The fallacy of work-life compartmentalization

Re­lated to: Out­side the Lab­o­ra­tory, Ghosts in the Machine

We’ve all ob­served how peo­ple can be very smart in some con­texts, and stupid in oth­ers. Peo­ple com­part­men­tal­ize, which has been pre­vi­ously hy­poth­e­sized as the rea­son for some epic failures to un­der­stand things that should be ob­vi­ous.

It’s also im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that we are not im­mune. To that end, I want to start off by con­sid­er­ing some com­fortable ex­am­ples, where some­one else is the butt of the joke, and then con­sider ex­am­ples which might make you more un­easy.

“The mere pres­ence of a com­puter can short cir­cuit nor­mally in­tel­li­gent peo­ple’s brains.”—Com­puter Stupidities

The re­as­sur­ing cases con­cern smart peo­ple who be­come stupid when con­fronted with our area of ex­per­tise. If you’re a soft­ware de­vel­oper, that tends to be peo­ple who can’t figure out some­thing ba­sic about Win­dows. “I’ve tried clos­ing the app and restart­ing, and I’ve tried re­boot­ing, and it doesn’t work, I still can’t find my file.” You take a deep breath, re­frain from rol­ling your eyes and ask­ing what the heck their men­tal model is, what they think clos­ing-and-restart­ing has to do with a mis­placed file, and you go look­ing for some ob­vi­ous places, like the Desk­top, where they keep all their files but some­how ne­glected to look this time. If it’s not there, chances are it will be in My Doc­u­ments.

It’s some­times drain­ing to be called on for this kind of thing, but it can be re­as­sur­ing. My dad is a high cal­ibre math­e­mat­i­cian, deal­ing in ab­strac­tions at a level that seems strato­spheric com­pared to my rusty-col­lege-math. But we some­times get into con­ver­sa­tions like the above, and I get a slightly guilty self-es­teem boost from them.

Now, the harder ques­tion: how do we com­part­men­tal­ize?

I pro­pose work-life com­part­men­tal­iza­tion as a case study. “Work-life bal­ance” is how we ra­tio­nal­ize that sep­a­ra­tion. It’s OK, we think, to put up with some un­pleas­ant­ness from 9 to 5, as long as we can look for­ward to get­ting home, kick­ing our shoes off and re­lax­ing, alone or among fam­ily or friends. And per­haps that’s rea­son­able enough.

But this logic leads many peo­ple to tol­er­ate: stress, tak­ing or­ders, do­ing work that we think is mean­ingless, filling out pa­per­work that will never ac­tu­ally be read, pour­ing our en­ergy into pro­jects we’re cer­tain are failure-bound but never speak­ing up about that to avoid be­ing branded “not a team player”, be­ing bored in end­less meet­ings which are thinly dis­guised sta­tus games, feel­ing un­pro­duc­tive and stupid but grind­ing on any­way be­cause it’s “office hours” and that’s when we are sup­posed to work, and so on.

And those are only the milder symp­toms. Work­place bul­ly­ing, crunch mode, dodgy work­place ethics are wor­ry­ingly preva­lent. (There are large vari­a­tions in this type of work­place tox­i­c­ity; some of us are lucky enough to never catch but a whiff of it, some of us un­for­tu­nately are ex­posed to a high de­gree. That these are real and wide­spread phe­nom­ena is ev­i­denced by the suc­cess of TV shows show­ing office life as its dark­est; hu­mor is a defense mechanism.)

Things snapped into fo­cus for me one day when a man­ager asked me to lie to a client about my ed­u­ca­tion record in or­der to get a con­tract. I re­fused, ex­pect­ing to be fired; that didn’t hap­pen. Had I re­ally been at risk? The in­ci­dent any­way fueled a re­solve to try and ap­ply at work the same stan­dards that I do in life—when I think ra­tio­nally.

In ev­ery­day life, ra­tio­nal­ity sug­gests we try to avoid bore­dom, tells us it’s un­wise to make promises we can’t keep, to avoid get­ting en­tan­gled in our own lies, and so on. What might hap­pen if we tried to ap­ply the same stan­dards in the work­place?

In­stead of tol­er­at­ing bore­dom in meet­ings, you may find it more effec­tive to ap­ply a set of crite­ria to any meet­ing—does it have an agenda, a list of par­ti­ci­pants, a set end­ing time and a known ob­jec­tive—and not show up if it doesn’t meet them.

You might re­fuse to give long-term sched­ule es­ti­mate for tasks that you didn’t re­ally be­lieve in, and in­stead try break­ing the task down, work­ing in short time­boxed iter­a­tions and up­dat­ing your es­ti­mates based on ob­served re­al­ity, com­mit­ting only to as much work as is com­pat­i­ble with main­tain­ing peak pro­duc­tivity.

You might stop tol­er­at­ing the most egre­gious sta­tus games that go on in the work­place, and strive in­stead for effec­tive col­lec­tive ac­tion: team­work.

Those would be merely sane be­havi­ours. It is, per­haps, op­tional to ex­tend this think­ing to ac­tu­ally challeng­ing the usual work­place norms, and start­ing to do things differ­ently just be­cause they would be bet­ter that way. The world is crazy, and that in­cludes the world of work. Peo­ple who in­sist on not check­ing their brain at the door of the work­place are still few and far be­tween, and to re­ally change a work­place it takes a crit­i­cal mass of them.

But I’ve seen it hap­pen, and helped it hap­pen, and the re­sults make me want to find out more about other ar­eas where I still com­part­men­tal­ize. The prospect is a lit­tle scary—I still find it un­pleas­ant to find out I’ve been stupid—but also ex­cit­ing.