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Why does our productivity rarely meet our own expectations? When planning our work, most of us make a reasonable effort to estimate how long we’ll need. While any given task seems perfectly doable on its own, when we string together a sequence of them we rarely achieve our target.
If we were as productive as we planned, we wouldn’t need to work overtime or sacrifice our weekends. So how can we get more done in the same time and be able to knock off work with no guilt or digital tethering to the office?
[Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
A major destructive force of productivity is multi-tasking. We imagine we’ll save time by juggling tasks along with the random demands placed on us by email, instant messaging, phone calls and interruptions from well-meaning colleagues. But this switching between tasks takes a major toll on our effectiveness.
In his book, Your Brain at Work, executive coach David Rock lays out some insights from neuroscience about how our brain really works. For example, the part of our brain responsible for executive function—that is, planning, reasoning and decision-making—is the most evolved, but also the most taxed. Found near the forehead, the pre-frontal cortex is likened by Rock to a theatre stage–and a very small one at that, even in the best and brightest amongst us.
“The part of our brain responsible for planning
is the most evolved, but also the most taxed”
Every time we think of something, it’s like calling someone up on stage from the dark recesses of the theatre. This effort of mental setup is highly energy intensive from a pure physiological perspective, requiring regular glucose refuelling just to keep up. Rock also makes the point that one of the most taxing activities of all is that of planning.
Why is this? Planning requires us to hold a whole series of thoughts in our minds at once while we flip between various combinations, like mentally playing out various scenes of a play. Only when we’ve made our decision do we send the audience backstage again, reducing our mental effort and returning our brain to a more steady state.
With this in mind, is it any wonder that the more interruptions we have, the more we need to do mental setups? And the more mental setups required, the less productive we become? We get less done and become more tired in the process, creating a vicious cycle that makes it ever more difficult to achieve what we have set out to do in a reasonable amount of time. How do we get into such a bind?
We’ve all had the experience that we are often more productive on the tasks that add the most value once everyone has gone home. Or that we choose to work from home because of too many interruptions at the office. That, surely, is a signal that something in our workplace needs fixing.
Our own worst enemy
The opposite of all this multitasking is the psychological state coined by renowned psychologist Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi—‘flow’. In flow, our work is challenging enough to stimulate us but not so difficult that we become anxious about our ability to do the task. We become engrossed and lose track of time. We can dramatically improve our output and feel satisfied as we do so. Yet even when we’ve experienced this enjoyable state, many of us sabotage our own ability to reach it.
In recent years, we’ve essentially trained ourselves to become addicted to the tiny packets of dopamine released when we feel our phone vibrate or hear an email or social media alert. We convince ourselves we’ll ‘just check this one’ but look up 20 minutes later—a different kind of losing track of time. (And, make no mistake, that time is lost.) Worse, research estimates that it takes us 18 minutes to fully return our attention to the deep state we were in before the interruption. The very things that were designed to make us more productive, such as instant messaging, are sapping our energy levels.
In short, while we may really want to engage deeply with a task, honing our mastery of complex problem-solving, we achieve that flow state all too fleetingly. What’s the solution?
There are really four core problems preventing us from working in flow:
The challenge is that we conflate them—colleagues ping us on IM, or we procrastinate by ‘checking the news’ before we’ve allowed ourselves to enter a flow state, when the real root cause is being overwhelmed and unsure where to start. It’s too easy to think it’s just the way things are. But they don’t have to be.
Know the work
Start with the system. If we’re talking about work, we should have a shared vision and aligned objectives. The requirement for a coordinated set of priorities at all levels of work sits at the heart of Theory of Constraints (TOC), especially through Critical Chain project management and Drum Buffer Rope production management. TOC acts as a systemic synchronising engine, taking explicit account of load (expressed as work-plans) and capacity (expressed by the pool of resources available).
We should therefore be starting from an explicit understanding of what is reasonable and possible to achieve given the available resources. Further, through the use of buffer management, everyone gets to know which chains of work are most under pressure, as well as which task and resources are required to relieve that bottleneck on any given day.
