Working Smarter

How Stress Shreds the Chief Productivity Tool: Attention

Posted by Joe Robinson

 

Phone zombies.jpgIF EACH OF US had a blooper reel, our most forehead-slapping moments would come at times when we were late, rushing, on deadline, under pressure, times when we were under the influence of stress. That’s when brains take leave of their faculties and default to impulsive decisions that make it appear we have the IQ of a panicked wildebeest.

Stress reroutes thoughts from the top floors of the brain to the lower ones—to the irrational emotions of the limbic system and to rote mode. We don’t have command of our chief productivity tool, full attention, when focus and the tenuous grasp of working memory are hijacked by the perceived crisis of stress.

RELENTLESS SABOTEUR

When racing on deadline, we send emails with typos, forget attachments, or overlook important calculations and may have to do the task all over again. When late to a flight, we leave smartphone charge cables behind and worry about whether the front door is locked. When stress sets off sudden anger or rage, we may lash out in ways we regret later.

A raft of studies show that stress is a relentless saboteur of attention, and without the ability to manage it, we subvert intellect and devolve to a state as reckless as someone who’s had too much to drink. We do things under its command that we never would with full, unsidetracked presence of mind. That means stress has a major impact on all the things we need attention for: productivity, engagement, and work-life balance.

“Acute stress impairs the intention-based attentional allocation and enhances the stimulus-driven selection, leading to a strong distractibility during attentional information selection,” note the authors of one study (Sanger, Bechtold, Schoof, Blaszkewicz, Wascher).

The stress hormone of cortisol sends us on a chemical bender, a detour away from goals, focus, and the directed concentration of what’s known as “top-down” attention (you choose what you pay attention to) to “bottom-up” attention, a survival mechanism that hijacks the higher brain in moments of perceived threat.

As Daniel Kahneman reported in his sweeping survey of how wrong our brains can be in “Fast and Slow Thinking,” there are two basic cognitive gears. System 1 thinking is a rapid, if not instant, response to a stimulus, and its triggers include the stress response and danger. It’s marked by rash, impulsive, jump-off-the-cliff, knee-jerk familiarity, and mostly speed. There’s no time for weighing pro and con. There’s just an immediate reaction.

STRESS DUMBS US DOWN

System 1 thinking refers decisions to emotions and feeling. This can help extricate you from a life-and-death event in which you would have no time to think your way out, but it’s of little use when trying to make decisions that require thought and reflection. It shreds focus with intrusive thoughts that fan the flames of the perceived crisis of the moment.

The other type of thinking, System 2, is what we use for thoughtful analysis, complex decisions, planning, anything with a goal attached to it. It’s essential for concentration and decision-making, and utilizes the direction and discipline of the higher brain. You are in charge, not an external event.

Subjects in the study above under the command of stress-induced bottom-up attention made a lot of mistakes. Stressed individuals were prone to mis-weighting the information in the tests they participated in and confusing less relevant data with test targets. This is one of the things stress specializes in, causing us to make decisions without considered examination. Errors for the stress group included “a very large portion of response misses, emphasizing a lack of top-down controlled selection bias toward the less salient target feature.”

Stress makes us reach for quick answers, easy fixes, because it forces us to make decisions before we have adequate information to base them upon and ones clouded by raw emotion. It dumbs us down to retaliatory and reflex behavior in which we react before we think. Our job is to build in the thinking before or after the reaction. The key to that is the very thing stress steals: attention.

Attention is the act of choosing from a stream of information and data what you want to pay attention to. It’s a selection process in which your executive attention function in the high brain screens the incoming data and chooses the information that best matches your goal, task, or the tenuous thought associations at top of mind in your working memory. Stress impairs your brain’s ability to stay focused on the task. The release of stress-fueled cortisol impairs intention-based thinking and, suddenly the tail, external stimuli, is wagging the dog.

Minds that can’t stay on task or focus take longer to the get the job done and may have to do the work over again after errors. Obviously, then, the drain of attention has a big impact on productivity. Highly stressed employees don’t just have lower productivity; they also have poor engagement, a survey by Watson Towers found. 

Instead of ignoring the siege of devices and interruptions that afflict most offices these days and the stress they aid and abet, we ought to be finding ways to bring stress management tools to every office to combat attention hijackers. The more stress we have, the less attention and productivity. The more attention we have, the less stress. It's simple, but yet impossible to achieve unless stress management strategies can take root.

The solution is more absorption in every moment of every task we do. Studies show that when we have full attention and engagement, we get the job done faster, remember it longer, and like it more.

