What’s so wrong with being slaves to the rhythm of the working week?

we need to rethink our attitude to the working week, and that shouldn’t mean replacing one rigid approach with anotherOne of the most familiar ways we measure time has its roots in a famous instance of daydreaming. The story goes that in 1583 a young student at the University of Pisa called Galileo Galilei was daydreaming in the pews while his fellow students were dutifully reciting their prayers. He noticed that one of the altar lamps was swaying back and forth and even as its energy dissipated, the arc of each swing slowed so that each took the same amount of time as the last, measured against his own pulse.

He packed the idea away and returned to it later in life in around 1602 when he built a pendulum to test whether he was right in concluding that what determines the time taken for it to swing is solely its length. What he found was that “the marvellous property of the pendulum is that it makes all its vibrations, large or small, in equal time.”

This was ground-breaking stuff for the period. Mechanical clocks existed but had to be reset daily by checking them against a sundial. This was OK for the time, when deadlines and timekeeping were not dependent on seconds, but the idea had been sown that it was possible to keep time mechanically with almost perfect precision.

Timekeeping only became a preoccupation during the Industrial Revolution when it became important for the new generation of trains to run on time and to measure the working hours and productivity of the workforce. It’s fair to say that there began the co-dependent relationship between timekeeping and industrialised work. One was not possible without the other. Before the 18th Century there was no real idea of the working day and hourly or daily pay. It was all about tasks.

It could well be that history will view the working cultures of the past 250 years as the aberration

It’s something to bear in mind because it might appear that what we think of as a feature of modern working life, is largely a return to the way things have always been. It could well be that history will view the working cultures of the past 250 years as the aberration.

Our whole attitude to time began to change and by the age of the Victorians had hardened into what we still seem to perceive. Charles Dickens described it in Hard Times as that “deadly statistical clock which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.” Galileo’s ideas about the regularity of their timekeeping ensured that pendulums would be the most accurate way for us to measure time right up until the 1930s and the dawn of the technological and nuclear age.


A new beat

There is one way in which the modern world is very different, however. Until very recently, we measured the development of computing power against time, by how many operations a processor can perform in a set period. We knew, thanks to Moore’s Law that this power doubles approximately every 18 months and had been doing so for half a century.

People have ben predicting the demise of Moore’s Law for some time and it may now be true.  The CEO of tech darlings Nvidia Jensen Huang, announced earlier in 2024 that: “In the past eight years, we’ve increased computation by 1000 times, and we have two more years to go. So that puts it into perspective [the fact that] the rate at which we’re advancing computing is insane. And it’s still not fast enough.”

The problem is that this is the new benchmark we have set ourselves for our own lives. We run to keep pace with technology. The author Charles Handy encapsulated the thinking behind it twenty or so years ago when he described it as half the people doing twice the work in half the time.

That remained one way of looking at what was happening, but it is one with constantly moving goal posts. It would seem Handy was wrong only by degrees. Technology means we do far more than he predicted on any given day. Although how much of that amounts to anything is a moot point.

We would do well to remember that sometimes we need to succumb to our humanity and that includes the desire to stare, dream, pause and put things off. It is worth sacrificing some time in the short term to achieve excellence in the long term.


Dare to dream

This is one of the arguments in Cal Newport’s new book Slow Productivity (available in a local bookshop or library near you) in which he cites the example of the author John McPhee and the occasion he once spent several days just lying around staring at a tree. As Newport writes:

“When I first encountered the story of John McPhee’s long days looking up at the leaves in his backyard, I received it nostalgically—a scene from a time long past, when those who made a living with their minds were actually given the time and space needed to craft impressive things. “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a job like that where you didn’t have to worry about being productive?” I thought.

We spend days in pursuit of pseudo-productivity

“But eventually an insistent realization emerged. McPhee was produc­tive. If you zoom out from what he was doing on that picnic table on those specific summer days in 1966 to instead consider his en­tire career, you’ll find a writer who has, to date, published twenty-nine books, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, and two of which were nominated for National Book Awards. There’s no reasonable definition of productivity that shouldn’t also apply to John McPhee, and yet nothing about his work habits is frantic, busy, or overwhelming.”

Central to Newport’s argument is that we spend days in pursuit of pseudo-productivity – creating and answering emails, attending meetings, and so on and that these things can be exacerbated by remote work…although not enough for most people to give up the choice of remote work. He cites how long Zoom meetings have often replaced quick chats in corridors and how distracted we are and less able to enter flow states, both in the office and outside it.

His solution is to follow the example of John McPhee and stop judging our output in terms of the tasks we complete in days and hours, but what meaningful work we create when we look back in the long term.


Lost in time    

We’re not helped in this by the fact that we remain attached to the idea of the working week. It’s telling that since the pandemic, the two main conversations about how we change working culture have centred on determining differently rigid times and places of work.

So, instead of five days in an office (which was never as common as many people assume), we have two or three with the rest of the five days at home or wherever. And instead of five days at work, we have four.

But as Cal Newport points out, these are just variations on the same old fixed thinking that we derived from industrial shift working. The solution lies in flexibility and focusing on meaningful work, not pseudo work.

Not that there’s anything wrong with structured time. Newport also raises the interesting issue of how we can struggle to delineate working time from the rest of our lives to the extent that our days and weeks become unstructured, and we work longer hours without noticing the encroachment.

This process began during the lockdowns, when people working from home experienced the temporal disorientation that the situation created. As Tom Hanks’s observed in a Saturday Night Live monologue that ‘there’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore. It’s just … every day is today’.

If we ditch the rituals and habits that structure our weeks, we become unmoored from the passage of time

If work days and leisure days resemble each other in many ways, and we ditch the rituals and habits that structure our weeks, we become unmoored from the passage of time.

David Henkin of the University of California, Berkeley addressed this phenomenon in a 2021 Aeon essay called How We Became Weekly.  He writes:

“Unlike days, months and years, all of which track, approximate, mimic or at least allude to some natural process (with hours, minutes and seconds representing neat fractions of those larger units), the week finds its foundation entirely in history. To say ‘today is Tuesday’ is to make a claim about the past rather than about the stars or the tides or the weather. We are asserting that a certain number of days, reckoned by uninterrupted counts of seven, separate today from some earlier moment. And because those counts have no prospect of astronomical confirmation or alignment, weeks depend in some sense on meticulous historical recordkeeping. But practically speaking, weekly counts are reinforced by the habits and rituals of other people. When those habits and rituals were radically obscured or altered in 2020, the week itself seemed to unravel.”

What he and Cal Newport are arguing is that we are trapped between the clock and the computer, working harder than ever but doing less meaningful work. To resolve this we need to rethink our attitude to the week, and that shouldn’t mean replacing one rigid approach with another.