Speaking before a group at George Washington University in 1992, Peter Drucker reflected on the way that most people’s jobs had gotten a lot safer since the days when so many engaged in backbreaking labor on farms and in factories.
“Sitting behind a desk,” he said, “the worst work-related injury we can expect is hemorrhoids.”
Actually, as it turns out, there may be other bodily challenges for the deskbound to overcome—at least if you’re determined to emulate Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire mayor of New York. “I always tried to be the first one in in the morning and the last one to leave at night, take the fewest vacations and the least time away from the desk to go to the bathroom or have lunch,” Bloomberg said in response to a radio listener calling New York’s WOR last Friday.
The man who’d dialed in had asked for Bloomberg’s “personal formula for success,” and although his Hizzoner enumerated several secrets—including the need to take risks, admit mistakes while maintaining the courage of your convictions, never stop learning, and be generous—it’s the bathroom bit that has attracted by far the most attention. “Mind over bladder,” read one tweet. Declared another: “Just went to the bathroom. Feel like a failure.”
As for Drucker, I suspect he would have had mixed feelings about the mayor’s remarks. Without a doubt, he would have appreciated Bloomberg’s industriousness. “Please accept that I know only workaholics,” said Drucker, who himself was astonishingly productive as a writer, professor, and consultant over a career that spanned 70-plus years. “My wife, my four children are all workaholics, as I am, as my father was.”
(MORE: What Bloomberg’s Snooping Scandal Says About Wall Street’s Culture)
But, as I’ve discussed, Drucker also knew how easily people mistake clocking long hours with generating meaningful results. It’s not hard, he warned, for work to devolve “into nothing-producing activities, into sheer busy-ness.”
Drucker also understood that there was a physical dimension to all jobs—even office jobs—and that people need to vary their routines throughout the day. Sitting or standing in one spot for too long, research shows, is harmful. What’s more, not everyone is built like Bloomberg.
“Studies of infants indicate that patterns of speed, rhythm, and attention span are as individual as are fingerprints,” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. And nothing, he added, “creates as much fatigue, as much resistance, as much anger, and as much resentment as the imposition” on employees of only one way of working.
Clearly, holding it in would not have been Drucker’s preferred standard of excellence.
Still, in his own off-the-cuff way, Bloomberg did hit on something that Drucker would have fully endorsed: the need for people to find—and safeguard—concentrated periods of work. To really get things done, you need “a fairly large quantum of time,” Drucker wrote in The Effective Executive, his 1967 classic. “To spend in one stretch less than this minimum is sheer waste. One accomplishes nothing and has to begin all over again.
“To write a report may, for instance, require six or eight hours, at least for the first draft,” Drucker continued. “It is pointless to give seven hours to the task by spending 15 minutes twice a day for three weeks. All one has at the end is blank paper with some doodles on it.”
Some tasks, such as dealing with colleagues, require a particular investment of time. “To spend a few minutes with people is simply not productive,” Drucker advised. “The manager who thinks that he can discuss the plans, direction, and performance of one of his subordinates in 15 minutes—and many managers believe this—is just deceiving himself. If one wants to get to the point of having an impact, one probably needs at least an hour and usually much more.”
Drucker anticipated that as the years went on, people would find it harder and harder to carve out big, uninterrupted chunks on their calendars. “Time scarcity is bound to become worse rather than become better,” he wrote.
That prediction has certainly come true. “For all the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation,” two McKinsey & Co. consultants observed in a 2011 article.
Interestingly, the authors said, the best ways to cope with this onslaught hadn’t fundamentally changed since Drucker wrote about effective time management more than 40 years ago. “Drucker’s solutions for fragmented executives—reserve large blocks of time on your calendar, don’t answer the phone, and return calls in short bursts once or twice a day—sound remarkably like the ones offered up by today’s time- and information-management experts,” they wrote.
Yet, as with so many easy-sounding things, being resolutely focused can prove “devilishly difficult” for even the most diligent workers. Above all, the McKinsey consultants asserted, “addressing information overload requires enormous self-discipline.”
Though not necessarily of Bloombergian proportions.