The same goes for life outside the job. The more we can stay immersed in the moment, the happier we are, our problems emanating from the realm of the other two tenses. Harness attention, and we can tap the power of the most potent motivation, intrinsic goals, doing our work for the inherent interest, and find optimal experience, when our skills meet a challenge. 

It all starts with doing things that increase attention--putting limits on device time, participating in activities that build concentration (chess, dancing, learning a language), reading, and strategies such as mindfulness and other forms of target focus that increase the attention center in the prefrontal part of the brain and decrease the self-referential hub, where the thoughts and anxieties of stress live and badger us.

In the era of distraction, you still have the power to direct your mind and reduce stress and increase productivity by boosting top-down attention and reducing bottom-up attention. That's if you can regulate the impulsivity of System 1 and let System 2 take back your mind from the attention-stealers.

If you would like to increase attention and productivity on your team or in your company, please click on the button below for details on our stress management, productivity, and work-life balance programs.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

 

 

Tags: stress and productivity, email overload, stress management programs, distractions and productivity, stress and attention

How Unbounded Devices Shred Impulse Control, Attention, and Willpower

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress_and_control.jpg

HUMANS HAVE an unfortunate knack for getting in our own way. We tend to specialize in unforced errors—false beliefs, delusions, and habits that undercut the indispensable tool that keeps us from self-inflicting more sabotage: impulse control.

More and more of us are losing it, and with it, the ability to regulate impulsivity, which means we are also losing the discipline to stay on task, avoid temptations, manage stress, and even process thoughts while sleeping. 

It used to be that impulse control issues were confined to children and adults with psychiatric conditions or substance abuse, but these days it’s infecting a whole bunch of us, thanks to the siege of unbounded devices and interruptions. The more interruptions you have, the more a part of your executive attention function that regulates impulse control, known as effortful control, is eroded.

CAN'T HELP OURSELVES

In other words, the more we check email or Facebook posts, the more we have to check them. You can see the impulse control deficit everywhere—from colleagues who don’t hear a word you’re saying because they are glued to their phones, to family members AWOL on devices at the dinner table, to oblivious text walkers blithely walking against a red light, to what I saw recently at the gym. Every single person in view was staring at their phones, some trying to do exercises on the machines while holding onto the sacred device with one hand. It’s like mass hypnosis, Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

And speaking of snatched minds, researchers say that, if you default to your device every spare moment, when you sleep at night, you won’t have any thoughts to process. Sleep helps us find patterns and solutions to problems, but the catch is you have to have thoughts in your head during the day to have anything to process at night. Device reflex preempts the thinking and musing needed process events.

Digital and mobile devices are wonderful tools, but there is a price for abusing them. Researchers like Gayle Porter of Rutgers have found that technology is as addicting as any substance. After all, what is the definition of addiction? It’s the inability to regulate impulsivity—and an obsessive compulsion to engage over and over in an activity of instant gratification. Sound familiar?

Temple University researchers Henry Wilmer and Jason Chein found that excessive use of mobile devices is associated with weakened ability to delay gratification and increased impulsive behavior. The constant default to notifications, bongs, chirps, and chimes plays havoc with self-regulatory and cognitive control that support goal-directed behaviors.

The study discovered that mobile technology habits, “such as frequent checking, are driven most strongly by uncontrolled impulses and not by the desire to pursue rewards.” Compulsive device use, then, isn’t triggered as much by the positive reinforcement of an emial response, but by an irresistible urge—due to impulse control malfunction.

SHRINKING ATTENTION SPANS 

Impulse control is central to attention, our chief productivity tool. As self-regulation capacity is reduced, so is the attention span. This creates a constant need to shift to the next quick escape/stimulation and away from anything that requires effort and discipline.

The result is high distractibility, multitasking, impatience and flitting from one thing to the next in a pattern known as Attention Deficit Trait. It’s not a condition you are born with, such as Attention Deficit Disorder; it’s a byproduct of information overload and interruptions that overwhelm the brain’s attentional faculties and wind up mimicking that condition.

When impulse control is compromised, it doesn’t just affect email checking. It undermines ability to regulate any habit you may have, whether it’s Jim Beam, chocolate, or outbursts of anger. The habit formation cells in the brain actually grow larger and the goal centers shrink.

Paying attention is all about a goal. You want to do something, learn something, experience something, but you can’t do it unless you marshal your self-regulation equipment to hold off all the distractions while you focus. That takes effort and effort takes impulse control, more of it than you might even imagine.

This is because all the tasks we do every day are dependent on a very fragile tool: working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is the faculty we use to get anything done. It’s a maximum of three to four thought chunks that we can hang on to for only a handful of seconds. Without a functioning impulse control mechanism, it’s very hard to keep those thoughts together. Impulsive phone and email checking and interruptions blow up working memory as they detonate attention and effort.

