Monday, July 2, 2012

Activity or Action

My friend Jonathan used to complain about employees who spent entire days in fervent activity and yet produced nothing. He would consider not paying them for the day because, by his definition, they had done no work. When someone challenged him on this, he would cite the physics definition of work (Work = Force x Distance) and then say something like, "It doesn't matter how much effort or force you apply to something. If your effort doesn't produce movement towards your goal, then you've done no work."

If the challenged employee were to respond that she had produced movement, he would say, "The overall amount of movement doesn't matter, just the amount of movement in the direction of your goal."

At this point the would-be challenger might get a bit flustered. If I were in the room, I'd explain, "He's referring to physics again. If a leaf drops from a tree it may glide back-and-forth covering significant distance as it slowly drifts to the ground. The force being applied to the leaf is that of gravity. The work of gravity is measured only in terms of the line that extends directly from the tree branch to the forest floor. All the back and forth motion of the leaf as it cycles through air doesn't count."

Despite his complaint, even though he'd talk about the employee owing the company money if the employee's efforts had moved the project away from the goal, Jonathan would always pay his employees. Still, he had an interesting way of making his point.

I'd have to say that I agree with how Jonathan thought about work and payment for work. My agreement may have to do with having been self-employed for so long and having been paid for projects, not for hours worked. When you contract a project for a certain fee, the expectation is that you will then deliver that project for that fee. The number of hours you spend, the sidetracks that you wander down, have no bearing on the payment you receive.

Sure, there are people who will come back to you after you've agreed to a fee and ask for more money due to unanticipated costs. I don't. It's my job to deliver what I said I would for the agreed upon amount.

All this is not to say that I don't occasionally meander along my way from the tree limb to the ground. It's just to say, I don't expect to be paid for it.

I've got lots of friends who are paid salary or by the hour. Getting paid to meander is just part of the gig. I've worked with guys who would intentionally meander so as to extend their hours into overtime.

Questions of work-ethic aside, there are some curious side-effects of longterm meandering. At some point or periodically, each of us becomes her own boss.  She becomes both employee and employer. If she's established a well-defined pattern of meandering while working for someone else, guess what happens when she works for herself?

Lots of activity.

Very little movement in the direction of her goal.

She pays herself (in time or money or social capital) for having done no work.

Sure, there are tremendous benefits to meandering. Meandering leads to learning and discovery and insight. However, frequent and unregulated meandering rarely leads to accomplishing one's intended goal.

I love to meander. So in order to keep my net hourly-rate above the fifty-cent level, I have to quite deliberately allocate meandering time and work time.

How much work will you accomplish today?

Happy Monday,


  1. In Agile software development, we talk about velocity and being done. Velocity is different from speed--it is speed in a particular direction, toward your goal. Speed in any other direction is irrelevant. The only direction that matters is toward Done. The only velocity we measure is the amount of stuff we get Done. The only changes we make are the ones that increase our velocity, improvements that help us get more valuable stuff Done faster.

  2. Rich,

    The difference between speed and velocity is a great clarifier. Thank you.

    When marketing people used to ask our development team how fast we could do something, we used to say that we could do it arbitrarily fast as long as it didn't have to work. To your point, the first part of establishing a vector is knowing where you're going. The better you understand Done, the easier it is to increase velocity.

    The tricky part for me has always been the cases where you're doing something that hasn't been done before. At first Done can be a little hazy; if it's not, it's at least probably wrong. So Done can be a bit of a moving target, though hopefully one that rapidly becomes clearer: kind of a progressive rendering.

    I think there are some things you can't know until you do them.

  3. Love this article. For me the meander factor is directly proportional to the frustration factor. As an employer and as the mother of a teenage son, I'm up to my neck in "the meander factor"! I can see how it works for the teenager - quote "Meandering leads to learning and discovery and insight." I'll keep that in mind when I next ask for some forward motion.

  4. Josie,

    As I thought about your comment it occurred to me that it would probably serve all of us to be aware of our predilections.

    If your're biased toward meandering, then setting a strong intention of directed-motion may be the order of the day.

    On the other hand, if you tend towards being a productivity junkie, then a little meandering may be just what you need.


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