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From Parkinson’s Law to the Pareto Principle… and back

David Brent almost changed office life forever. But not quite.

Young corporate go-getters are often amazed at the attitude of their more jaded peers.

They find some people who’ve been ‘enjoying’ the grind for a decade or more feel entitled to goof around to make the day more bearable.

Early in my wage-earning life I met one of them, a pleasant middle-aged bloke – let’s call him Graham – who told me he adopted a ‘two-for-one’ principle. For every two hours he worked, he took one hour off.

Graham explained that the company sucked up so much of his week, and was run so poorly and inefficiently, that he had to strike back for the sake of fairness.

What about the workers?

Graham hadn’t got a raise or promotion in years, and he moaned about that, too. But what really mattered to me was Graham and I worked on the same projects!

Being young and keen, I wanted to get my stuff done, impress the right people, and push on. By either delaying our projects or forcing me to cover for him, Graham was wasting my time, as well as his and the company’s.

Parkinson’s Law says that ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. It was coined in the 1950s in an Economist essay.

Despite this, I liked Graham a lot – he was helpful, friendly, funny, and even wise in an office otherwise populated by Aspergic alien body snatchers. As I got older, though, I became fed up with his sort of attitude – and others who felt entitled to a sick day every three weeks, and malcontents who’d actually sabotage projects as a misguided blow for workers’ rights.

I wasn’t especially bothered by the impact on my employer’s margins of their actions, even if I myself felt (and still do feel) a moral duty to do a day’s work for a day’s wages. I was never a fan of the rat race – I just wanted to work on interesting stuff – and I already suspected that Graham was correct that management buffoonery was at least as wasteful as his own scheduled mini-breaks.

No, what got me was I felt taken advantage of by my own peers. I became sick of covering for people who’d skip work with a mild headache (perhaps brought on by the sunny weather) or those whose lunch meetings always ran until 4pm (perhaps because of the wine…) A couple of years in work stripped away any lingering leftist sentiment held over from my student days.

Older and even more cynical, I now see this work ethical peer pressure is part of what makes a modern company tick in place of the rigid strictures of yesteryear. I felt a rebel, but I was allied with The Man…

…almost, but not entirely. When I saw a chink of light, I ran for it, went freelance, and used techniques such as the 80/20 rule and Eating The Frog to double my productivity and income, while dumping stress like a balloonist ditching ballast.

The Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, can change your life. In summary: A few big clients make you most of your money. Your greatest skill is your key earner. Most of your time should be spent doing a few important things. And so on. You’re either in the 20% who try it and live by it, or you’re one of the 80% who’ll never get it.

Nailed it

Completing a day’s profitable work by lunchtime once you’ve escaped from the Kafkaesque drag of office life is a heady feeling. But of course the natural order of things strives to out.

After a few months of spectacular efficiency, Graham re-entered my life – only this time he was the flipside of my conscientious Protestant personality.

Compared to wayward freelancers I’ve known (with vices ranging from Australian soap operas and a gardening fetish to life-threatening substance abuse), my own version of Graham was a home office nuisance as opposed to an agent provocateur.

Looking back, I wish I’d taken a few more of the summer afternoon walks he touted. But mainly he encouraged me to waste countless hours on the newly-fangled Internet. Still, this was when I deepened my interest in investing my own money, and though it now took until 2pm to get that day’s work done, in the long run it was time well wasted.

Moreover, I was wasting time on my terms, and could immediately see any impact on my own finances. The Heath Robinson pipeline of cause and effect of the modern office is stripped when you’re freelance to a hammer and a nail.

Hit insufficient nails with your hammer – or hit them screwy – and you don’t get paid. No blaming another department’s poor tools. Nobody cares.

Poacher poached

I immediately loved being a freelance and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Yet as I write – and this is the grand reveal of this post – I’ve actually been in a full-time job since the start of this year.

Given how much I’ve maligned office life during my four years of blogging, I knew I’d have to come clean eventually.

The good news is I’m not about to recant. My employer is genuinely one of the good ones, but sometimes I still feel like a Native American rounded up and penned in to whittle wooden wigwams on a reservation.

The time wasted on the traditional office routine can be extraordinary. My old routine of getting up when I naturally woke up (invariably between eight-thirty and nine) and slotting breakfast, showering, a spot of lunch, and maybe a bit of laundry into screen breaks – has been replaced by the archetypal soul-crushing London commute that puffs out a near-7-to-7 working day and leaves you scrabbling to squeeze in domestic life at the edges.1

“I work all day and get half-drunk at night,” said Philip Larkin. Too right – except he didn’t have to suffer the London Underground to get back to his favourite pub.

A fair cop out

Why then am I doing a job? Because I’m field-testing corporate life and rechecking my prejudices just for you – my dear readers.

Okay, not really. The truth is at a certain point last year my hitherto Teutonic efficiency turned into Old Bloc bungling. And as is the freelance way, I immediately saw it in my bank balance.