THE SIREN OF INSTANT GRATIFICATION

It’s not only working memory that is at risk, though, when impulse control systems are down. There are more than 1.3 million car accidents every year caused by people on their phones while driving. Research shows the dynamic behind those tragedies—people who engage in impulsive behavior are less apt to delay actions for a later reward (Hayashi, Russ, Wirth, 2015).

Without impulse control, instant gratification is the guiding instinct. As the word “instant” implies, there is no real thinking here, only reflex. That effectively eliminates rational decision-making. It leads to what Nobel-prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1” thinking—impulsive, shallow, jump-off-the-cliff, last thing in the memory. And it’s wrong a lot of the time.

Time pressure and rushing, another habitual behavior in the workplace egged on by the unmanaged use of devices, also cause a loss of impulse control. Instead of analyzing the situation, brains skip analysis and leap headlong into rash decisions.

Most of the rushing today is false urgency. Everything appears urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. It’s important to counter rush mode with “System 2” thinking, which Kahneman calls “slow thinking,” which allows the analytical brain to weigh all the factors before a decision. Is it an emergency or a speed trap?

Without impulse control, we are at the mercy of our emotional reactions to events, which drives stress. The data show that interruptions make every task you do seem more difficult by jacking up the aggravation load 105% (Bailey, Konstan).

Preserving impulse control is essential, then, to avoid destructive decisions and habits, protect working memory, and reduce stress and burnout. How do we do that? The humans have to be in charge of the devices, instead of the other way around. Information management is key. Turn off email and cell phones and check them at designated times. Create an Email Etiquette and Norms Guide, something I help develop in trainings for my work-life balance, stress management, and time management clients. That puts you in control.

Stop multitasking, another habit that blitzes self-regulation and drives impulsivity. Increase attention through activities shown to build focus in the prefrontal cortex—mindfulness, chess, learning a language or instrument, and spend more time in nature, which takes attenton off anxieties and increases positive mood. 

Substitute a good habit for a bad one. Every time impulse strikes, stop yourself and practice delayed gratification. You'll get to it when you are not in your car, after other priorities are taken care of, when you, not your inner saboteur, are in charge.

For details on how our work-life balance, stress management, and time management employee training can help restore impulse control, cut stress, and build productivity on your team, click the button below:

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: email overload, technology addiction, impulse control,, information management, attention and impulse control, self-discipline

The Costly Fallacy of Constant Email Checking for Fear You Might Miss Something

Posted by Joe Robinson

smartphone addcition.jpg

In one of the most celebrated plays of the 20th century, Waiting for Godot, two characters have a variety of arguments and rambling conversations while waiting for someone who never appears. It’s an apt metaphor for people and events we all wait for that are illusory. One of them these days is a phantom plenty of us are expecting but that never arrives.

Across the nation vigilant souls await, standing ready by their phones and keyboards for something. They don’t know what. They don’t know when. All they know is they have to be glued incessantly to their devices in case this unknown thing should appear.

NONSTOP E-SENTRY DUTY

The email is set to check continuously. Notifications are ready to relay an instant visual alert on the screen of choice of the thing-that-could-be-coming. People are afraid to not check email for an hour or on the weekend or vacation lest their Godot should arrive. The e-sentry duty is all on account of a widespread fear afflicting millions—of missing something important, say, an emergency.

It’s a state of constant expectancy that undermines attention, the chief productivity tool, and impulse control, and drives information overload, time urgency, stress, burnout, mistakes, and poor work-life balance. And it’s all a big mistake. Emergencies should always be handled by phone and never by email.

The workplace is awash with false beliefs that fuel the opposite of effective performance, and this is certainly one of them. The assumption behind the I-don’t-want-to-miss-something autopilot is faulty, because it’s based on the hub of poor decision-making, fear. Being on guard for every email that comes in 24/7 for fear of catastrophes that might happen if we don’t is not an effective use of time. The interruptions blow up working memory and subvert impulse control, which shrinks attention spans and the discipline needed to stay on task.

WHAT'S AN EMERGENCY?

It’s part of the survival instinct for humans to be on the lookout for possible threats to life and limb, but those are not going to happen via email. Every organization needs to free the attentions and time of staff with a more productive approach to email monitoring and communicating which things are really important. That starts by defining the thing that everyone is sitting around waiting for: the emergency, and the proper response to it— reaching out by phone.

