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Posted: 06:57:33 PM, 14/03/2016

Examining binge work

The Wharton School recently published an article that examines how the youngest full professor at Wharton got that way. Adam Grant's secret is to publish 5 to 10 papers a year. A book that gets on the New York Times best seller list helps as well.

The article features an excerpt from the book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World that could be called "In praise of binge work.” Tim McCune is the guy that taught me the term "binge worker." I have always been a binge worker, but this article and book bother me on several levels, as does binge work itself.

First is this whole data-driven fallacy that the only figure of merit is how many papers you publish. A recent data-driven exercise was the Vietnam War, where "body count" was the metric. News flash, we lost that war. Next was my stint at Ford Motor, where the same McNamara Whiz Kids that gave us Vietnam decided "design cost" was the only pertinent metric in building a car. They demanded we engineers give them a cheap car. We did. Nobody bought the cars. The single metric was so data-driven and official. Management could amount to picking the cheapest cost out of two columns. In Web publishing, the metric is clicks. All that matters is how many clicks you get, or Facebook likes. There are click farms in Romania that will give you as many of either as you pay for.

Besides this data-driven madness the whole world is descending into, there is the concept that binge work is preferable. I do it because I must. I have ADHD; it’s easy to get distracted. The way I compensate is by having OCD. I can't multitask, so I jump from binge to binge. When I told Jim Williams that my mom used to give me grief because I ate one thing at a time--first corn, then salad, then meat, then potato--he laughed, and said "My wife still gives me grief because I eat that way!"

We should be careful about praising a coping mechanism. The first problem is that this "lock yourself in the office and don't pick up the phone" only works for a very narrow type of work. If you are writing the Linux kernel, or a paper that has no dependence on other people, I guess it is OK. But quite often the highest form of work is interactive, where you have to answer the phone and interact with people and stay social. Ed Fong told me that his systems work was much more social than his IC design.

My dad tried to help me with my binges, saying I had to learn to multi-task. He told me, "You never get a spare 40 hours," in which you can accomplish some big task. I admit that there is a penalty to stop and restart work; you have to "pop to the stack" a bunch of stuff, and then pull it back down when you re-start. But I have learned that good documentation and notes can make this really easy.

The last problem I have with binge work is that it is selfish. It means to heck with your wife, or your co-workers, or your boss. You are holed up and everyone has to leave you alone. The movie Where the Buffalo Roam shows Hunter S. Thompson shooting a fax machine that is asking when his article is going to be done—it’s way past deadline. When I saw that 30 years ago, I thought he was cool. Now I see he was a jerk. Now I am writer too. I know that there are copy editors, and managing editors, and art directors, and layout people, and they all depend on knowing when I will be done. They might accommodate me if I call or write and explain why I am late, but to just hole up and ignore the world is the sign of a narcissist sociopath, not a super-productive star.

Heck, we're the analog crowd and I think there needs to be some gradient in this theory of productivity. I have dreamed of a workplace where you have to sit at picnic tables in the morning, no laptops or phones permitted, and then go into a private office with foot-thick concrete walls for the afternoon. It would combine the necessary day-to-day social interaction with the lack of distraction people like me need to get things done.

I haven't read Deep Work, so maybe that is what he is really saying. "When I teach, I teach, when I write, I write, and never the two shall intermingle." It still seems like a pretty strange way to live. I have wondered if management is really being a SerDes (serializer-deserializer), where you take a parallel requirement, like a multi-faceted project, and convert it into several serial streams to individuals who only have to worry about that one stream as it comes in. When all the individuals complete their streams, you put it back together into "parallel" form and see if it works.

When I sent this post to several friends, Linear Systems president Tim McCune, who hosts the Analog Aficionado party noted, “James Michener locked himself away in a cabin when he was serious about finishing writing a book. Shelby Foote wrote his million and half words on the Civil War with a nib pen. I'd probably be done writing a magnum opus if I'd stuck with my electric typewriter, I do feel diluted with a half-dozen screens up.”

Fellow Analog Aficionado and successful author Ron Quan said, “When I write the books, I definitely become a binge worker. But after that I kick back. It is true that to get things done keeping focus is very important. However, when working with a team, it's more like what can we all do to pitch in.”

How about you, are you a binge worker? Do you think it helps or hurts your design productivity and relationships with others?


Paul Rako

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[Last update: 06:57:33 PM, 14/03/2016]

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