The Office Intervention

This employee needs work-life balance

The always-on style of work doesn’t work, but you may need a little shock therapy to believe it. 

By Joe Robinson

Sometimes the counterproductive behaviors can get so out of hand there's only one recourse left: an office intervention. Enter Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor of leadership armed with an eagle eye for counterproductive work styles.

"Most of us are ‘successaholics.' That's what we think is necessary for our organization to succeed," says Perlow, author of Sleeping With Your Smartphone and a researcher whose experiments in corporate America have shaken up notions about productivity in the always-on workplace. "If you try to do things differently, you will find it incredibly valuable. It's rallying together to recognize that if we continue to work in this way, it's undermining our productivity, our sustainability, our creativity."

As with any intervention, Perlow's subjects know there's something wrong, but they're usually reluctant to budge from their self-inflicted pain. It took her six months to find a team at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) that would allow her to run an experiment that would challenge the long-standing assumption that 24/7 availability was essential to success. Half the executives in a survey she conducted worked more than 65 hours a week, not counting some 20 hours spent monitoring their smartphones. She wanted to see what would happen if BCG consultants—gulp!—took a full night off per week.

Despite the initial angst set off by the strategy—a concept she called "Predictable Time Off" (PTO)—it turned out to be a big hit. Productivity didn't drop; rather, it increased, as team members were forced to improve coordination.

"It unleashes an incredibly powerful process for these teams," Perlow says. "They were planning better, prioritizing better, delivering better products to their clients. In the meantime they had more predictability and control of their lives."

BCG was so impressed that PTO is now a companywide initiative, in place in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Perlow has been driven since her college days by the belief that it's possible to be successful professionally but also have a personal life. After a stint in management consulting, she went back to grad school thinking there had to be a better way. Her big revelation came while doing research on software engineers in China, India and Hungary. Some work styles were more flexible than others. "That made me realize it can be different," she says.

Unquestioned beliefs, such as "I always have to be available to the client" or "I can't take time off," run a "cycle of responsiveness" that traps us, she argues. "There's an underlying expectation that more is better. With the smartphone, we get sucked into the benefits without realizing the costs of always being on. We have systems that are set up to need you all the time. Does it have to be urgent if you thought about it differently? And what we find is the answer is no."

This is especially true for entrepreneurs, who truly are on all the time. "Entrepreneurs haven't really put in the time to think about their work practices and planning and prioritizing," she contends.

Perlow comes into companies as an ethnographer, observing work practices for several months before identifying the ways an organization can change its practices to benefit both the firm's productivity and the workers' personal lives. At a software company rife with chronic night and weekend overtime, she realized that engineers were pulling all-nighters because they were being interrupted frequently and couldn't concentrate during normal work hours. Her intervention, "Quiet Time," divided the day into periods in which everyone agreed not to interrupt each other. With the space to think, formerly harried engineers were able to pull off the first on-time launch in their division's history.

Such changes can be a little squirmy initially. "It's incredibly anxiety-provoking to turn off when you're not used to turning off," Perlow says.

Entrepreneur, February 2013 (c) Joe Robinson 2013

Tags: increase productivity, productivity, employee engagement, work life balance programs, work life balance, Leslie Perlow

The Resilience of Positivity

How you bounce back from adversity has a lot to do with the assets you have in the bank. Your positivity bank. Don’t have one? The University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson explains why it’s time to start making deposits.

By Joe Robinson

Bouncing back: Punching bags are good at it; humans, less so. A growing body of evidence, though, suggests you can ward off tailspins by building up your reserves of the best antidote to adversity: positive emotions, the hidden engine of resilience.

"We call it the 'undo effect,'" says Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity and a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, whose research has upended our understanding of a group of emotions that were once considered trifling but are now seen as central to persistence, innovation and success.

"Positive emotions help speed recovery from negative emotions," Fredrickson says. "When people are able to self-generate a positive emotion or perspective, that enables them to bounce back. It's not just that you bounce back and then you feel good--feeling good drives the process."

Negative emotions undermine the brain's capacity to think broadly and find creative solutions. The vise grip of fear and stress and the emotions they generate--anger, blame, panic, resentment, shame--limit thought to a narrow field that obscures options. In a work environment, negativity causes teams to lose flexibility and the ability to be curious.

"Losses loom larger than gains," Fredrickson explains. "Our mind is drawn into this mental time travel, and we're obsessing about something negative that happened in the past or we're worrying about what will happen in the future."