Click for "The 7 Signs of Burnout"

Every team in the company needs to have a clear understanding of what constitutes an emergency or something extremely urgent that demands an instant response. Spell out which scenarios are in the emergency category and which are not. Specify the expected actions and responses if those circumstances occur. For instance, when a certain situation occurs, the first course of action is a phone call. Despite the best vigilance of email-watchers, emails get lost, buried, misinterpreted, sent to spam folders, and addresses get typo-ed. When you need to get hold of someone NOW, call them.

Vagueness is the enemy of effective work. Clarity on the nature of an emergency as well as on when email availability is expected and not expected can help regain uninterrupted, productive time and free up recovery time after work. Studies show that minds that don't switch off work strains at home are destined to return to work the next day with negative affect and strain unalleviated—which undercuts attention and task performance.

MANDATING LESS EMAIL USE

The amazing thing is that prior to the email era, businesses actually made money, grew, functioned, and handled emergencies without a single click. The tool that made it happen was the telephone. There is evidence that some leaders concerned about performance are rediscovering the importance of the phone and reducing email usage. Deloitte and U.S. Cellular are two companies that have mandated less email use and report increased productivity and rapport between employees as a result.

I led a productivity training for managers at Lockheed Martin, and during the section on email I had one manager volunteer the fact that, unlike every one of the other managers going bonkers from email overload in the room, he didn’t have an email problem. There was immediate wall-to-wall jaw-dropping. He told the stunned group, “I just tell my people I’d rather be contacted by phone. If you have to email, make sure it’s important.”

Those two things alone made his job, identical to that of others in the room, not fraught with excess email. Email invites extra contact because it’s so easy to do. Something that has to rise to the level of a phone call automatically weeds out the nonessential and random thoughts that are sent because it’s easy to sit back and click whatever is top of mind.

One of my clients, JamesandMatthew.com, an advertising and marketing firm in Boston, decided to dramatically reduce email by moving most communications to the project management software Base Camp. It lets them put all their communications in one place, per project. Instead of having email boxes flooded, everything is on a page that staff can check when they want. This allows each person to set the terms of engagement with email, putting them in control, which stops incessant interruptions and the overwhelm and stress that comes with it.

PROACTIVE SOFTWARE SOLUTIONS

Caught up in continual email loops, CEO Matthew Maguy had to find a way to control the beast. “One of the hardest things for us to understand as a team was that email was a massive time vampire," he says. "You can become addicted to it, hitting refresh every two minutes, waiting for the next surprise to come in. Before you know it, your day is over and all you've done is answered emails. This creates a culture wrapped around being reactive as opposed to proactive. Software like Basecamp and Slack allow you to control the information and volume and timing of notifications you get bombarded with, so you can focus on being proactive. Even better than that, you have an information structure that is easier to navigate. Too many of us were wasting time hunting through email archives or searching for attachments.”

There is a reluctance to control email in many organizations, but I sense this is changing as the email tonnage mounts. It’s not just the frustration and wear and tear on employees, it’s the productivity and performance implications of having a third of the day and more tied up in email, which is the average for people getting more than 100 emails a day. A study done by Intel found that the cost of email overload in lost productivity for a company with 50,000 workers is a stunning $1 billion a year.

The real emergency is the colossal waste of time, resources, and anxiety burned up on an e-fallacy.

If you would like to get the email, device, and interruption siege under control at your organization and dramatically improve productivity in the process, click below for details on our productivity, work-life balance, and information management programs.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details 

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: email overload, productivity programs, information overload, email and productivity, reducing email

Losing Our Minds to Devices: Goodbye Impulse Control, Hello, Attention Deficit

Posted by Joe Robinson

Impulse control.jpg

You may remember the famed marshmallow test, the ingenious Stanford study that measured the ability of children to delay gratification by not immediately eating a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel in later tests) sitting right in front of them. Children four to six years old were told that, if they could hold off for 15 minutes and not gobble up the goodie, they would get two marshmallows.

Most of them couldn’t get through a minute without downing the treat. In later studies, the researchers found that those able to delay the reward had better SAT scores, educational accomplishments, and body mass index.

WHEREFORE WILLPOWER?

I wonder if most adults could make it through that test today if the treat was, instead, a smartphone. I doubt it. Adult discipline has gone the way of the dodo, thanks to the loss of the essential tool of willpower, impulse control, which is under siege by technology addiction. 

The battle between our impulsive urges and the reflective, rational brain is the elemental contest we all face. It's maturity vs. instinct, civilization vs. reflex emotion. Most of us learn by the time we’re adults to manage headlong impulses and think before we plunge into hare-brained actions we will regret later. Or at least that was the way it used to be.