There were a lot of factors involved in this farrago, most of which are very personal, nothing to do with money or work, and not something we can generalise into a ten-year itch of the self-employed.

Put simply, I looked about and realised if I didn’t get a bucket of cold water in the face, I could soon be graduating from daytime TV and lolling about in the garden to something far more… unproductive.

The Office

So I got a job somewhere interesting, to push skills I haven’t previously tested enough, in an area that interests me.

And it’s been… okay.

Most of what frustrated me before about full-time employment before can still be frustrating, while like the lead character in Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma I’ve also stepped into a new world of grief.

For example, when I was last in full-time employment, mobile phones, email and remote working systems were all still a novelty. As a freelance I used them all to the hilt, and didn’t mind the way they mixed up work and post-work – but it feels more of an imposition coming from an employer.

But to be honest, I now see it’s not them, it’s me. I suspect if full-time office life annoys you, then it will always annoy you, whatever your urgent motivations for returning to the workforce.

For others, a secure place of work is a comfort. Most of my colleagues seem pretty satisfied with a day’s pay in exchange for the routine and rigmarole. They don’t appear to share my fear that I’m tossing away precious time like sending glinting 50 pence pieces tumbling into a dark and deep well.

Even old Graham knew his place. For all his griping about the waste of corporate activity, office politics that make Labour Party scheming look like a chinwag between Ghandi and Mother Teresa, and about the bizarre doublethink that sees nobody at work saying what they mean and even fewer doing what they say – for all that, Graham was a corporate creature. He was finely tuned to work’s ecosystem, and to its 47-week seasons. He’d starve outside of it.

Me, I’m from the high plains. I’ve come down to the city seeking work, weapons, and perhaps a few tattoos.

But one day I’ll go home.

  1. To be clear, I mean I wake and start preparing to go to the office about 7, and I eventually get home around 7, too. I do not work all 12 hours in an office. I am not mad. []

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • 1 ermine June 23, 2011, 12:27 pm

    After a few months of spectacular efficiency, Graham re-entered my life – only this time he was the flipside of my conscientious Protestant personality.

    Your inner Graham served you well. The alternative was probably burnout or health issues later in life IMO. Just because you can run a system flat out for a short time doesn’t mean you can do that continuously.

    And efficiency is terrible for creativity, anyway 😉

    Working for the Man, eh. Can easily become a velvet-lined rut, y’know! It’s harsh out there in the hills…

  • 2 Alex June 23, 2011, 2:49 pm

    Hi TI, great post. Much self-disclosure here – none more than that photo of you dancing. It is you, isn’t it?

  • 3 The Investor June 23, 2011, 3:37 pm

    That, my friend, is The Man that ermine alludes to…

    Thanks!

  • 4 The Accumulator June 23, 2011, 8:42 pm

    I think most are painfully aware of the loss, but either have greater fears or are perfectly attuned to survival in that environment.

    Even Graham isn’t really getting away with it though. Must be slow torture to watch the clock like that, to be quietly sidelined for years, and when the chill downsizing wind finally does blow, he’s blown out the door along with it.

  • 5 teamdave June 23, 2011, 8:56 pm

    I hate work and going to the office every day to listen to people whinge and whine all day, while they scrabble to be the teacher’s pet, or look for ways to bunk off.

    I can’t believe you’ve gone back to full-time employment. I feel really let down… If you can’t cope outside of the workplace, how are the rest of us going to do it?

    As the foo fighters sang, ‘there goes my hero, he’s ordinary’

  • 6 StuR June 23, 2011, 11:15 pm

    Great post, and one that mirrors a lot of my own thoughts – since entering the wonderful world of work about eight years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to remain mostly a freelance contractor, and have managed to work and travel in Canada, France, the UK, Australia and now New Zealand – making the most of it!

    Currently stuck in the office rut – for now at least – and your words really to strike a cord. I remember being freelance for a certain major international auctions ecommerce site, and being able to get an full days worth of worth done in about 5-6 hours – leaving the rest of the day (or night) to me!

    I miss those days.

  • 7 The Investor June 24, 2011, 7:54 am

    @TeamDave — Sorry! Hero’s will do that. I know (hope?!) you’re half joking, but the Monevator readership was actually uppermost in my mind when I decided I had to do something radical. I did feel a bit guilty. In the end though, I realized it was another example of the sort of self imposed pressure that had got me to this point. (It wasn’t exactly burnout, as much of the forces were non-work related. But that will do as shorthand…!)

  • 8 The Investor June 24, 2011, 7:58 am

    @StuR — As long as you remember where your bread is buttered, you’ll go back sometime I’m sure.

    @Accumulator — Yes, he was a tragic figure in some ways. Smart and misdirected. While I’ve never liked offices, I’ve often loved my work and how I make money (not always but enough).

