Thursday, January 06, 2011


Sleep and work

In a recent TED talk,[1] Arianna Huffington comments on the importance of getting enough sleep.

Because the essence of leadership is being able to see the iceberg before it hits the Titanic. And we’ve had far too many icebergs hitting our Titanics. In fact, I have a feeling that if Lehman Brothers was Lehman Brothers and Sisters, they might still be around. While all the brothers were busy, you know, just being hyper-connected 24/7, maybe a sister would have noticed the iceberg because she would have woken up from a seven-and-a-half- or eight-hour sleep... and have been able to see the big picture.

This prompts me, in a round-about way, to talk about having worked from home for almost two years, now.

Since I left IBM at the end of February, 2009, I haven’t worked in an office — I’ve been working at home for 22 months. There are both advantages and disadvantages to that situation. I miss some of the structure of going to the office, but mostly I miss the people.

I miss the specific people I used to work with, of course, but, more broadly, I miss seeing people and getting the social interactions in the work environment. I miss having coffee and tea with people, having lunch with people, having people stop in my office and having an opportunity to stop into theirs. Sharing a laugh with a colleague, batting around an idea, or just hearing about his weekend for a few minutes personalizes the work experience in a way that seems important.

I’m still in communication with colleagues constantly, of course, through email, instant messaging, and telephone. Having an IM window pop up that says, Hi, Barry. Do you have a few minutes to talk about [some topic]?, or Hey, did you have a good weekend?, does have similarities to the in-office visit. But it’s not really the same, and I do miss doing that face to face.

On the other hand, my job requires a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking, and I don’t miss the interruptions that come with the office environment. That very visit by a dear colleague can, when it comes at an inconvenient time, dislodge critical thoughts and derail a writing session. Sometimes, one has an ephemeral idea in one’s head that’s flowing onto the paper phosphor, and even a brief distraction will ruin the subtle wording that was happening in the head, before it ever makes it to the hands. It’s nice to have the quiet and privacy, and to know that I can maintain it as long as I need to, uninterrupted.

But what I really do not miss is the commute, and actually going into the office. I’m saving over an hour a day of entirely wasted time. And my commute, a half hour or so each way, is much less than that of some. I got to listen to the radio — NPR, usually, except when they were begging having a membership drive — so that was something, but it didn’t really count for much. I just considered the drive to and from work a necessary annoyance, and a complete waste of time.

So I save the hour a day, and I also save the fuel for the car — about a gallon and a half a day, 7.5 gallons a week... at current local prices that’s nearly $25 a week — and the wear and tear, as well. But what I didn’t expect is that I save wear and tear on myself.

It’s not just your car that’s stressed by a drive to work; you get the effects as well. It pushes the stress up. And getting up to go to the office can get in the way of getting enough sleep. That part surprised me. It’s only an hour of time, and my days almost always had some down time, so I would never have thought that going to the office was making me sleep less (or less well). But between the time saved and the stress saved, I am getting more sleep and feeling more rested than I have in many years.

The effects are clear to me. I feel better, and I think I work better. I can keep my mind on things more effectively, I don’t have an afternoon low period, and I’m happier.

Ms Huffington is right: get enough sleep, and don’t get caught in the I need less sleep than you do! macho trap.

[1] This is a good opportunity to throw in a plug for TED, which, in case you don’t already know, has a bunch of wonderful talks, all by good speakers and all short enough that they won’t cut into your time too much. Many of them are worth watching.


Frisky070802 said...

I can relate ... my commute is shorter than it used to be but it is by no means short, and I view it as almost entirely a waste of time. The time I spend listening to NPR (when it's interesting news, like Morning Edition / All Things Considered), MSNBC on Sirius, or various podcasts, is about the only thing that makes it bearable.

I discovered ItunesU lectures and have been slowing but surely wading through a game theory class ... very interesting and entertaining both!

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

Boy, do I have a lot I could say about this one... I have been working from home almost every day since 1980, so I've thought a lots about the pros and cons.

Although you mentioned the social aspects of office life that you miss, one thing you didn't touch on is the long-term social effects. You probably still socialize with a lot of people you met through work, who are geographically close to you. My closest co-worker at the moment is about 900 miles away. After many years of this, your social life can become totally decoupled from your work life, which is not necessarily a good thing, especially if you live, as I do, in the frozen north where intellectuals are in very short supply. For me, the normal fear of possible unemployment is at least doubled by the fear of intellectual isolation that would accompany it.

Having said that, I wouldn't give it up for the world. Working from home is tremendously empowering. Except for the copious mandatory travel, I feel more in control of the day-to-day logistics of my life than I possibly could with a 9 to 5 office job.

What I'd really like to see is more of an effective online community for people like us, who work at home but need an extended support network that meets our intellectual needs and transcends the boundaries of our current employment. I'm sure that will evolve over time, but I fear it will be too late for this aging iconoclast.

Frisky070802 said...

What I'd really like to see is more of an effective online community for people like us...

Isn't it called Facebook?