The inability to manage devices and screen time has resulted in frazzled brains that have a much harder time getting the job done or carving out a semblance of life. Work-life balance can’t exist without impulse control. When devices are running the show, the work takes longer, studies show. Interruptions make us more aggravated and subject to stress and overwhelm. They also make every task we do seem more difficult than it actually is (Bailey and Konstan).

Technology addiction makes us unavailable to family and friends. With one eye on a screen, we are not present for conversation or caring. We hibernate indoors and miss the world outside awaiting us.

As Gayle Porter of Rutgers and others have demonstrated, technology is as addictive as substances. It does exactly the same thing that drugs do to your brain: removes the ability to resist temptation. You can't regulate your impulsivity anymore.

Technology brings a highly intoxicating mix of two hard-to-resist forces, positive reinforcement from the email or text and the survival instinct set off by the e-noisemakers, in other words, gratification and fear, which shred self-regulation, leaving attention functions dulled and inoperable. We are unconscious to it, letting devices run us, instead of adopting boundaries that put us and our chief productivity tool, attention, in charge. 

THE RISE OF ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER

At the root of impulse control is a signaling process in which sensory neurons trigger action responses in movement neurons. Researchers have found that people with low impulse control, such as those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, have movement neurons that jump into processing action without a deliberating filter.

When impulse control goes, so do attention spans. Minds flit from one thing to another like a monkey at play. More and more people have what’s called Attention Deficit Trait, which is like Attention Deficit Disorder, except you are not born with it. It’s characterized by high levels of distractibility, inability to focus, and difficulty seeing things through to completion.

Without the ability to control impulsivity, we are not just at the mercy of constant email or phone checking but also any other habits we might not like to have, from Jim Beam to Sara Lee. A recent study linked low impulse control to obesity.

An impulsive personality and a habit of acting without thinking first are risk-factors for weight gain, according to a study at the University of Texas (Filbey, Yeshuvath), opening up a new line of attack on eating issues.

Work-life balance is a function of proactive self-management. That means we have to be good at self-regulating, at planning and prioritizing to manage work and clear the space for life and home responsibilities. We can’t do that if we’re defaulting to a screen every free moment.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

To do any task, we have to use working memory, which consists of three to four thought chunks you can hang on to only for a few seconds. It’s very fragile stuff, more fragile still if you are distracted and have no attention span.

When the brain is hijacked by temptation to a secondary task or interruptions, it blows up the tenuous thought associations in your working memory. You lose what you were working on, and have to reconstruct your thoughts, or start over again if you can’t.

The ability to get anything done begins with the executive attention function in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It regulates what we attend to out of everything in front of us at any given moment. A part of this region, known as “effortful control,” regulates impulsivity. The more we check email or get interrupted, the more that mechanism is eroded, to the point that that we can’t stop ourselves from checking and self-inflicting interruptions. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

Researchers have found that we are more prone to acting impulsively when there is emotional distress (Tice, Bratslavsky) and time pressure. Add that to the siege of pings, chimes, rings, and pulses yanking our chains with the bottom-up attention of the survival instinct with devices, and the rational brain and what’s called System 2 thinking—slow and analytical—is no longer in charge. Instead, it’s all rote, instinctive, System 1 thinking—leap before you look, reflex, last thing in the memory, most familiar.

To restore functioning faculties tof the adult mind, we need to:

--Manage devices and interruptions by setting the terms of engagement with them. Turn off email, phones, and notifications, and only check them at designated times. This will make a huge difference in the number of interruptions that can erode your impulse control.

--Increase attention. This is something few of us are doing, so attention spans continue to shrink. The key to increasing attention is focusing on a target. We can build up attention like a muscle if we regularly engage in things that make us concentrate—chess, learning a language, Scrabble, reading a book, and the best tool for increasing focus: meditation, also known as mindfulness or the relaxation response.

You focus on your breath going in and out in one style of meditation and concentrate on a mantra, a couple of syllables repeated in your mind, in another, while sitting quietly for 20 minutes. Try it for a week. You’ll love it.

Assuming control of your impulses again by increasing your attention has all sorts of great outcomes. Studies show you will have less stress, like what you do more, remember it longer, and get it done faster. On the count of three, then, one, two, three—turn your email and phone off now.

For details on our Working Smarter Work-Life BalanceTime Management, or Information Management programs and restoring your team's impulse control, please click the button below: 

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

Tags: email overload, interruption management, technology addiction, attention management, time management, information overlaod, impulse control and attention

The Brain and Productivity Drain of Unbounded Devices, Interruptions, and Information Overload

Posted by Joe Robinson

 woman_w_hammer_keyboard.jpg

DESPITE A FLOOD of technology investment in the workplace in recent years, productivity gains are at their lowest since 1982. Economists are scratching their heads, trying to figure out why. In the past, technology improvements were followed by big productivity gains. Why not this time? A lot of us under the thumb of 24/7 technology know the answer to that one. 