  • 9 saudisimon June 24, 2011, 10:06 am

    There’ s only one way to live your life, and that is your own way. I like Mars Bars. When I take the first bite of one I think how I could go and buy 100 of them and just keep eating. However, I know that trying to increase one’s pleasure in this way is a non starter. The thing that gives you pleasure in moderation becomes a source of discomfort in excess. Free time and independence is no exception. How many married men dream of being single again, to be able to tom-cat around as they once did? how many of them who make the break and try it actually end up regretting it? Working for the man brings not only a steady pay check but a structure and opportunity for contact with people, as well as some of the stresses that we all need in order to not just waste away. It is not all bad. I dream of retiring early but I know I will have to take on a lot more reponsibility for my own happiness when I do. I won’t be able to just blame all my inadequacies on the fact that I have to go to work every day and that stops me from achieving my potential. And I’ll have to be careful I just don’t end up a drunk because there’ll be nothing to stop me having sherry for breakfast!
    If you go to work after a period of self employment, good for you. At least you know why you’re doing it and you know you can stop when you want.

  • 10 The Accumulator June 24, 2011, 7:02 pm

    You’re bang on saudisimon. Early retirement is in 2nd place on my list of things to do before I die ;-), but I’m 99% sure it’s a goal to keep me going and not the upland of everlasting joy I see in my mind’s eye. In other words, if I ever get there, I’ll still retain a faint sense of disgruntlement that’ll make me want something else. It’s the human condition. Or at least the one I’ve got.

  • 11 The Investor June 25, 2011, 11:39 am

    @saudisimon – Very much agree, and thanks for the support. I’ve now tried freelance, founding a start-up, working for The Man, and doing nothing but living off my savings. Freelance was the best of the bunch (trumping doing nowt) and I’ll hopefully still be doing something for money in my dotage. (And not just donating wrinkly organs for experimentation!)

    For now though, and as I said above for personal reasons, a job makes sense.

    @ermine – Thanks for the warning, but I honestly don’t consider a job cushy. Not even in financial terms! I felt much more secure and had more money at the end of the day when I was self-employed. I’ll post more on this soon!

  • 12 roarke80 June 25, 2011, 1:55 pm

    I have to say your post really struck a chord with me. I was reading it about 10 minutes before I handed in a contract to begin a full time job. I have to agree after two years of freelancing, and doing really well at it, a full time job is anything but cushy or security to me.

    After agonising over it for two months though, I decided to take a 50% pay cut in order to take the job, because I believe it will give me a breadth of experience that will benefit me in the longer term and give me the chance to work with some of the best people in the industry.

    I have promised myself to spend only 3 months there, and to be the most dedicated, diligent and enthusiastic employee there to make the most of my experience.

    Good luck and I hope you enjoy your experience too!

  • 13 David July 1, 2011, 1:00 pm

    Interesting post and comments.

    For me saving to have a war chest, which ultimately becomes your early retirement fund, living below your means and not tying yourself to the necessity of a monthly salary is a great way to truly be free.

    I’ve never been freelance, and I’m not sure I’d really be good at it, but I have constantly sought freedom and happiness in my career. Knowing the value of money is a big part of that.

    First time I did it was when I downgraded from a 5 day a week job to 4 days. The other lads at work thought I was crazy ‘giving up the money’ but I hate that job and having a 3 day weekend rebalanced everything for me. Made it liveable while I waited my next move.

    Then I found a great job. Worked loads of hours, travelled the world. Lots of work but lots of fun as well.

    Recently I tried a new role and it just didn’t work out. So I quit. By this time I had enough savings in the bank to live for five years if need be. great feeling of freedom and autonomy.

    My boss couldn’t quite believe it when I told him I had nothing else lined up I just wasn’t enjoying the job. “Well not many people enjoy the job but they have mortgages to pay.”

    I’m currently on a beach in Thailand, where I have been for the past month, living it up on the cheap before I start a new role new week. Maybe it will work it, maybe it won’t but I’m glad I could just up and quit something I didn’t like. That’s freedom.

  • 14 The Accumulator July 2, 2011, 12:30 pm

    Heh, being able to say that to your boss must have felt awesome. It’s fantastic that you’ve put yourself in a position to live life on your own terms.

    At the moment, I’m battering myself to fill the warchest as quickly as possible. Feels like I’m building a bastion against an envisaged perfect storm of worsening economic conditions and personal disaster that could lay low The Accumulator family fortunes.

    Who knows whether that will happen but it’s what’s driving me on at the moment. I could do with rebalancing my outlook as you have done.

  • 15 @algernond June 26, 2014, 9:53 pm

    Interesting post. You are clearly very well read and educated, and I have learned so much from yours and TA’s posts – thank you.

    You may want to read up on Mother Teresa a bit though.
    ‘The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice’ by Christopher Hitchens is a good start.

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