When we know the most important tasks to work on, we can make a ‘to do’ list that puts those tasks at the top. New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg offers good advice about putting stretch goals at the top of the list and making lower-order tasks SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timebound). We not only know what’s next but have criteria against which we can weigh random interruptions: is that sudden meeting request going to help you with your stretch goal? If not, maybe pass on it.
David Rock suggests we do as much planning as we can before we start our work, doing it first thing in the morning if possible, when we have maximum energy. Others, including Mr Duhigg, recommend a slightly different approach and suggest planning your work the evening before. That way, when you sit down in the morning, you know exactly where to start and can use your energy most productively. My advice is to experiment and find what works for you.
Institutionalise ‘flow time’
We want our colleagues to respect our focus and wait for an appropriate time to have their questions answered, without barging into our mental workspace and forcing a new setup of the pre-frontal cortex once they have departed. So how can you make ‘flow time’ a reality for your team?
First, you need to decide for yourselves that you’ll all work smarter if you work in flow. So start by declaring ‘flow time’ as an inviolable part of the day or week when email and IM alerts are switched off, along with your phone. Your colleagues, regardless of rank, know this is a time for quiet, steady, task-engaged work and that they are forbidden from interrupting. If they know a time will come later in the day when they can ask whatever questions they want of whomever they want, they are more likely to honour the new way of working.
“Start by declaring ‘flow time’ as an inviolable part of the day”
Furthermore, they will begin to see one of two things happen: their seemingly urgent needs will be resolved by alternative means, or they will get a far higher quality of attention from the constrained resource once they have their full and undivided attention.
It shouldn’t be beyond the ken of your team to figure out a designated ‘flow time’ that respects local requirements and colleagues across time zones. Changing ingrained work habits is not that easy, but neither is it too difficult—the secret is to gradually wean ourselves off the multitasking, whilst simultaneously experiencing the joys of being able to apply ourselves to being fully present to the work at hand.
In my experience this has worked best by starting with, say, just half-day a week. So, for example, we could declare that from 8.30-13.00 on a Tuesday is ‘flow time’; meetings are banned and all electronic forms of communication switched off. (If you must work on emails, do so in offline mode.) Everyone respects the sanctity of doing his or her own work while letting others do theirs.
As the team gets used to this way of working, you can expand the proportion of flow time in any given week. It is practical wisdom to know that you cannot expect to work in flow the whole time you’re at work, but it should be possible to make it manage 50% of it in most instances. Also, when there is a system-level constraint, the team not working on it should do everything possible to subordinate to its needs of , leaving the constraint to do that which, at that moment, only the constraint can do.
We’ve looked at knowing which task to work on and how to institutionalise flow time. That leaves technology and self-sabotage. If you follow the flow-time rule above, you’ll quickly feel the benefit of ‘unplugging’ from alerts. It’s a small step to move from a block of time that everyone respects to chunks of extra unplugged time that work for you. You may feel obliged to keep IM channels open (although those usually have a ‘do not disturb’ sign) but why not turn email off as your default and only check, say, three times a day? You’ll find you can quickly despatch the short emails in one go where, previously, each one would have been an interruption. Some may no longer need answering at all!
Even after all this, we’re only human. We’re frazzled by the news or by events at home or with colleagues. The Pomodoro technique is useful here. That’s when you set a timer (originally a tomato-shaped kitchen one, hence the name) for 25 minutes and tell yourself you’ll only focus for that length of time. Usually, though, once you pick just one task and focus you’ll almost feel your brainwaves lengthen from the choppy, frenetic alert-driven state to a more relaxed state. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself losing track of time and continuing happily on. Be aware, though, that we tend to hit diminishing returns around the 90-minute mark.
To wrap up, here are our key learnings:
Do all this and you will significantly increase the quantity of what you get done, the quality produced and the joy you get from doing your best. You’ll then find that allowing yourself a break—whether for a walk or even surfing the web—becomes not self-sabotage but a way to enter a different state again that’s good for diffuse thinking. But that’s a subject for another day.
The change from standard thinking to Theory of Constraints (TOC) is both profound and exhilarating. To make it both fun and memorable, we use a business simulation we call The Right Stuff Workshop.
We’d love to run it with you. To learn more:
Pomodoro image: Francesco Cirillo (CC licence)
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