Do More by Doing Less
Our instant-gratification society and constant work demands have led to a belief that whoever can accomplish the most in the least amount of time is the most productive member of the team. As a result, we catch up on unopened piles of mail during conference calls, check BlackBerrys in meetings, and respond to instant messages while working on larger projects. At times, it can be helpful; the more reachable you are, the more quickly issues are tended to, and ideally, resolved. But countless people disprove the efficacy of multitasking, noting it causes employee burnout, more errors and fewer solutions due to continual distraction, and an overwhelming sense that work never truly ends.
Mary Czerwinski, one of the leading authorities in the field of interruption science, has researched the impact of multitasking in professional settings. Her studies reveal that workers take an average of 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks after responding to incoming messages. Worse yet, the likelihood that workers return to that original task with real focus is only 60 percent. The other 40 percent of the time, attention wanders toward yet another distraction, creating an endless cycle of partial attention to several tasks. No wonder we’re so stressed out!
The key to staying productive? Do fewer tasks at once and give each item your full attention. Here’s how:
Create a clean palette?
When examining productivity habits at Microsoft, Czerwinski found that bigger computer screens lead to increased productivity, allowing users to complete tasks anywhere from 10 to 44 percent more quickly. While you may not be able to persuade your employer to spring for a larger monitor, go for the next best thing:
One open window at a time, enlarged to its fullest potential. Remember this mantra: “A clearer screen leads to a calmer mind.”
If you can’t resist checking emails or other sites while working on a larger initiative, take advantage of tech tools that handle the discipline aspect for you by blocking other sites temporarily. (View “Productivity Tip of the Month” in the May issue of The Office Professional for details and examples.)
David Allen, a personal-productivity guru who built a reputation among Silicon Valley firms with his “Getting Things Done” system, says that unless the task you’re doing is visible right in front of you, you will half-forget about it once distracted. In turn, it will nag at you from your subconscious and everything you do thereafter will be handled with partial attention. To combat the issue, adopt a new reliance on lists. Allen says that when an interruption distracts you for longer than two minutes, it should be added to your to-do list, which you are constantly updating. As soon as the interruption is over, immediately check your list, and go back to whatever is at the top.
Work with brain peaks
Scientists have proved that most people have “peak hours,” or times they excel at different activities. Secretary of the International Brain Education Association Sung Lee, M.D., says that during the earlier part of the workday, your brain has moderate levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that helps you mentally focus. If your to-do list includes projects that require analysis or creativity, like writing a presentation or brainstorming, tackle them before 11 a.m. If you’re trying to move through several tasks that require fast-paced action rather than deep thought (like answering emails, returning phone calls or attending meetings), schedule them between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. During this time, mental quickness is at a peak, thanks to reduced levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. When possible, aim to take a later lunch break (ideally, around 2 p.m.), when your brain is most ready for a break. Energize it by going for a stroll, eating a healthy lunch outside or simply stepping away from your desk for a change of environment.