Digital overload. Too much technology has swamped the human capacity to deal with it. Instead of helping us get our jobs done, it’s making our work harder and longer. 

THE QUAGMIRE OF UNBOUNDED TECHNOLOGY

It’s on display every time I conduct a work-life balance, stress management, or time management (Managing Crazy Busy Work) training, which I did last week at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. Executives from Pepsi to Starbucks to Microsoft told me they were drowning in messaging and digital interruptions to the point they can’t keep up with it all and feel like they’re constantly falling behind.

One executive told me he feels a semblance of control if he can get his email box down to 200. A couple people in the training were getting more than 300 messages a day. That means doing email at home to catch up, which drives exhaustion, crowds out recovery options, and grinds down performance.

Technology is helpful when humans are in charge of it. Most of the time these days, we’re not. We’re at the mercy of unbounded in-boxes, information overload, and distractions. 

How many of you have been known to sleep with your significant other who’s not your partner? Your smartphone. Based on my experiences, it’s well more than a few.

We have lost one of the most basic management tools: boundaries. The devices are running us, instead of the other way around. As a result, most people are in retaliatory mode all day, reacting to what’s coming at them—acting before they think. That drives time frenzy, crisis mentality, overwhelm, and poor time management, not to mention bad performance, because our chief productivity tool, attention, is under assault.

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

What we don’t understand about digital devices is that they are supposed to work for us, to help us, not barrage our working memory and survival equipment all day. We're supposed to be in charge.

All the bongs, chirps, chimes, and pulses play to what’s known as bottom-up attention. That’s what happens when you hear a loud noise. Your attention immediately shifts from whatever you were focused on to see what the threat is. It sets off the startle response, a stressor, interruptor, and all-around saboteur of working memory.

Intel estimated the cost of lost productivity per year due to email overload at $1 billion for a company with 50,000 workers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can put humans back in charge with a set of rules and guidelines that rein in the abuse.

A solution is long overdue. Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 10 years ago, we used to shift between work spheres—online to offline and back again—every three minutes. Now it’s every 45 seconds. Her research shows that it takes an average of up to 25 minutes after answering an email for someone to get back to what they were doing before the interruption. We open a browser, talk to a colleague, and self-distract after an interruption.

BLOWING UP WORKING MEMORY

Interruptions throw us seriously off track. They do that by blowing up working memory, that fragile collection of germinal thoughts that we can hang on to for only a few seconds and that is at the heart of self-discipline and concentration. Research has shown that interruptions can slow us down by up to 27% and make everything we do seem more difficult than it is.

Interruptions can lower IQ up to 10 points. This is why we make suspect decisions under the influence of distractions.

Multitasking, which is really a misnomer (you can’t do two high cognitive tasks at one time), reduces productivity more than 40%, from all the switching back and forth that brain neurons have to do, according to research at the University of Michigan. And, of course, there are all the mistakes that come from multitasking, or what it really should be called—simultaneous inattention.

The problem is worse than we think, since we don’t understand the impact that unbounded devices and interruptions are having on our brains and self-regulatory equipment. Interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it.

We are losing ability to regulate impulsivity. Without self-regulation, the discipline needed to avoid temptation and be able to focus, we’re backsliding into addictive behavior. As Gayle Porter at Rutgers found in her research, technology is as addicting as any substance.

EVERY EMAIL RESULTS IN SIX

In a poll at my Scottsdale training, the biggest distraction and time sink was email, which is growing at a rate of 25% a year. The volume is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back, as we try to tease out what someone is saying and find a polite way to exit the conversation. The good news is that we can do something about email, interruptions, and multitasking. We can create boundaries, rules of the digital road that restore control. 

For instance, we can create manual checking schedules, which reseearchers have documented increase productivity and reduce chaos. We can make sure everyone knows that if something is an emergency, then that requires a phone call. This way people don't have to be checking email every five minutes for fear of missing an emergency.

Does your organization have an email or interruption management strategy? Our programs provide the tools to get the deluge under control, including an Email Etiquette Guidebook and Interruption Norms Rulebook.

Most organizations today are operating without norms and standards, which leads to digital abuse and triage mode all day.

Our productivity and time management training give your team the best practices vetted by the research to keep the productivity killer of unbounded technology at bay. When we develop new practices and norms and address bottlenecks, the chaos and stress ends, minds and working memory refocus, and more work gets done in less time.

Learn how to rein in information overload for your team. Click the button below for details on how our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy Busy Work time management trainings can make your organization less crazed and more effective.

