Ask Ariely: On Shorter Shifts, Clever Communication, and an Irritating Invasion

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

A big local employer just announced that it is about to change its standard workday from eight hours to five. I suppose many people barely do two or three hours of good work a day anyway, but is shrinking the workday so drastically a good idea? in italics

—Bernard 

To think this through, let’s break down our workday into three modes: productive, thoughtful, useful work; mindless, detail-oriented work that doesn’t demand much concentration but must get done; and, of course, wasting time.

When the workday is slashed from eight hours to five, which of these modes is likely to give way? If the three lost hours would otherwise have been spent procrastinating, the change is all to the good: We can waste time better on our own. And if it comes at the expense of drudge work, many people will just become more efficient at their more mindless tasks, with a minimal drop in productivity.

But I fear that those three hours will come at the expense of the most productive category of work. That’s because everyone likes the sense of satisfaction from making progress. We feel virtuous after emptying our email inbox or checking off items on our to-do lists. If the workday shrinks, we’d rather sacrifice real progress than surrender that feeling of gratification.

If we now split an eight-hour workday between one hour of thumb-twiddling, four hours of drudgery and three hours of serious work, I’d predict that the shorter workday will mean a half-hour less of wasted time, an hour less of mindless work and an hour and a half less of meaningful work.

This is just an educated guess, of course. If I ran your workplace, I would start by cutting the workday by 30 minutes, see what this does to productivity and adjust from there.

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Dear Dan,

When you have to deliver two pieces of news, one bad and one good, which should you start with? I’ve always been told to deliver the bad news first, but I worry that its impact could be so distracting that the recipient won’t pay attention to the good news that follows.

—Galia 

Why pick from just this constrained set of options? Is there really nothing else in the universe to share? I’d come up with another piece of good news to start with, such as the fact that we have eradicated smallpox and polio could be next—admittedly less relevant but undeniably cheerful. You can then sandwich your bad tidings between good ones.

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Dear Dan,

While writing a document on my laptop with a colleague, he kept pointing to my screen and sometimes touched it with his finger. I found this incredibly annoying—and a strange invasion of privacy. I wouldn’t have minded if my co-worker had touched my arm, but I bristled when he touched my screen. What gives?

—Kim 

After reading this, I asked a few people nearby to touch my laptop and then my elbow, and I felt the same irritation. I suspect that’s because once people touch our computer screens, we can’t avoid seeing the gross residue that their fingers leave, but we don’t think about the oil and dead skin cells left behind when somebody nudges us on the arm. Consider this more evidence that ignorance can be bliss.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.