Why Does The Small Stuff Take So Much Time?


Wednesday, 5.58pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it. – Ellen Goodman

I don’t think the quote above is as relevant these days – but it might be again. It all depends on how people around the world in positions of power decide how others should live their lives. And somehow, we don’t seem to make particularly good choices when it comes to the lives of others.

I have a notebook upstairs, somewhere. It’s a hardback notebook with a blue marbled cover and I made notes in it when I was being taught electronics repair by a laboratory technician a long time ago. We treated broken devices like patients and looked for symptoms so we could diagnose a fault and figure out how to fix it. I used to read sites like Sci.Electronics.Repair FAQ that told you how to fix all kinds of devices.

On one of our repair sessions we took apart a couple of VCRs and my teacher told me about how you an older model was often better than a newer model. On the old ones, it turns out, engineers often used higher quality components. Porcelain wheels rather than ceramic, for instance. Or they would have more heads to read the tape. They were trying to get the thing to work and work well so they put more into it.

Once it was working, however, the next task was to take things away, to make it lighter and cheaper, so that it was more affordable while keeping the quality at a level that was appropriate.

You could look at this as a bad thing – a designer’s effort was going into making something worse rather than better. But you could also look at this as a process of becoming more efficient, using less material to deliver the same outcome.

I was thinking about this in the context of service work today where a lot of the time a customer doesn’t get a physical product. For example, if you delivered a consulting service and had to print out a copy of your report, get it bound and hand-deliver it to every person in a company you’d think very differently about it than if you were asked to email it to a list. A real, physical thing makes you think, makes you wonder if you can do something more efficiently. You’ll print your report double sided, and give it only to those people who really need it, for a start.

I wonder if we don’t think about efficiency in the context of digital services because it’s hard to see things building up. We don’t mind people working long hours, spending lots of time in meetings, writing briefs that don’t answer the questions people actually have. Or actually, we do, but we don’t put the time in to design a better way of working by being clearer about what needs to be done and what doesn’t.

The thing for most people is that the job they do to earn a living takes up much of their waking days – but should it? The core of anything is what they deliver to a customer, what the customer gets from you. You have to know how to do that. And you probably have a reason why you do it. Whether you’re a computer programmer or a bus driver, the job is something that’s wrapped up in layers that look like the image above.

But then there’s what you would do with your time if you had the choice – what you would do even if you weren’t paid for it. This the utopian situation that Keynes suggested was a possibility, that you could work for 15 hours a week or less and still be as productive as you needed to be, leaving the rest of your week to do what interested you.

This utopia hasn’t come to pass because we don’t value our time in the same way we value materials. We will do everything we can to reduce the cost of materials but we don’t have the same pressure to reduce the burden of time. After all, if you pay someone a salary then you’d rather get as many working hours out of them as possible. If you pay them per hour then they have the same incentive, to stretch out billable time as much as possible.

I don’t know what the answer to this is but it seems a shame that we are willing to put the effort in to make a device as efficient as it can be but we don’t do that for humans.


Karthik Suresh

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