She has determined that you can reframe adversity and be more effective every day by countering negative loops with a buried resource--the well of joy, hope, amusement, gratitude, interest, appreciation, awe and other buoyant emotions we can call on as needed. These low-key assets have the power to calm blood pressure and operate as a kind of reset button for stress-addled minds and bodies.

In one of her studies, test subjects whose anxiety was driven sky-high by an impending public speech were able to reverse negative cardiovascular effects in less than a minute by viewing relaxing imagery. They were shown a tranquil film clip of ocean waves, a puppy playing, a sad film or a neutral screen saver depicting an abstract display of lines. Sensors tracking heart rate, blood pressure and artery constriction showed that those watching the seemingly positive imagery recovered the fastest. Another study, this one based on daily reports of positive and negative emotions, found that the more positive emotions people experienced, the more their resilience levels grew, enabling them to let go of negative events faster.

A report Fredrickson co-wrote on bouncing back from business failures ("Beyond hubris: How highly confident entrepreneurs rebound to venture again") suggests that the resources generated by positive emotions can help people overcome setbacks and start new ventures. In fact, the report contends, positive emotions have been shown to help businesspeople negotiate better, improve decision-making, boost creativity and drive high-performance behavior.

"Positive emotions expand awareness and attention," Fredrickson says, which is critical for anyone looking for an opportunity or trying to solve a problem. "When you're able to take in more information, the peripheral vision field is expanded. You're able to connect the dots to the bigger picture. Instead of remembering just the most central event, you remember that and the peripheral aspects, too."

Working with mathematician Marcial Losada, Fredrickson has discovered a tipping point of positive-to-negative emotions that spells the difference between flourishing and floundering. "It seems like we need at least three positive emotions to open and lift us up to counter every single negative emotion that drags us down," she says. "The good news is that the positive emotions don't need to be intense or profound. They can be rather mild. They just need to be frequent."

One of the easiest ways to combat the negative tide is through appreciation or gratitude. Fredrickson advises asking yourself what in your current situation you could be treasuring that you're not. Connecting with someone over a shared interest or amusement is another superb way to shift out of the negative frame. Or step back when you've hit a wall and take a break. Bring some music into your day.

The three-to-one ratio isn't something you need to meet every hour or day, but over time, if you're making deposits to your positivity bank, you get a big dividend. "There's really solid evidence that the positive emotions you feel today predict tomorrow's and next week's and next month's success, health and quality relationships," Fredrickson says, "because they build your resources and resilience."

 (c) 2012 Joe Robinson  From Entrepreneur, Jan. 2013

Tags: positive emotions, change management, resilience, positive emotions and productivity

Multitasking = Multiple Choice

First the tooth fairy, now multitasking. Cognitive scientist David Meyer unmasks the illusion behind the counterproductive habit of multitasking.

By Joe Robinson

It's the gospel of productivity in a maxed-out world: Multitasking helps you get more done faster. The only thing is, it doesn't, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan--where he serves as director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory--and one of the country's leading experts on multitasking.

"When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you're going to have to pick and choose which task you're going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it," he explains.

Meyer has been at the forefront of research for several decades on how the brain processes information and copes with multitasking. He has investigated the brain's speed, accuracy and memory in information processing while working with psychologist David Kieras for the Office of Naval Research. A study Meyer co-wrote on the limitations of multitasking ("Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching") went viral in 2001, setting off the first awareness of the counterproductivity of simultaneous activities.

Meyer's work has helped demonstrate that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges, which can make multitasking problematic. It turns out the brain's ability to process information is limited in a variety of ways -- from processing channels to limits on data volume, velocity and working memory -- that confound true, simultaneous task actions.

Counter to common belief, you can't do two cognitively complicated tasks at once, Meyer says. When you're on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you're actually switching back and forth between them, since there's only one mental and neural channel through which language flows. "If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," he says.

That's heresy in a time-urgent world with the attention span of a macaque on crack. Meyer admits that multitasking is not only getting more prevalent, but it's also "very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health." Even the most adept multitasker will "crash and burn" trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong e-mail; blow an account; have a "brownout," in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a cell phone.

"When you're driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you're trying to have a cell phone conversation while you're doing that, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving," Meyer says.

He points to the growing number of auto accidents caused by businesspeople sending work texts from behind the wheel. The conflicts triggered by incessant multitasking can set off chronic stress and slow you down, shredding productivity. In fact, trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 50 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the tasks, Meyer says.

