you’re full to the brim on metered work, then you’re going to leave your job as soon as you stop learning new things from the metered work (that’s usually after 9 to 24 months). Google attempted to remedy this with “20% time”, but that has largely failed due to the complete authority managers have to destroy their subordinates in “Perf” (which also allows anonymous unsolicited peer review, an experiment in forcible teledildonics) for using 20% time. (Some Google employees enjoy 20%-time, but only with managerial blessing. Which means you have the perk if you have a nice manager… but if you have a good manager, you don’t need formal policies to protect you in the first place. So what good does the policy do?)

Worse yet, when people start working long hours because of social pressures, something subversive happens. People get huge senses of entitlement and start becoming monstrously unproductive. (After all, if you’re spending 12 hours in the office, what’s 15 minutes on Reddit? That 15 minutes becomes 30, then 120, then 300…) Thus, violations of items #1, #2, and #3 on this list become commonplace. People start spending 14 hours in the office and really working during 3 of them. That’s not good for anyone.

It would be easy to blame this degeneracy pattern on “bad managers”, like the archetypical boss who says, “If you don’t come in on Saturday, then don’t bother coming in on Sunday.” The reality, though, is that it doesn’t take a bad boss to get people working bad hours. Most managers actually know that working obscene hours is ineffective and unhealthy and don’t want to ask for that. Rather, people fall into that pattern whenever sacrifice replaces productivity as the performance measure, and I’ll note that peers are often as influential in assessment as managers. It’s often group pressure rather than managerial edict that leads to the ostracism of “pikers”. When people are in pain, all of this happens very quickly.

Then the “death march” mentality sets in. Fruitless gripes beget fruitless gripes (see #3) and morale plummets. Productivity declines, causing managerial attention, which often furthers the problem. People seek avoidance patterns and behavioral islands (see #1) that provide short-term relief to the environment that’s falling to pieces, but it does little good in the long-term. The smarter ones start looking to set up other opportunities (see #2) but if they get caught, get the “not a team player” label (a way of saying “I don’t like the guy” that sounds objective) and that’s basically nuts-up.

Unless there’s an immediate career benefit in doing so, you’re a chump if you load up on the metered work. You shouldn’t do “the minimum not to get fired” (that line is low, but don’t flirt with it; stay well north of that one). You should do more than that; enough metered work to fit in. Not less, not more. (Either direction of deviation will hurt you socially.) Even 40 hours, for metered work, is a very high commitment when you consider that the most interesting professions require 10-20 hours of unmetered work just to remain connected and current, but it’s the standard so it’s probably what most people should do. I wouldn’t say that it’s wise to go beyond it, and if you are going to make the above-normal sacrifice of a 45+ hour work week, do yourself a favor and sock some learning (and connections) away in unmetered work.

So yeah… don’t work long hours. And something about sunscreen.

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7 thoughts on “4 things you should probably never do at work.

  1. Another framework that has all leads to some of these points as consequences: energy. Mental energy is limited. There are 3 main things you can spend energy on: solving hard problems, multitasking, and negative stress. Mental energy is most easily recovered when you’re healthy, happy, and using a different part of your brain than when you work.

    So going on Hacker News as a break doesn’t actually help you recover energy, while 15 minutes of exercise does. Voicing opinions costs you a bit of energy-save it for something worthwhile. And since the constraint is energy, not time, the # of hours you work is largely irrelevant.

    Once you start actively monitoring your mental energy throughout the work day, it becomes a lot easier to be realistic about what’s worth spending effort on, and what’s just a costly waste of time.

  2. On Pref, from http://piaw.blogspot.com/2010/05/promotion-systems-redux.html :
    “In any case, I think it’s very healthy for Google to have an internal discussion about this. But do I expect the system to change? No. The super-star rule I referred to in that previous post would prevent that. I did have a discussion with a VP about this. He told me that when he first joined Google, he tried to change the promotion criteria to better formally recognize leadership, mentoring, and the importance of spreading knowledge (technical or otherwise) throughout the organization. The result? A bunch of very senior engineers (who had all benefited under the current regime, and were understandably worried about their career prospects under a different system) shouted him down.”
    How would you suggest solving this problem?

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