Train trips for the mind

August 3, 2015

The paradox of office work became crystal clear to me on a sunny afternoon in July. I stepped out of my office to get a cup of coffee, wandered down the stairs of the building and opened the door, just enough for a strong, fragrant summer wind to blow in. I stopped in my tracks, doorknob in hand, and looked out onto the street where people flew by on bikes and the light fell through the tree branches in front of me.

Contracts contain a fixed number of weekly hours

It breaks my heart to be inside on a day like this“, I told Max, who had tagged along to the café. He nodded in agreement. What bothered me wasn’t missing out on this beautiful day by glueing to the faux leather of my office chair. It bothered me that doing so amounted to an unwise use of time. Much of modern work no longer consists of finishing a set amount of daily tasks, but instead of projects that require bursts of creativity and inspiration. Spending a fixed number of hours at the office every day isn’t going to yield a fixed amount of output. Nevertheless, we remain largely trapped in the logic of the industrial workday: Most contracts contain a certain number of weekly hours and you are expected to show up at the office every day to accrue a percentage of them. Our tasks may have evolved, but our schedules haven’t. During the industrial age, labor was broken down into small, manageable segments. It resulted in monotonous work that would eventually take a toll on workers, who did the very same task over and over again for years on end. While only a small percentage of the modern workforce still works with machines, I can’t help but believe that the monotony of office work has a similarly destructive effect: With its insistence on sitting in front of a computer screen it blunts the mind — not to speak of the wrong incentives it sets by valuing time over output. Writing this doesn’t mean that I no longer want to work or that I generally find work a bore — quite the opposite. Work can be meaningful, interesting and has often resulted in output I am genuinely proud of. But having just spent half of my twenties before a computer screen, I can’t help but think that the way we are expected to work in 2015 doesn’t lead to the results we are trying to accomplish.

Gears spinning back into action

I began writing this entry on a train trip, where the idea came to me after a few minutes of looking at the late afternoon sunshine outside of the window. I was tired from a long work day, tired from sitting in the same position for several hours and looking at the screen in front of me. But as soon as I had sat down on the train and had a few minutes of rest, I could feel the gears in my head spinning back into action. Work needs a healthy dose of variation like that. It should grant employees the freedom to structure their work with more flexibility, focussing on results rather than hours. And it should allow — if your will — for train trips for the mind: Deliberate time away from the ubiquitous screens to engage in deep thought. We got rid of the factories. Let’s get rid of their logic.

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