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. "If you're disciplined enough, you can map out the usage of your time in a way that minimizes your exposure to interruptions," Meyer explains.

Entrepreneurs are some of the most compulsive multitaskers--"macho master multitaskers," as Meyer puts it -- but he says you'd be wise to cool the scatterbrain jets and focus.

"If you want to be a creative entrepreneur, you ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think," he says. "Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity."

(c) Joe Robinson 2012   From Entrepreneur, December, 2012

Tags: multitasking, information overload, technology addiction, increase productivity

The Speed Trap of Time Urgency

The race is on, and you are losing, to a foe so ingrained in the way you work you'd never even suspect it. The culprit is the very warp-factor speed so many us think is essential to success—time pressure, an obsession with scarcity of time that researchers call time urgency. It spawns a chronic state of hurry-worry that locks you into a perpetual rush hour, even if there's no reason for it. Constant clock-checking, zero tolerance for waiting longer than a nanosecond, the need to do everything ASAP or it's apocalypse now—these are just some of the telltale behaviors that come with this condition and the chronic impatience it brings.

Time urgency kills attention spans, rational decision-making skills and, at its most acute, the body itself by contributing to factors that lead to heart disease. People who feel chronic time pressure are twice as likely to have high blood pressure—even those in their 30s, a Northwestern University study found. Stephen Cole of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School linked people with an insistent sense of time urgency and impatience with a "significant" increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Research has long linked time urgency to Type-A personalities. Time urgency was studied in industrial psychology as early as 1913 but came under scrutiny as a critical factor in job stress when it was identified as a component of Type-A behavior in the 1970s. Investigators discovered that time urgency heightens anxiety and sets off an escalating chain reaction of emotions—impatience to irritability to anger. In addition, when every second is focused on getting as much accomplished in as little time as possible, bad behaviors develop--getting too little exercise, eating fast food, blowing off downtime and stress buffers such as hobbies or vacations—that also eat away at physical health.

Renee Wood, president of The Comfort Co., knows the symptoms too well. "The first thing is that my left arm starts to tingle and go numb," Wood says. "I feel this heavy heartbeat, like I'm being put in a bag." It feels something like a suffocation by clock, as the time ticks down on all the things she needs to do but doesn't have time for. Others feel a churning stomach, a tightness in the chest or neck, or a sense of being about to explode from all the adrenalized energy pouring through them.

Wood has struggled with time urgency for the eight years she's been running her Geneva, Ill., online business, which designs and sells sympathy gifts. The morning before our chat, she decided to keep track of how many times the wave swept over her. The tally: 15 episodes in four hours. "I'm thinking I've got to answer that e-mail, fix that problem, send that order out," she says. "I feel like I'm at a stoplight, and I'm revving and revving. I've got to get somewhere."

Nonstop Urgency Makes Everything Urgent

Tech tools run amok and the instant gratification they train us to expect have amped up the time crunch, flooding us with more demands than we can possibly meet and making it seem as if they all need to be done instantaneously. It's a mechanical loop easy to get caught up in: Time urgency fuels stress, the panicky signals of the stress response create rushing, and that drives mistakes and further stress. The time urgency habit creates an illusion that busyness itself is the goal, and equates busyness with productivity--but it's actually keeping you running in place, stuck on mechanical momentum.

"Looking like you're doing something or doing something fast doesn't mean that you're actually doing it properly," says Srini Pillay, an assistant clinical professor at Harvard Medical School and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. "Companies need to realize that it is velocity and not speed that matters. Being efficient matters. Velocity takes into consideration the direction of the work and not just frenzied, high-speed activity. Just moving fast in itself is not enough."

You need to be moving fast with the right direction," Pillay says.

Researchers at Missouri Western State University found that time urgency causes more mistakes and even makes you forget what you're supposed to be doing. Other findings, from Siegfried Streufert while a behavioral sciences professor at Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, have shown that complex decision-making and planning "disintegrated" with high levels of time urgency. The stress caused by time urgency constricts your brain, as all stress does, to the perceived crisis and doesn't let you focus clearly on much else.

"You lose sight of what you're really trying to accomplish," says Robert Trumble, management professor and director of Virginia Labor Studies Center at Virginia Commonwealth University. "There's a rush to judgment, in which the urgent is given priority over the important. These people are doers, but do they really know what they're doing?"

