Idle v. Idling

Amazing how a couple of related items can pass through your transom at the same time. My computer sits in front of a window, which led me to muse about “Sitting by the screen on a snowy morning”, and from there to Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I hope with this post to convince you to take a minute and browse the link.

Getting back to work, I cruised to LinkedIn and came across an article titled Productivity Hacks: The Nap That Changed My Life, by Paul Metselaar. Different genre, but the same theme…I had to blog!

Despite the demonstrated advantages of “contemplative rest” during the work day, many have been slow to embrace the concept. Especially in business environments based on hourly wage or billability, it is a legitimate question why an employer or customer should pay for idle time.

I think part of the problem is our definition of idle. Look at the dictionary.com definition of idle, one sees that the vast majority of its definitions have negative connotations from a workforce perspective: “doing nothing”, “not kept busy”, “saunter aimlessly”. These are certainly not phrases you would want to see on your performance review.

But there is one definition that we should be focused on: “idling: (of a machine, engine, or mechanism) to operate at a low speed, disengaged from the load.” When we think of a car idling, it is not a negative connotation. We understand that it is important for a machine or engine to not be run under full load at all times, that it is bad for the machine and ultimately bad for its functioning. Also importantly, when we think of a machine idling, we think of it as “being ready to go”; a car that is idling can be pressed into its function nearly immediately. Why should we think the human body, and the human brain, are any different?

But even if we get beyond the definitional aspect, a big part of the problem is how many businesses are run, and the problem gets bigger the more layers of management there are. Being a mathematician, one would expect me to be a “numbers guy”, and that I would advocate for using statistical measures and metrics to make decisions about running a project or a business. In fact, quite the contrary; numbers certainly have their place, but in the industries I’ve worked in they almost never tell the real story.

Here’s an example: I was involved in a quality review for a deliverable document, as a reviewer. It was a good meeting; we went through and identified a number of issues, corrected some typos/stilted language, and generally had a path towards a much better document. At the end, our QA coordinator announced, “How many defects did we correct?” After everyone around the table looked dumbfounded, I responded “122”, a clearly fictional account of the proceedings. The QA coordinator smiled and said, “Great job!”, and wrote down the number 122.

The number 122, which actually had literally nothing to do with what we accomplished since I made the number up, ended up defining the meeting from a corporate perspective. Why? Because the good synergy we had between the authors and the reviewers can’t be quantified and thus can’t be passed up in management reporting. What can be quantified? One hundred twenty-two defects. And what gets rolled into future plans and expectations for document reviews? One hundred twenty-two defects.

Almost by definition, the advantages of idling are not easily quantifiable, therefore they cannot be valued. Oh, certainly companies like Google and Apple give the illusion of valuing time spent idling, but not really. The companies with ping pong tables and nap rooms are actually fairly open that they offer these amenities precisely to keep workers on-campus, with the goal of having their workforce want to work longer hours, which is what they are really valuing.

So maybe your employer doesn’t value idling, but try valuing it in your own life. Go read that Frost poem, without worrying that you have ten other things to do. Maybe sit and watch the snow, if you’re getting it today. You’ll still have time for your promises to keep.

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