Sunday, 29 September 2013

Putting in the Hours

I'm not saying anything radical when I suggest that the American mindset seems to be "more = better". This is why we've gotten so fat and unhealthy, why we keep buying too much crap that we don't need, and, maybe, why we spend too much time at work or at school.

Now, to put things into perspective, I'm told that in Asia they work even harder than Americans do, so we'll have to put this all into perspective for a moment, and try not to fall into cultural selection bias traps. But the principle remains the same - we have this idea that time spent at our desks means we're working hard.

You could suggest I've been reading too much Tim Ferriss lately, and you'd be right, but that doesn't invalidate the point. A Bank of America intern recently worked himself to death here in London, which has prompted a lot of hand-wringing about "presentee culture" and requirements for interns, but it seems like something that'll blow over soon and the financial industry will be back to business as usual (no pun intended).

The reason for that, of course, comes down to game theory and the prisoner's dilemma: no matter how many programs Bank of America puts in place to send people home at a reasonable hour, there'll always be some grasping asshole who reasons that staying at his desk an extra hour will get him favorable reviews from his bosses, and some asshole supervisor who'll reward him for it.

Don't get me wrong, I understand when you actually work in a high-pressure environment there's sometimes the need to stay at work late and get things done. But this becomes an arms race where even people in regular jobs get coerced somehow into putting in late hours, even if all they end up doing is playing solitaire or updating their Facebook profile. This isn't just a money-saving or productivity issue, though - it becomes a health issue when the company's presentee culture leads to stress-related illnesses and burnout.

I've been reading about this stuff in an e-book I picked up recently, called Brain Rules. It's by a developmental molecular biologist called John Medina, and among his chapters he talks about how stress affects the brain and learning. He makes a couple of good points about getting more efficiency out of employees by moving away from the straight-jacket schedule of 9-5 (or, for financial folks, 7am-10pm), and helping them manage stress at home to avoid burning out at work.

One of the points where I think it falls down, though, is when it comes to education. He suggests a different repetition-based model, where a concept is introduced at the beginning of the school day and repeated at different points throughout the day (this is a gross simplification). So far, so good. But then he suggests that this means the school year should be lengthened.

To be honest, we're already lengthening it, and I don't believe that's a good idea. As part of President Obama's Race to the Top program in education, not only are we effectively doubling down on teaching to standardized tests (another delightful holdover from President Bush), but we're also starting the school year earlier, ending it later and keeping students behind desks for more time.

There's apparently good research behind this, explaining that the longer kids stay out of school over the summer, the more they forget what they learned the previous year. But given that we stubbornly remain at the bottom of the rankings for math, science and whatever, compared to other industrialized nations, I don't know if this solution of increasing the workload and the time commitment is really the answer.

So it seems to me like Dr Medina's suggestion is to do away with even more summer time, to make learning more efficient. I can't argue with him on scientific grounds, but surely we could do what they do in Europe instead, and assign kids homework to do over the summer? This is, naturally, something I would have rebelled against when I was in school (and to be honest the idea is still pretty unappealing), but it seems a lot less onerous than forcing kids to sit in school for even more of their lives.

Because it comes down to a cultural issue, too - free time is when we're free to be who we really are, or want to be. This is why I believe that employees need to have more vacation time, and more time outside of work in the evenings. I'm lucky enough to work someplace where they don't mind that I leave every night at 5.30 on the dot, because they see that I get my work done - but I think a lot of my colleagues could do with organizing themselves better, so that they don't have to stay late either.

Unless they want to, of course. To each their own.