The baseline of time urgency is a need to control time, but time urgency winds up controlling you. You stress over the elevator that's taking forever or e-mails that don't have to be returned immediately, or you put life and limb at risk to get to FedEx before the last shipment of the day goes out. Rushing is, in fact, an altered state very similar to drunkenness. You do things in your rushing mind you never would do in your sane mind, like go ballistic at a 10-item-or-less checkout counter when someone goes over the quota.

That's anger, and anger is a well-documented link to heart disease. Men with higher "trait anger" have a 1.7 times greater chance of developing hypertension, with a 90 percent increased risk for coronary heart disease for pre-hypertensive men, according to a 2007 study at the University of South Carolina of 2,334 men and women.

In a review of 43 studies, researchers at University College in London found that anger and hostility increased the risk of coronary heart disease in healthy people by 19 percent.

Eduard Suarez, a behavioral sciences professor at Duke University, has shown that anger and hostility lead to the production of higher levels of coronary C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance that promotes and predicts cardiovascular disease in healthy people and is associated with inflammatory processes that lead to thickening of the arteries. He found that men who rated high in hostility and depression had two to three times the amount of CRP than mild-mannered men had. Hostility is such a red flag that a study by the Boston University School of Public Health in 2002 suggested that it's a better predictor of coronary disease than high cholesterol, smoking or drinking.

Rushing Is an Altered State

Time urgency is not a state that leads to sane business decisions. You are at the mercy of the raw, panicked emotions of the caveman brain--the amygdala--home of the stress response, which hijacks the rational parts of your mind in times of perceived danger.

The paradox is, as out of control as you might feel, the ability to control time urgency is completely in your hands. Watch for tip-offs that you are on the too-fast track--eating fast, talking fast, being in a general hurry and excessively aware of time, putting words in other people's mouths and feeling chronically impatient and irritable. And when you're racing, catch yourself. Take a deep breath. Ask, is it an emergency or is it a speed trap? You don't have to be in fifth gear every second of the day.

Kimberly Chiu, a Monterey Park, Calif., entrepreneur whose company, Papeterie, produces custom letterpress stationery, learned the hard way that she couldn't run a sustainable business if she let time urgency run her. She doesn't answer e-mail in five minutes anymore, nor does she do weekend and 2 a.m. e-mails, two things that gave customers the impression she was available every second. "It's very easy to want to please the customers," notes Chiu. "But we always try to underpromise and overdeliver."

The fastest runners in the world, from sprint legend Carl Lewis to Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, have a habit of saying after winning races that they relaxed more than their competitors. They concentrated on their form, not the finish line of the clock, so they weren't tense or constricted, as we are when we're rushing. They didn't panic and stuck to their game plan. They focused on the content, not the clock. That's the ultimate answer to time urgency--full engagement in the moment. That's optimal performance.

(c) 2010, Joe Robinson, Entrepreneur

E-Mail Is Making You Stupid

The research is overwhelming. Constant e-mail interruptions make you less productive, less creative and—if you're e-mailing when you're doing something else—just plain dumb.

By Joe Robinson

Within the heart of your company, saboteurs lurk. Disguised as instruments of productivity, they are subverting your staff's most precious resource: attention. Incessant e-mail alerts, instant messages, buzzing BlackBerrys and cell phones are decimating concentration. The average information worker loses 2.1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions, according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm.

That time is money. Computer chip giant Intel, for one, has estimated that e-mail overload can cost large companies as much as $1 billion a year in lost employee productivity. The intrusions are constant. A typical office employee checks e-mail 50 times a day and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to RescueTime, a firm that develops time-management software. Chronic interruptions don't just sidetrack workers from their jobs, they also undermine their attention spans, increase stress and annoyance and decrease job satisfaction and creativity.

The interruption epidemic is reaching a crisis point at some companies and shows no sign of slowing. E-mail volume is growing at a rate of 66% a year, according to the E-Policy Institute. More people are texting. More are using Facebook or Twitter for work.

"It's worse than it's ever been," says Michelle Rupp, owner of NRG Seattle, an insurance brokerage with a staff of 12 who feel pounded by the avalanche of messaging. "It's so hard to stay focused. Everything bings and bongs and tweets at you, and you don't think."

There is something you can do about it: interruption management.

The Myth of Multitasking

Human brains come equipped with two kinds of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention, designed to be on the watch for threats to survival, is triggered by outside stimuli—what grabs you. It's automatically rattled by the workday cacophony of rings, pings and buzzes. Voluntary attention is the ability to concentrate on a chosen task.

