“I never have enough time in my day to just get things done!”
Sounds familiar? You have probably heard it, or said it, yourself.
In today’s connected world, with so much connectivity and technology at our fingertips we may wonder why we seem to be getting less work done than we used to “in the old days”.
There is a reason for this and it’s been scientifically tested and proven.
In a 2009 study called “Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work?”, Sophie Leroy, a business professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota, discovered that attention acts more like molasses than water; you can redirect it, but a sticky “attention residue” stays behind, fixed to the last task you were working on. That residue is particularly thick when you don’t complete one task before moving on to the next one. But even when you do manage to finish the first task, your attention continues to stay fractured.
What we need more of is the ability to do “focused work”. This is something that we, as individuals, and also the companies we work for can address by making some small changes to our corporate culture.
When we look at the average workday and how it is formed there are some disturbing patterns which stop us from doing focused work. A few of the star culprits are:
- Checking email “It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so… [But] that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished. The attention residue left by such unresolved switches dampens your performance.”
- Having intrusive alerts on your computer and mobile device
- Going in Facebook or other social media channels
- Chatting with a co-worker (in the middle of a task)
Some of these are obvious but the one which, in the multi-tasking world, often gets overlooked but which in reality is the worst is constantly switching tasks before completion. This is the opposite of focused work.
On average, employees who do the majority of their work on computers are distracted once every ten and a half minutes. 23% of those interruptions come from email, but the biggest source of interruptions by far come from the individuals themselves.
We can all make the choice to become more disciplined and focused with our own habits but in a corporate office environment, this requires some collaborative group effort. The company also has to make it known that this is a priority and that this corporate culture is supported.
What companies can do
Collaboration and communication are important. So is building social connections in the workplace. But in most workplaces today, the balance between connectedness and focused productivity greatly favours the former at the expense of the latter.
People are beginning to wake up to the productive disadvantages of back-to-back-to-back meetings, open office floor plans, and real-time messaging in the workplace. The growing amount of research into workplace interruptions suggests that the few companies who help their employees focus deeply for extended periods of time on difficult tasks are the ones that will get ahead in the long-term. But how do you get there?
This video gives a very easy to understand example:
Here are some things that companies can start to implement today to have an impact
Set a maximum time for meetings
Long meetings are unproductive. The focus, and retention, diminishes exponentially the longer the meeting goes on. Also, consider that every meeting requires some work to get done as a result of the meeting. Meetings without followup are of little value.
Have people list the single most important thing that they want to accomplish each day
Setting goals, and achieving those goals, creates a positive mindset and feeling of purpose and accomplishment. There are a number of tools to make this a more fun experience. One of those to look at is Momentum, a browser plugin
Limit email and group chat before a certain time in the morning
Starting the workday with focused work sets the stage for a more productive day going forward. Organizing thoughts, tasks and goals for the day ahead has enormous benefits.
Make asynchronous communications the default
Instant messaging has a place but it doesn’t take into account the availability of both sides of the conversation to engage in the discussion in the moment. Asynchronous communications (like email) allow the person receiving to look at, and deal with, the task as the moment of their choosing. If using IM, then learn to set “do not disturb” mode when focusing on a task. If in doubt, turn it off.
Change is hard, but starting with just one concrete shift that rewards deep work over shallow work can cause a chain reaction in how a team approaches everything about their work.