Monday, December 24, 2007

The decreasing quality of vacation

It's Christmas Eve. Most folks I know take today off of work. A lot are taking the rest of the week off. Some have vacation for nine days in a row, given the present alignment of Christmas and New Year's Day on Tuesdays.


But what it means to take vacation or take time off is not what it seems. In my neck of the woods, co-workers and my customers often talk about taking along a laptop to get some work done. They'll plan conference calls during the vacation. Or they might not quite admit that it's vacation, saying instead that they're "working from home" as a circumlocution.


This is certainly not the absolutely-freed-from-work vacation. This is a vacation laced with constant reminders of work, and guilt for not accomplishing work.


When I was in school, my "vacations" often had work involved. I usually had a project to do over Spring Break and Thanksgiving Break. But between semesters, though, I was truly free of commitments to school. So breaks during my school career were often filled with guilt because of work I ought to be doing.
On returning from an anniversary trip with Hayden in October, I had voicemails and emails from some of my colleagues. They went like this: "Mark, I know you're on vacation, but I really need your help to <request for work here>. Please let me know."  It pleased me a little to know that they got no reply, and that I had successfully not received their emails until I was back at work. Yet, there are two pathetic presumptions in these requests:
  1. I would be checking my work email and voicemail while away on vacation. 
  2. I would be willing to do work while away on vacation.
When a colleague or customer tells about how they always end up doing work while on vacation, I wonder if they're bragging a little. Maybe they're saying, "I'm too professional to actually take uninterrupted time off. I am always diligent, always working, always ready. My duties and tasks are more important than anything else I do. Bad things would happen if I actually went away for a while."


To my dismay, I'm falling for this attitude some. Over my vacation, I have at least two work related tasks to do. Together, they'll take about three hours. Plus, there was the email I replied to today, because two others from my company are "on vacation", only in the sense that they're working inefficiently.


I'm planning to take a total of a week off around Christmas. So what's the problem with these few hours? I don't even have to count them as vacation, so I can retain those vacation hours for another time. The question is really: are contiguous hours of time away from work actually important? 


Yes, I believe so. I think that longer stretches of time off are disproportionately more valuable as vacation. Up to some limit, each additional day of time off from work is actually more valuable than the previous day. E.g., I feel less vacationed if I take day from work on five different weeks, than if I take a full week off once. Of course, this is not scientific or verifiable. But I do know that just one day off feels like Saturday, whereas a few days off helps me be more excited about work when I start back. I get new ideas. Sometimes I get time to do reading that makes me more interested and more interesting, and that always helps my work.


This goes to another point: vacation is an actual benefit to my work. Some people seem to act as if vacation is just culturally-required waste of time that should be working. The thinking is something like, "Yeah, yeah, we've got to offer our employees vacation time, or we won't be able to recruit them. We just do it to keep employees." But this is wrongheaded, because at least among people with jobs that require thinking, the vacation helps us to be more effective.(1)

US News and World Report cites an American Express study, wherein, "more than a third of small-business people say their best ideas—the ones that lead to business growth—come not at work but during their downtime." (3)  Lots of people agree that time off helps makes them more productive (4), but this is hardly proof that it does.

At what amount of vacation is effectiveness maximized?  I don't think "more" is always the answer. If I'm right to say that the amount of contiguous vacation matters, then the way we take vacation could be as important as the quantity, once some minimum quantity is reached. (5)

So why do we tend to do work during our vacation time? My guess is the biggest reason is just simple habit. We're used to working on these things all the time, so we want to keep working on them. We want the comfort that comes from our ordinary routine.
Another big reason I'd guess, is that work is also a hobby. We basically enjoy what we do, or enjoy how doing it makes us feel. And often it's a hobby that's easy to succeed in. Compare this to successful relationships with family and friends, where it can be very difficult to succeed. If  you're the brilliant type, then it's likely you're much better and much more respected at work than you are at home. So why wouldn't you want to get a hit of that while on vacation?


Gaebler Ventures provides this chart: (2)
COUNTRYAVERAGE HOURS
WORKED PER YEAR
AVERAGE ANNUAL
VACATION DAYS
United States1,96610.2
Japan1,88917.5
United Kingdom1,73125
France1,65625–30


Do folks in the UK get 2.5-times as much effectiveness benefit from vacation as do folks in the US? Who knows. This kind of chart can be misleading: it only considers "vacation days"; most everybody gets off a couple of days a week. The true range of time off is very narrow; using the gaebler.com data, US employees work 22% of their lives, and French employees work 19% of their lives.

(1) I say "effective" rather than "productive", because -- unless you're manufacturing widgets -- "productivity" is ill defined. Just billing hours isn't being productive. See DeMarco and Lister, Peopleware.
(4) February 2002 Xylo Report: Vacation Habits of Working Adults. Cited here: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0EIN/is_2002_Feb_19/ai_83026967
(5) I can't find any sources for this hunch. It's just a hunch until I do some actual measurements. (And I don't mean surveys.)

Theft of Focus in Windowing Environments

I'm in the middle of composing a new message, when suddenly my cursor is no longer in the new-message window. Where are my keystrokes going? What's going on here?

You know that feeling -- some helpful application has popped up and stolen my focus.(1) It might not even be on the same display I'm looking at. It might be a program I knew was running, or something even better, like a scheduled backup or software update check.

Pay attention to me! I'm the most important program on this computer! I don't care what you were doing!