As attention spans are whipsawed by interruptions, something insidious happens in the brain: Interruptions erode the ability to regulate attention. In other words, the more you check your messages, the more you feel the need to check them--an urge familiar to BlackBerry or iPhone users.

"Technology is an addiction," says Gayle Porter, a professor of management at Rutgers University who has studied e-compulsion. "If someone can't turn their BlackBerry off, there's a problem."

The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message-checking is the behavior of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But the science says otherwise. People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can't do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously.

Say a salesman is trying to read a new e-mail while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a "switching cost," forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40 percent when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too--mistakes and burnout. One of the study's authors, David Meyer, argues that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.

The damaging effects spread well beyond the office cubicle. Kate LeVan, a communications consultant in Evanston, Ill., coaches executives whose brains are so scrambled by electronic interruptions that they stumble during key face-to-face interactions: board meetings, investor pitches, sales presentations. "They can't have an extended conversation for more than a few minutes," LeVan says. "That's the impact of having all this data going back and forth. They have problems in conversation because they can't focus."

Here's how the brain behaves when your attention slips away from a task: The hippocampus, which manages demanding cognitive tasks and creates long-term memories, kicks the job down to the striatum, which handles rote tasks. This is why you wind up addressing e-mails to people who weren't supposed to get them. Or sending messages rife with typos. The striatum is the brain's autopilot.

In her book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher argues that humans are the sum of what they pay attention to: What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfillment. Yet instead of cultivating this resource, she says, we're squandering it on "whatever captures our awareness." To truly learn something, and remember it, you have to pay full attention.

E-interruptions are making it so hard to do that that Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are members of the Information Overload Research Group, formed in 2008 to collaborate on research, develop best practices and host forums to share new approaches. It's self-preservation as much as anything; computer engineers were among the first to show symptoms of e-interruption exposure.

The No Interruption Zone

Ten years ago, Harvard Business School's Leslie Perlow famously chronicled the interruption of a high-tech software company. Its engineers were interrupted so often they had to work nights and weekends. After studying the workplace for nine months, the source of the dysfunction became clear: No one could get anything done because of the bombardment of messages. Perlow came up with an intervention: Quiet Time. For four hours in the morning, the 17 engineers worked alone. All messaging and phone contact was banned. In the afternoon, communication could resume. Given time to concentrate, the engineers got a project for a color printer completed without the graveyard shift.

Other companies, including U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche, have mandated less e-mail use, encouraged more face-to-face contact and experimented with programs such as "no e-mail Friday." The results often are surprising: employees build rapport with colleagues--and they save time. Co-workers can settle something in a two-minute phone conversation that might have required three e-mails per person.

Nearly everyone needs boundaries to get anything done in this 24/7 work world. Count Chad Willardson among the converted. He's a senior financial advisor at Merrill Lynch Private Wealth Management Group and operates a financial services practice with a partner for Merrill in Riverside, Calif. He used to check for new messages every five minutes, a potential 96 interruptions during an eight-hour day.

"The more I checked e-mail," he says, "the more anxious I would feel over every request and question." Now he checks e-mail manually, and only four times a day at prescribed hours--the schedule that Oklahoma State University researchers describe as optimum. He says he gets a lot more done, is more in control of his calendar and feels much less stressed.

Managers and staff are united in overstuffed in-boxes. During a management training session I conducted at Lockheed Martin, many managers vented their frustration--until one raised his hand. "It's not a problem for me," he said. "I've gotten my e-mail checking down to twice a day."

He explained that his staff knew he preferred to communicate by phone and they don't send him e-mail unless it's important that the information be in writing. And because he checked e-mail only twice daily, they had been weaned from the idea that they'd get an instant reply. Everyone understood that he viewed excessive messages as a drain on his performance--and by extension, theirs.

When the manager volunteered his solution, it was as if he'd levitated. Other managers looked stunned. And envious.

(c) 2010 Joe Robinson, published in Entrepreneur magazine, Mar. 2010

The Red Zone

A company at the heart of 24/7 has a program to protect its hardest working assets.

By Joe Robinson

Can workaholics change their ways? Management consultants are the high priests of the overwork set, prone to marathon road grinds and hours. So it's no small wonder that a solution to one of the workplace's most intractable issues--unbounded hours--has emerged at one of consulting's legendary bastions, the Boston Consulting Group.

"A hero at BCG is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night," says Kermit King, the firm's head of recruiting for the Americas. "The emphasis should be on productivity per hour, and I think there's a point where productivity diminishes."

