Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The First Law of Holes

You’ve all heard of the First Law of Holes, no?

So many of us find ourselves in a position of overwhelm, faced with tremendous pressures as the work we’re charged with doing each day piles up. It seems never ending – a vicious cycle – like Sisyphus, we toil all day, all week, all month, all year only to have the work pile up on us again and again and again.

Well, the first thing we need is a little perspective. The fact that any of us have any work to do at all is a good thing. It keeps our minds occupied, roofs over our heads and food on our tables.

Next, we need to examine why the work piles up. (I’ve written before about people being so “busy” all the time.) Take this example: you wake up in the morning, grab your robe, pour yourself a cup of coffee and read the paper. You next jump into the shower, get dressed and head to the office. A typical morning in a typical humdrum life. How a person approaches even those very simple, natural, daily events, however, can profoundly influence their state of overwhelm.

Consider Dave, a busy lawyer, married with two young children who routinely puts in 60 hour work weeks. Here’s how his day goes:

Dave wakes up at 6:00 am, puts on his robe, pours coffee, adds the contents of a sugar packet and leaves the empty packet on the counter, takes out a spoon, stirs the coffee and leaves the spoon on the counter. He drinks his coffee and leaves the cup on the table in front of the TV. He next heads to the shower, leaves his robe and nightclothes on the floor, jumps in, scrubs himself, towels himself off and gets dressed. Let’s stop there.

Steve, an accountant, also married with two kids, wakes up at 6:00 am, pours coffee, adds sugar, takes out a spoon, stirs the coffee and places the spoon in the dishwasher and trashes the empty packet. He drinks his coffee and places the empty cup in the dishwasher as well. He heads to the shower, puts his robe on the door hook, places his clothes in the hamper, etc.

At the end of each week, Dave has accumulated 7 spoons and coffee cups, a mess of sugar and coffee remnants (that have attracted ants), a pile of clothes on the floor and an angry wife. In essence, he has created work for himself; he now must deal with several new tasks at the end of each week: cleaning up the morning dishes from the week, throwing out the empty sugar packets, wiping up the mess he's left, spraying to get rid of the ants that have gathered and sorting his piles of clothing for the hamper, which all told add an extra 20 minutes of work each week to his already busy schedule (not to mention the potential for a good half-hour argument with his significant other). Steve, on the other hand, has created no work for himself. He’s ready to do the laundry and he presses “start” on the dishwasher. Steve has an extra 20 minutes at the end of each week simply by approaching his morning activities in a different way. While this may sound trivial, it is these little accumulations of additional time brought about by certain approaches to work that cause bottlenecks. Multiply Dave’s extra 20 minutes per week to clean up each of the little messes he’s made over the course of a year – at home and at work – and the numbers become staggering. In fact, Steve could easily wind up with an “extra” week or two of productive time at the end of each year. Dave feels overwhelmed; Steve does not, yet Steve seems to get more work done. How is this possible?

Take this idea a step further and think about a modest-sized company with 400 employees, 200 of whom are Daves and 200 of whom are Steves. At the end of each year, the Steves will collectively have, conservatively speaking, 200 “extra” weeks of productive time, or 3.8 years! If the average employee costs the company $75,000 per year in salary and benefits, The Steves will contribute an extra $285,000 to the company’s bottom line – enough to add nearly 4 new employees – simply by approaching their work in a more efficient way.

In performing his daily tasks, Dave contributes to a mounting pile of work, while Steve does not. Each day, Dave digs his hole a little deeper. And the First Law of Holes? Stop digging.

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