Surfing Our Waves of Productivity and the Taxi Driver Paradox

You can't run a family or any business without discipline. To accomplish it all, we create the to-do list; we set clear goals, and try to stick to them:
Two pages of homework per day.
Three loads of laundry per week.
Eight hours of work each day. Try to not leave before your manager does.
Sound familiar? But what about those work days when you are present but your mind is absent, exhausted from lack of sleep or worrying about a sick child at home? What about the days when your cutie is jumping under and over the table and hardly gets to write a single character of her homework in one hour? How do you keep your productivity up without losing your sanity? There is an interesting taxi driver paradox that can help us apply some wisdom of math to our productivity:

A while ago, economists conducted a survey of New York cab drivers. Most of the drivers were renting their cars for a flat fee for up to 12 hours. Therefore, they were free to work as much as they wanted or needed in those 12 hour intervals. The majority of drivers chose to work a pre-set number of hours per day, or until they earned some fixed daily amount of money. But the nature of the taxi business (as well as most other businesses) is non stable. Some days it seems that everyone is traveling somewhere and needs a taxi, and some days are dull and one has to spend hours looking for a customer. What if the drivers gave themselves the freedom of calling it quits early on days business was slow, and worked late hours when demand was high? Economists have shown that following this demand rule, instead of the pre-set income or hours rules, would actually be more beneficial: an average NY taxi driver in this study could have earned at least 15% more by adopting this approach of productivity and freedom. Interestingly, a small fraction of the drivers that have been on this job for years and presumably are more experienced, did appear to follow this demand strategy.


So giving up when things do not go according to plan is well compensated by overworking when things go well later on. Sounds intuitive enough, right? But when it comes to loss in productivity or income we hate the loss much more than we enjoy the gain. Therefore, like taxi drivers searching for one more fare on the empty streets instead of going home, we frequently make ourselves (or our kids) suffer while trying to reach pre-set goals when the energy for productivity is gone.

To fix my strict inner disciplinarian, reduce my guilt and stress, I like to imagine surfing the waves of productivity. Here comes a giant wave: you received recognition at work and are energized to put in longer hours. So, go for it, enjoy the smooth productive ride, prolong it and get the most out of it. Feel like moving mountains this weekend? These three loads of laundry will come in handy, then perhaps a Children’s museum, and a homemade cake. On such days, never leave something for tomorrow that you can do today.

The wave will eventually break. You may find yourself unmotivated, exhausted or sleep deprived - allow yourself time off. Don’t let guilt get to you. Remember – we will gain in productivity in the long run. When your child can’t concentrate on homework – try switching plans and doing what feels right. Tomorrow, she will get her wave of productivity and you will show her how to enjoy the top of the wave glide. Skip the useless nagging and guilt. Let’s take every day as a surprise.


Images courtesy of Kennimatic (top) and Holladay Photo (bottom), distributed under the Creative Commons license

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