That's why the firm--which doesn't bill by the hour and explicitly states that hours don't figure in promotions--launched a program called the Red Zone three years ago to spot and tame chronic overworkers.

When a consultant averages more than 60 hours per week over any five weeks, he or she is flagged on reports seen by partners and managers. If the episode is found to be more than a temporary bump, a Career Development Committee sponsor is charged with finding ways to manage the hours down--by advising the staffer on time budgeting, extending the project timeline, or bringing in new resources.

When Chicago-based consultant Michael Zinser got flagged, for example, "some priorities got taken off the plate" and divvied up among other team members, he says. Ten percent to 25% of staffers are in the Red Zone at any time.

Yet despite the program, King says he doubts overall hours have come down. But maybe it just takes a while to change entrenched culture--and retrain workaholic tendencies.

"You know that someone out there is watching," Zinser says of the Red Zone. And internal surveys do show progress: 67% of employees felt their workload was manageable last year, up from 63% in 2005. Sure, that still leaves a third of the firm feeling out of control. But it's enough to keep BCG committed to the program--and to the idea that workaholism and productivity are not the same thing.

(c) 2007 Joe Robinson, published in Fast Company magazine

Curing Message Overload

E-tools have swarmed in without rules or etiquette for effective use. Let's create some.

By Joe Robinson

We are said to be a nation of laws, but any desk jockey knows that's an illusion. All order, if not liberty itself, ends where the E-tools begin. Unbounded electronic communications have turned civil society into an anarchic, free-fire zone of ceaseless incoming, stealing our time and productivity. The volume of electronic messaging keeps mounting-without rules, limits, or traffic lights.

The average corporate user gets 133 E-mails a day. Not surprisingly, a survey by Day-Timers found that instant communications technology is making it harder, not easier, to get things done. The number of people who feel very productive has fallen from 83% in 1994 to just 51% today. It's hard to find optimal performance in a 24/7 distraction derby. One Microsoft study found that it took workers 15 minutes to get mental focus back after answering an E-mail.

In the spirit of Madison and Jefferson, it's time to reclaim liberty, not to mention productivity, with some boundary setting. Since the rules are nonexistent, we're not breaking any, only bad habits that have been allowed to pile up in a vacuum of E-discipline. It's time to redraw the vanished line between work and home, and between legitimate office communications and compulsive junk with an E-Tool Bill of Rights: (See left column of this page)

Most of the E-chaos today is enabled by our limitless need to be wanted. The E-Tool Bill of Rights helps do what the Founding Fathers knew we had to--save us from ourselves.

(c) 2006 Joe Robinson, published in Fast Company magazine

Temple Safari

A Burmese Steeple Chase
By Joe Robinson

My body was already a waterfall, and it was only 10:15 a.m. in the oven of Bagan, former imperial capital of Myanmar. Standing on the pedals of my rented one-speed girl's bike with a leopard-print seat, I dripped up an incline, passed a couple of bullocks on death's door pulling an ancient wooden cart and then swerved off the asphalt into sand as an air-conditioned bus filled with grinning foreign tourists blew by.

The backdraft stirred up a storm of dry-season dust, and as it settled, I could make out a surreal spectacle from the top of the rise: a sea of otherworldly steeples dancing in the heat waves -- some conical, others topped with doughnut-shaped rings, some with glinting golden umbrellas, some sculpted into immense bells. Despite the heat, it was not a mirage. The sci-fi skyline is the legacy of a mysterious building boom that turned this central Burmese savanna astride the Irrawaddy River into one of Asia's most sprawling but least-known extravaganzas of religious architecture.

Angkor Wat, the famed Cambodian monument that has a shared Hindu and Buddhist past, contains 200 temples. Bagan, formerly known as Pagan, boasts 2,217 Buddhist temples and monuments, and once had more than 4,000 sites. Strewn across a couple of dozen square miles, this forest of brick and stone towers was triggered by a templemania that reigned from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the capital of the Burmese empire. Sacred edifices went up by the hundreds, housing giant Buddhas and wall and ceiling murals the likes of which would not be seen until the Sistine Chapel.

I rode through the maze of devotion, hoping to understand the compulsion behind the building spree. On my journey, I would also encounter more recent construction, part of a controversial restoration campaign by the military government of Myanmar, known as Burma until the regime renamed it in 1989. The rehab is designed to fuel tourism, particularly from China.