For me, the problem is a fundamental one: I can't be assured that if I close my eyes and continue typing, the right program will be receiving my keystrokes. What if another program pops up and asks if it can do something nasty, and I hit the Enter key to start a new paragraph. In that case, I just approved the nastiness. 

I want my interface with the computer to be predictable. As it is, I have to be constantly monitoring what's going on in case some helpful application decides to take over focus. In that case, I have to wrest back control, usually by saying, "no, I don't want to do that."

I had hoped, years ago, that the Mac OS X folks would somehow prevent this from happening. And some programs are nice about it. For example, iCal doesn't steal focus when it pops up a reminder. Adium doesn't steal focus when a new chat window opens because someone else sent me an instant message. But Apple Mail will steal focus if something happens that it doesn't like. As will Apple Backup when it inexplicably asks for permission to do something I already scheduled it to do! Microsoft Office Update (a pox I brought on myself, I guess) will gladly pop up and take over as well.

I don't mind new windows popping up, but it seems like there should be some basic rules:
  1. A new window shouldn't change my focus. My keystrokes should continue to go to the same program they were going to before.
  2. A new window shouldn't cover the currently-focused window. Put it somewhere else -- a different display, or even behind the focused window if necessary. Just don't obscure what I'm doing.




(1) I'm not even sure that's what non-X11 folks call it. In X11, the "focus" was the currently-active window. Stealing focus is when another program pops up and takes over.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Prescription for feelings

I'm alarmed by how often people tell us how we're supposed to feel as new parents. Friends, family, and books have told us that when their child was born, they felt:
  • instant love, 
  • spontaneous attachment, 
  • a greater sense of meaning in life, 
  • close attachment,
  • the happiest day of our life when each child is born,
  • the greatest love I've ever felt.

And we should expect to feel the same things too. 

But there's a lot more to the feelings than that. I know a lot of those feelings are in there, but I'm not consciously aware of them -- I just see signs of them in H and me. So what's wrong with me? Why don't I feel the way I'm supposed to feel?

I've become skeptical of all these prescriptions for how we're to feel. I think I'm whelmed by lots of feelings, including a lot of responsibility. O came early by seven weeks, and maybe I wasn't emotionally prepared yet. In the days before he came, we were at a hospital trying to keep him from coming; every new contraction brought a new pang of stress. After he was born and while he was in the Special Care Nursery (NICU) we've interacted with the hospital and doctors, and stressed out over every gram he lost and how much time he should spend outside his incubator. In the whole three weeks, I've felt very busy trying to get the house ready, make final furniture purchase decisions. And it's felt strange to be away from work for so long. Plus, we're adapting to feeding and otherwise caring for a new little guy. And maybe it's because both H and I try to be responsible people who don't act and respond primarily to feelings.

We're probably having lots of warm fuzzy feelings, just like anybody else. It's not like H and I have hearts of stone, and O is definitely as cute as a dog in a sweater. The feelings are just all mixed in with lots of other feelings and thoughts.

I'll bet that everybody feels overwhelmed and busy and stressed, but they forget these feelings in the years of a child's growth. Then, when they see new parents like us, it evokes memories of the warm fuzzy feelings, and they tell us how they felt, leaving us to infer how we ought to feel.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

H+25 hours

Oren yawning on Boppy Pillow copy
Oren has been home with us for 25 hours. Few things about his arrival have been like we expected. We were warned that he'd require of us some of our sleep. He did wake up a few times last night, and made a lot of noises between.

Oren was born on a recent Monday (the vagueness is intentional because crazy financial institutions think that knowledge of your birthdate means you must be that person) at 12:28am US/Eastern. However, I discovered that determining the time a person is born isn't quite as obvious as I had thought. A person starts to be visible without medical instrumentation (such as ultrasound) quite a while before he's born. In reality, Oren started to be visible on the previous day -- a Sunday.

As a kid, I was very interested in exactly what time I was born. Officially, it was 3:01am US/Eastern for me. I imagined that the doctor who delivered me must have had a foot-pedal so they could estimate the exact second I was born.

We've heard several times that we'd probably want him sleeping in the same room with us at first. I can't figure out why. It's clear he makes lots of noise, but the noises don't mean much. It seems obvious that if he were to die of SIDS, he wouldn't make noise. In fact, they say that if somebody is choking and coughing in doing so, that they're not really coughing. Unless I get up every four minutes to confirm he's breathing, then it's unlikely that I'd ever be able to help.

Nevertheless, it probably is useful to be able to hear him. Although, I wouldn't mind attenuating it a bit. He tends to get louder as he actually wakes up. Maybe soon we'll try using the monitor as a way of controlling the loudness.

Maybe it's because I'm the male "parent", but I just can't understand the night-time monitoring. Why'd my mom get up and check me all through the night?

Oren spent the first 12 days of life at the Special Care Nursery. He didn't need any breathing help or feeding tubes, which was great. Hopefully he'll adjust pretty quickly to being home. They told us he'd let us know when he's hungry. We wondered how he would; it seems he communicates by making increasing noise and by swiveling his head about while opening his mouth (also called "rooting around").

He definitely doesn't like having his diaper changed; nor did he appreciate all that is bathing.

It's really kinda stressful to have a baby at home, too. I realized as soon as we got home with him that I was all stressed out and nervous. I know I still am kinda stressed out. Parents, including our own, have told us that we'll tend to be more stressed out about the first one than on any subsequent kids. If we're lucky, we're already well on our way to ruining Oren's life by being too nervous.