Working Sustainably – Less Is More

Sustain­abil­i­ty could be defined as a prin­ci­ple accord­ing to which no more should be con­sumed than can be replen­ished, regen­er­at­ed or made avail­able again in the future. Usu­al­ly we think in macro­scop­ic dimen­sions of our envi­ron­ment when it comes to sus­tain­abil­i­ty. For me, how­ev­er, sus­tain­abil­i­ty begins on a much small­er scale, with myself and the sus­tain­able use of my own per­son­al resources, such as time, ener­gy and knowl­edge. It is time to talk about relics from the indus­tri­al age and espe­cial­ly about how effec­tive and sus­tain­able the strict tem­po­ral and spa­tial sep­a­ra­tion of work and life (as if work were not life!) in terms of eight-hour work days real­ly is. 

For the major­i­ty of peo­ple in Ger­many and oth­er indus­tri­al­ized nations, eight-hour work days are per­fect­ly nor­mal. Some­times more than that, and for the more career-ori­ent­ed col­leagues the infa­mous extra mile on top. Of course, all of this in the office as oth­er­wise nobody would notice the effort. Cult of pres­ence wher­ev­er you look. If you add in the trav­el times, i.e. con­ges­tion times, in met­ro­pol­i­tan areas, the work­ing day then goes from 7 am to 7 pm. And for fam­i­ly, fur­ther edu­ca­tion, sport, recre­ation there is just not enough time. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty must wait. Until the week­end, until hol­i­days, until retire­ment, until it’s too late.

There is more to life than increas­ing its speed.
Mahat­ma Gandhi

The eight-hour work day at a shared work­place is a rel­ic from the indus­tri­al age. For knowl­edge work in times of dig­i­ti­za­tion, this con­cept is nei­ther appro­pri­ate nor sus­tain­able. Knowl­edge work can­not be clear­ly defined and does not take place exclu­sive­ly dur­ing work­ing hours. And cre­ativ­i­ty rarely takes place in meet­ings. The deci­sive idea rather takes time and (after inten­sive exam­i­na­tion of the top­ic) the human brain requires idle­ness in par­tic­u­lar to pro­duce this idea. A sen­si­ble bal­ance between ten­sion and relax­ation is there­fore cru­cial. And eight hours and more plus trav­el time is far beyond such a sen­si­ble and sus­tain­able balance.

Var­i­ous organ­i­sa­tions are now rec­og­niz­ing this, although not all of them are as rad­i­cal as Rhein­gans Dig­i­tal Enablers, who intro­duced the 5‑hour work day at full pay and are nev­er­the­less not less pro­duc­tive but rather very suc­cess­ful. Hen­rik Kniberg reports of a sim­i­lar phe­nom­e­non where less input in terms of hours gen­er­ates bet­ter out­put. As a coach, Kniberg keeps him­self free of engage­ments for two days a week and achieves more with less time as a result of focussing on the most valu­able things. Even extreme­ly suc­cess­ful and pre­sum­ably busy peo­ple like Elon Musk, Oprah Win­frey, Bill Gates, War­ren Buf­fett and Mark Zucker­berg delib­er­ate­ly keep at least one hour per day free to read and edu­cate them­selves. And per­haps they are suc­cess­ful in the long term pre­cise­ly because knowl­edge work also has some­thing to do with knowl­edge and life­long learning.

And then you have to have time to just sit there and look at yourself!
Astrid Lind­gren

I now fol­low Steve Jobs’ rule of being at home with my fam­i­ly for din­ner on most days. These peri­ods in the evenings and on days when I take the chil­dren to kinder­garten also cor­re­spond­ing times in the morn­ings are strict­ly booked in my cal­en­dar and I reject meet­ings in these peri­ods on a reg­u­lar basis. On the oth­er hand, I don’t have a prob­lem answer­ing a few emails in the evening. Or is write blog posts at the week­end, an activ­i­ty for which I any­way could­n’t tell whether it is part of my reg­u­lar job or not.

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