UNESCO and archaeological experts have denounced the government's rebuilding of ancient sites, and the construction of a mammoth 197-foot viewing tower that has been open for two years and an upscale resort in the middle of Bagan's antiquities.

Not that Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council -- the latest incarnation of a junta that has sealed the nation off from the rest of the world for the last 44 years -- is going to lose sleep over some old bricks. Although a world pariah for its gulag of political prisoners, bloody campaigns against ethnic minorities, suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988, and for keeping Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, elected president of the nation, under house arrest on and off since 1989, the regime isn't deterred by public censure.

Or boycotts. International trade sanctions and a tourist boycott designed to restore democracy have kept Western products and many travelers out of Myanmar. But trade is flourishing with China and non-boycotting Asian nations, making the sanctions moot. Some supporters of Suu Kyi, who endorses the boycott, charge that anyone who travels to Myanmar funds the generals. Others argue that tourism helps job-starved Burmese -- taxi drivers, food stall operators, postcard hawkers and artisans. As one guide told me, "If sanctions were 100% honored, I would say stay home, but since they're not, tell your friends to come. We need jobs."

I considered the arguments and decided to go last year, steering clear of government hotels and viewing towers. Boycotts almost always hurt the little guy and seal off societies from outside eyes.

Ancient Missiles

Across the road, I spotted a staircase leading up the rickety bricks of the Somingyi temple and headed over for a scenic outlook. As I reached the stairs, a young man in a checked-green longyi, the traditional wrap-around sarong worn by most men here, pulled up on a motorcycle and introduced himself.

"Sir, remember the feet," said a grinning souvenir salesman.

I should have known the drill after a shoeless week at Buddhist sites around the country. All temple visitors must go barefoot anywhere on the premises, even the roof. It's a sign of respect.

From the second-floor terrace the scene was surprisingly African -- sporadic acacia trees, scrubby amber grass -- except the big game here is spires. Dozens of temples and bell-shaped towers called zedis, ranging from 30 feet to 200 feet high, point to the heavens like ancient missiles. Zedis, the most evocative symbol of Myanmar, dominate town and village landscapes and loom above farmland.

The profusion of temples and maroon-robed monks adds to the exotica of a land whose government-enforced isolation has made it a time warp of the Asia of decades ago. Bullocks pass for farm machinery. And the main transit system for ferrying goods is human -- on heads or bikes piled to gravity-defying heights.

But the government has moved fast to bring Bagan up to modern tourism standards. Too fast for UNESCO archaeological experts, who pulled out of Myanmar after the regime's methods put paintings inside Bagan's temples at risk. The government later abandoned the paintings. Without proper preservation, thousands of works of art are threatened, one Burmese expert who asked not to be identified told me. I saw priceless murals of life in the 12th century under attack by termites, which target the sugar used in the ancient plaster.

But the government has charged ahead with work on temple facades. It has grafted steeples onto topless monuments and rebuilt fallen structures without archaeological oversight.

Just behind Somingyi, I spotted a new edifice going up. The souvenir salesman and I wandered over to watch a crew rebuild a small cube temple leveled by an earthquake. The construction techniques look like what might have been used for the original temples here -- bamboo ladder and scaffold, a pot of lime for mortar and bricks a-flying. The hurler was a skinny young woman in a straw hat who in another land might have a future on the softball mound. In the wilting sun, she flung brick after brick to a worker 12 feet up.

I asked who was funding the job and was told, a private benefactor. Donors to Buddhist sites can win spiritual merit, a motivation that spurs contributions.

Were the kings who built Bagan buying their way to nirvana? The souvenir salesman didn't know, but he was ready to get out of the furnace. I took him up on an offer of tea at his family's home and pedaled off on a dusty path to his nearby village.

Golden Glow

In a country that is 90% Buddhist, Bagan is a prime destination for the faithful, who arrive on jammed, decrepit mini-buses with pilgrims stacked on the roof like luggage. All Burmese try to visit the site at least once in their lives. The heart of the most revered temples is Old Bagan, home of the imperial capital, which was abandoned after it was overrun by the Mongols in the late 13th century.

Of the hundreds of spires suspended in the haze of Old Bagan, Ananda Pahto stands out. The day before my bike expedition, I explored the majestic whitewashed structure, topped by an ornate, gilded steeple. It was built in 1105 in the prime of temple construction, which exploded after the Bamar king Anawrahta defeated the southern Mon armies in 1057 and united most of modern-day Myanmar under his rule at Bagan.

