The Surprising Power of Work to Rule

Knowledge work is not a production line. Don’t expect linearity of time and output. Working flexibly can have surprising benefits for productivity.

Most people equate work time with progress. That’s not always the case

Rick Rubin, Tim Ferris Podcast

Through my career, I’ve found one extraordinary thing. When I apply ‘work to rule’, I am more productive. ‘Work to rule’ in this context isn’t the traditional union process of strict compliance and bureaucracy often for leverage and to point out the discretionary work. My version of ‘work to rule’ is focusing on only the absolute minimum demands of work and only the necessary meetings. It is strict compliance with performance outcomes and elimination of discretionary efforts. All the other time soaks and stress makers are ignored or deferred. Only the most essential work remains to be tackled in a surprisingly leisurely way.

The benefits of this version of ‘work to rule’ are many:

  • perspective: so often when I step away from stressed out busy work I find a better path to achieve my goals. I see things that I hadn’t when I was so tied up on the dance floor.
  • focus: choosing what matters most and what is necessary is an act of focus.
  • thinking time: creativity requires room to explore and iterate that can be lost in continuous work pressures
  • other influences: mixing influences can be powerful and provocative. You don’t get that in the same meetings with the same people all the time.
  • collaboration: deep collaboration needs time, space and the right mood. You need to get beyond transactional relationships and simple quid pro quo to be transformative.
  • risk taking: when our lives are full we play safe, after all surely all this work is enough. When we step away, we see bigger bets to make.
  • mood: ignoring the urgent but unimportant can feel cheeky, rude or even like wagging. Plus the space allows time for self-care. All act as little fillips to the mood every time.

Knowledge work is not a simple linear function of time. It involves complex interplays of relationships, information and inspiration. You need to foster a work pattern that allows for the space to benefit from those interplays. ‘Working to rule’ might just provide that space.

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