The Thought-Work Uncertainty Principle

It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You can’t see an electron, but you can measure it, to an extent. You can measure where the electron is or how fast it’s going, but not both. Because the act of measuring momentum throws off the position, and the act of measuring position throws off the momentum. (I know this is an oversimplification, but it will serve for the nonce.)

Thought-work is like that. You can’t see a thought-worker’s thoughts, so you can’t measure them. You have to measure what you can see, and you have two choices. You can measure results, or can you measure how much time the worker spends sitting in his chair.

But here’s the twist! The act of measuring the time spent sitting in the chair changes what results are achieved. And the act of measuring results changes when and for how long the thought-worker sits in his chair.

If you’re a creative person who has had to work in a manufacturing organization, you probably know I’m talking about. Manufacturing is all about churning out so-many widgets per hour, over so-many hours, producing so-so-many widgets. And you can increase the number of hours almost indiscriminately to increase the number of widgets. I know, this is not completely true, but it’s close enough that execs believe it to be true. They believe it to be true, even for thought-work.

But as a thought-worker, I must be creative. I need to nurse my creativity. Sometimes this means a change of pace in order to stimulate it. Sometimes this means sleeping in or staying late. Sometimes this means taking a walk or nap in the afternoon, or taking a long lunch. If you tell me I must be in the office at 9 o’clock and that I must stay until 5, you have in one stroke removed a whole dimension of my creativity. And you’ve reduced my effectiveness. And unless there’s a good business reason to do that, something more valuable than “That’s the way we do things here,” it’s been a needless waste.

(These organizations also may have the perverse property that a salaried employee is expected to stay late or come in early, when the organization needs it. But this same salaried employee is forbidden from leaving early or coming in late, even if the employee needs it.)

The converse is also true. If I am self-aware enough to nurse my creativity, to be most effective, I am going to adopt a schedule that works for me. This means blocking out periods of time to think. It means adjusting one’s schedule around day-to-day demands. It means staying late when the work demands it and leaving early when the mind demands it. It means not worrying about how warm the chair is, but measuring how much is accomplished.

But this approach is terribly unfocused, isn’t it? Sometimes I must force myself to sit and work, just to get my mind in gear, just to get into a state of flow. Doesn’t that contradict the Thought-Work Uncertainty Principle?

Or does it prove the point? Note: Sometimes I must force myself to sit and work. No one can do it for me. I have to know when I genuinely need a break and when I’m just avoiding an unpleasant task. That’s part of being a professional. If someone else is forcing me or pressuring me, that’s micromanagement.

And since you can’t see the thoughts, micromanagement will also produce less effective results. Think about it, and I think you’ll agree. You can get your developers to sit in the chair more, or you can accomplish more. I think I’ll take the prize behind door number two.