Anawrahta went on a building tear, using the slave labor of conquered armies to raise Buddhist structures. Maybe that explains the proliferation of temples -- free labor. My guide that day didn't think so. He believed it was all about ego, a popular motive for the monumental works of ancient developers, from Egypt to Mayan realms.

"The kings tried to outdo each other and show their power," he said.

Anawrahta's successor, Kyanzittha, topped him by commissioning Ananda. Inside its giant teak doors and walls several feet thick, 20-foot golden Buddhas towered under soaring arches. Each stood in the teaching posture, arms outstretched, stylized in the Indian fashion, with long ears and transparent robe.

Bagan's smorgasbord of sacred architecture contains Shwezigon, an imposing golden mountain that is the Taj Mahal of zedis. As I emerged from a shaded arcade into the sunlight torching Shwezigon, the blast of gold from the temple was blinding. The conical dome glowed above three staggered terraces, with ledges striped in burgundy, altogether a marvel of symmetry and elegance. The structure was covered in gold leaf, re-rubbed on by hand in postage stamp-sized bits every four years.

The faithful padded clockwise in the Buddhist tradition around the gold pinnacle, stopping at shrines and altars to pray -- for happiness, health or good grades. A group of country girls dropped to kneel on the tile of an open-air temple. Lifting hands in prayer until thumbs touched foreheads, each bent forward to the ground in full prostration. Prayer is one of the few realms where Burmese are allowed to express themselves in this Orwellian land.

Atop the steep, Mayan-like Shwesandaw temple, still open to rooftop viewing (others have been closed to funnel people to the government tower), I took in one of the most haunting horizons in antiquity. Spires tickling the twilight in all directions celebrated a Buddhist message lost on centuries of leaders: freedom, through enlightenment, compassion and egolessness.

Captive Commentary

Back on the bike, I realized it was almost noon, "the time of silent feet," as George Orwell called it, when humans head for any scrap of shade to escape the barbecue. I followed my friend, the souvenir salesman, to a poor but tidy village where the homes are made traditionally from bamboo and girls pull pails of water by rope from cement wells.

I found his family under an awning etching lacquered bowls. Many families in the village are artisans -- in this case, the fourth generation of artists, said my friend's father, his teeth stained red by betel nut. A craftsman carved while four girls painted bowls. I asked them why there were so many temples in their backyard, but no one knew.

"It's a blessing," my friend said.

After a cooldown with this typically sweet Burmese family, I rode back into the broiler. I quickly bumped into one of the most beloved temples in Bagan -- Manuha Paya, a moldering structure named after the Mon king who was defeated and imprisoned by Anawrahta. According to legend, the Burmese ruler allowed Manuha to design his own temple, and the prisoner took advantage of it, creating a commentary on his captivity. Three giant seated Buddhas and a reclining statue are stuffed into cramped rooms, heads scraping the ceiling, shoulders jammed wall to wall.

I watched as a group of the faithful -- old men with shopping bags, mothers with children, pilgrims -- silently did devotions at the foot of a boxed-in Buddha. Perhaps some were offering what I was told is the most popular prayer at this temple, one that speaks to a Buddhist legacy more enduring than the architectural exploits of kings and generals: the wish for freedom.

(c) 2007 Joe Robinson, published in the Los Angeles Times

Follow Me

Joe Robinson, articles on work-life blance and stress

The E-Tool Bill of Rights

Article 1: Any email longer than two paragraphs shall not be sent. Instead, time shall be saved by telephone contact.

Article 2: Every person shall practice the 100-Foot Rule, getting up from their posteriors to deliver the message in person to anyone within 100 feet of their desk.

Article 3: The overloaded in-boxer shall check messages at designated times to prevent attention deficit.

Article 4: There shall be a requirement of determining urgency before response to messaging.

Article 5: No book-length thread E-mails, or dispatches as long as "War and Peace" shall be allowed.

Article 6: Companies shall establish policies to control e-transmissions as if they were emissions.

Article 7: Everyone shall resist the temptation to send one- and two-word responses, such "thanks," "got it."

Article 8: There shall be no assumption of unlimited e-access simply because the tools allow it. Message management shall be instituted.

Article 9: Permission shall be granted to use auto-responders to block out focus zones for optimum productivity.

Article 10: E-contact-free zones/days shall be negotiated to improve performance and jump-start innovation.

[Click to edit the title]

This is the content. This is demonstration text. Click 'edit' above to create your own content.