Get Time Management Program Price, Details

Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, feeling overwhelmed, information overload, time management programs

Beat Email Overload and Overwhelm by Setting the Terms of Engagement with Devices

Posted by Joe Robinson

Phone_zombies.jpg

Face-to-face conversations these days more often than not mean a face-to-scalp session, as you speak to the hair or pate of the person looking down at their phone. You can almost say anything, because they’re really not paying attention to you. “Hey, your car just got towed.” “Uh-huh.”

They hear human sounds in the world beyond their screen, but ask them to repeat it back, and they would be stumped. It’s not just the device that is impeding discourse, it’s the type of attention that is being brought to bear—divided and directed by the device, not by the device holder’s brain.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is to try to both look at the phone and listen to the conversation, but doing both things at once is impossible. You can’t do more than one high cognitive task at a time, especially anything involving language, because there is only one neural channel for language to flow through. As a result, you are either doing one or the other task and switching back and forth between them. That switching has costs—time to figure out where you were on the other task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, and rote behavior that operates on autopilot, i.e., the past, instead of focus on the present.

Multitasking forces attention down from the top floors of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, to the rote realms, like the hippocampus, which act on muscle memory. Thinking is sidelined for default action. Operating on rote mode is highly unproductive, as the data on multitasking shows. Productivity can drop from 40% to more than double that, according to David Meyer, a multitasking expert at the University of Michigan.

Download "Email & Attention Deficit"

Why would you want to work so ineffectively and scatter-brained? You wouldn’t—if you were thinking about it. But, alas, you’re not thinking about it. Almost none of us are. We are simply following orders from devices and interrupters. That means we are using a form of attention, bottom-up attention, that undermines focus and engagement and drives loss of control, stress, and overwhelm.

THE NOISEMAKER REFLEX

Bottom-up attention is a survival instinct. When a car backfires, we stop whatever we’re paying attention to and focus on the source of the threatening sound. Blood pressure increases, thoughts are constricted to the intrusion, and we lose the fragile thought chunks held together in short-term memory that we need to get our work done. Then we have to reconstruct later what it was we were doing before the interruption.

Research by U. C. Irvine’s Gloria Mark shows that it can take up to 25 minutes for your thoughts to get back to wherever they were before bottom-up attention took hold. Think of the hit to productivity that delivers multiple times a day.

The reason so many feel overwhelmed today is that attention is being driven, not by what our brains were designed for—selecting one thing to attend to—but by the bottom-up world of the noisemakers and flashers. The chimes, dings, chirps, and pulses, along with visual notifications (impossible to resist flashing lights; could be a threat) that keep us in startle response mode, a defensive posture, instead of on the attention offensive.

The key to restoring focus and productivity to the day is bringing back the kind of attention we need to get work done and concentrate: top-down attention. How do we do that? By setting the terms of engagement with the bottom-up brigade. That means creating strategies that put top-down attention in charge as much as possible. When we use the ability we are programmed with, to select and pay attention to one thing at a time, studies show we have more focus, less stress, we like what we’re doing more, and we remember it longer.

BOTTOM-UP DICTATOR

All of that good stuff comes from full absorption in what we’re doing, from something that used to be known as undivided attention. Reclaiming it requires that we deploy perimeters around the unbounded realm of bottom-up intruders. Like a city without traffic lights, a workplace without boundaries on the incoming is anarchy, a field day for bottom-up dictatorship.

When we’re not choosing what to pay attention to, and just reacting all day, we feel out of control, which is the root cause of overwhelm—a belief we can’t cope with demands. This is all your ancient brain needs to flip the danger switch of the stress response. It’s a huge attention saboteur, exploding working memory for a false emergency that constricts thoughts to the perceived crisis that isn’t one. The definition of stress is high demands and no control, what’s known as “latitude,” over the work environment.

When we select what we pay attention to and when, we have command and control to keep overwhelm at bay. We can set the terms of engagement with adjustments to how we work, by checking email at designated times and keeping it turned off otherwise, by shutting off the noisemakers on our email and phone, by creating no-interruption “focus” zones that allow us to concentrate by using 100%, undivided top-down attention, and by many other strategies that restore control and attention.

The average corporate email user gets 109 bottom-up emails a day. Business texts are up 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path for your team or organization? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. By putting the humans back in control.

If your team could use more top-down attention and less bottom-up, more focus and less overwhelm, we can get you there with our Work-Life Balance and Managing Crazy-Busy Workload training programs. If you would like to learn more, click the button below for more details. Proactive self-management is the answer to overwhelm and growing attention deficit.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, information overload programs, information overload, stress management, attention management, productivity and attention

The Cure for Zombie Phone Staring and Email Checking: Impulse Control

Posted by Joe Robinson

Phone_addiction

There’s a reason it’s hard to stop checking your email and why everyone around you is staring at screens like zombies. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. 

