How Challenging One Unexamined Assumption Could Change Your (Work)Life

How Challenging One Unexamined Assumption Could Change Your (Work)Life

Each one of us is the product of a unique blend of experiences and reflections, which has led to our very own framework for looking at the world. None of us see things as they truly are, our brains curate and catalogue and continually update a set of shortcuts and heuristics to make sense of the complexity of our sensory inputs. So the way you look at the world won’t be the same as mine. You’ve got your own lens through which you see things and consider them, and we both reserve our real thinking, the cognitive heavy-lifting of true decision-making, for the most occasional use possible.

We’ve known about this since the days of Kahneman and Tversky, and yet, we still all tend to walk around with complacent conceit in mind that all these cognitive biases really apply mostly to other people. We know that others rest on assumptions and learned experiences to short-cut their thinking, but we’re not like that ourselves, surely? We give due consideration to every decision at all times...

Hmm, not so much. And you’ve only got to poke casually at some of the most deeply ingrained post-rationalisations about people’s life-choices, to uncover some uncomfortable truths… which just might lead to a new way of looking at the world.


The flexible working conversation:

Take this conversation, which I have had in myriad variations over the past two decades:

Them: “Oh, you work from home? That’s so lucky!”

Me: “Well, not really luck, I just prefer it, and deliberately sought first employment then self-employment which facilitated just that”

Them: “Ah well, good for you. I could never work from home myself, just wouldn’t have the self-discipline/ motivation / social fulfilment… (Insert unexamined assumption of your choice)”

This conversation is sometimes abruptly terminated by the need for the other party to dash off and catch a train or bus to a distant workplace, a commute which in London typically accounts for 12 hours a week of unpaid time, often spent in cramped and crowded conditions at the busiest time of the day — just because that’s what everybody else does, and because it’s what they’ve always done.

“But hang on”, I might call out, after their hastily-retreating form, “can we just unpick some of that, just a little..?”

Give yourself credit where it’s due!

You’re an adult professional, with serious executive responsibilities. You may be in some kind of line-management arrangement in a formal hierarchy, or you may be accountable to your team members in a more self-organising way, but I’m going to assume that you work in your office most days without direct supervision. You don’t have someone standing over your desk, peering over your shoulder, watching what you’re doing, and telling you which task to execute next.

I am sure you have hard deadlines to adhere to and clear expectations to meet, perhaps in the form of OKRs or targets — but within those boundaries, you have discretion over how to spend your time at work in the best way to optimise your energies, attention-levels, interests, and motivations.

Assuming you work a typical Monday to Friday week, you get to spend your weekend days as you choose. And I am going to predict that on most of those days, despite being absent the pressing compulsion of the alarm clock going off, you still manage to get yourself out of bed at some hour you have deemed reasonable, to put on clothes, plan your day and carry out the things you intend to get done — some of which will be fun leisure activities, but will also include a lot of the more mundane and boring tasks of everyday domesticity. Laundry, errands, housework, shopping, bills, admin… Things you have to keep on top of in order to function, as an adult in 2019

How on earth do you get that done, without the discipline of the workplace around you, without a formal management hierarchy to hold you to account, and a special doing-the-work building to go to? With no performance review of your household tasks, what is your motivation? Yes, silly questions, you just do it, at least before the pain of its being outstanding outweighs the pleasures of procrastination… But I am being rhetorical here purely to provoke you to reconsider your stock answer about working from home.

After all, if you looked beyond the cliches to the real potential, to get your work done in the best way suited for YOU each day, how might your life be different?

Just explore the idea for a moment, is all I am suggesting.

The best way for you might not be working from home at all. Perhaps you’re highly extroverted and really need the energising effect of being around other people — have you considered co-working, coffee-shops or a range of third spaces? Going to see clients, instead of their coming to you? Working from a new location every day? Renting a local office unit and reclaiming that commute time, just traveling to the central location for diarised meetings? Adjusting your working hours so you no longer travel in the rush hour?

Also you might not have the space, in a modern urban home, to dedicate to a home-office. This I understand completely, and would challenge you only to consider, starting with a blank page, exactly what you need around you to create an effective workspace. You don’t need to recreate the office! Because that workspace might have been quite generically specified, without taking detailed account of individual needs — doesn’t every cubicle look pretty much the same?

Just imagine…

What if you could think about your own needs, and create a space to match — flexibly and imaginatively?

So in my case, I need a desk and seating arrangement I can comfortably and ergonomically work at on a laptop for some time, my preferred collection of pens and highlighters for my paper planner (retro quirk!), and occasional access to a printer and shredder. Also a sufficiently quiet environment for podcasting and livestreaming. For reading/consuming content I have other preferred areas of the house to sit in, and can work OK from various locations, even though I usually opt for my own desk, which has the luxury of the pen-pot, desk-riser and second monitor. But I can pare this kit down to a single laptop bag when I am travelling or want to go somewhere new.

What do you really need, to do your work? It’s probably not hard to list, from the practicalities like equipment and services, to the interaction and motivation with other humans.

Perhaps you’ll take a good long look at your circumstances and decide on balance that you thrive so much on a lengthy daily commute and the ability to be physically colocated with your colleagues — in which case I salute and support you in that conscious choice. It’s so long since I worked in this way, I would be the last person to judge that decision.

The only thing I’ll continue to call people out on when the mood strikes, is the reflex response. “Oh, I could never…”

Really? Why not?

Originally published at

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Maya Middlemiss is the CEO and lead writer at BlockSparks

The Future of Work and Business
The Future of Work and Business

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