It turns out that constant interruptions erode impulse control. We lose the ability to regulate our impulsivity, which is to say, we lose self-discipline, essential to getting things done and warding off addictive behavior—which includes technology. Your devices have been shown to be as addicting as any substance.

People who have gone off the rails of digital interruption and distraction are more inclined to interrupt you, suffer from a bad case of crisis mentality, call you to see if you got the email they sent two minutes ago, and have difficulty focusing on tasks to completion or concentrating, the latter leading to a condition known as Attention Deficit Trait. The lack of control also drives stress and aggravation.

THE ENGINE OF SELF-CONTROL

It all makes a crazy-busy world even crazier. What every office could use is the return of something that used to be a crucial element of functioning adults: willpower. Willpower is the engine of self-control, the ability to manage thoughts, emotions and harmful habits and override momentary desires. Not much gets done without it.

In a world of instant gratification, delaying payoff isn’t a popular choice—not surprisingly, because self-regulation is hard. It’s hard for brain neurons to resist an easier path. Since early humans didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, the species developed a habit for going for the bird in the hand.

Get "5 Strategies to Manage  Crazy-Busy Workload"     

The use of willpower also burns up resources. To stay on task, resist an impulsive action, or remain disciplined expends mental energy. That has to be replaced. Self-regulation expert Roy Baumeister, author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, has documented that after long hours of staying disciplined, the self-regulation equipment tends to flag at night.

Luckily, researchers say willpower is something we can all build like a muscle. We can improve our ability to hold off temptations at hand and persevere for a later reward. 

A 2000 Florida State University study found that mental resources are depleted by self-regulating processes such as resisting temptation, restraining aggression and coping with fear. The research suggested that self-control is a limited resource that must be resupplied regularly; each act of self-regulation makes it harder to perform another, because it eats up precious mental resources needed for discipline.

PERSEVERING IS BELIEVING

But more recent data indicates that willpower is not so limited after all. You have enough to meet any challenge—if you believe you do. It’s all about mindset. 

“We don’t say it’s unlimited. At some point you do need to replenish,” says Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor and a leading motivation researcher. But willpower, she says, “is a much larger resource than previously thought. You can get tired, but it doesn’t mean you’re out of gas.”

Dweck and her colleagues have found that people who believe their willpower is limited feel tapped out after a strenuous mental task, while those who believe they have abundant willpower are able to push on. “Those with an abundant view aren’t monitoring themselves. They’re just kind of carrying on,” she says.

And once you resist temptation, it’s easier to resist it in the future. You can build willpower over time, in other words, by using it—something you can do by deploying the right motivation and belief systems, priming persistence and sidelining the quick-fix ego.

EFFORTFUL CONTROL

Achievement takes effort, and effort requires command of a brain function known as “effortful control.” Part of the executive attention function system, a disciplined effortful control mechanism is essential to self-control and the ability to resist temptation. It regulates impulse control, which prevents you from checking email when you’re trying to complete a task. 

Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman notes that people who are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and a temptation are more likely to yield to the temptation. Similarly, people who are “cognitively busy” are more likely to make selfish choices. (He points out that a few drinks have the same effect, as does a sleepless night—the self-control of “morning people” is impaired at night, and vice versa.)

Other researchers have found that self-regulation depletes energy in the brain in the form of blood glucose. Subjects given sugary drinks were able to replenish resources to take on hard tasks that demanded self-control. Yet as Dweck discovered, there is another energy source: one’s own belief system and the motivation that drives it. Priming yourself with a realistic expectation of a rough road and the belief that you are up to it can get you through.

When motivation is driven by intrinsic goals that align with one’s inner goals—learning, challenge or the thought of making a difference—one has more staying power. When motivation is external—money, fame, praise, status—it’s harder to stick with it. 

In one study, Dweck found that college students who were concerned about grades and self-validation (external performance goals) weren’t as interested in tackling difficult goals with the possibility of failure, showing “substantial decreases in intrinsic motivation” after a significant setback. On the other hand, students who were in it for the learning—who want to work harder to increase their understanding—persevered.  

Researchers have found that rehearsing in one’s head the reaction to setbacks can help subjects resist temptation and overcome anxiety. Instead of reacting with autopilot panic and stress when the going gets tough, you can teach the brain to have a different reaction.

People “who persist have the idea that they can improve their abilities,” Dweck says. It comes down to “recognizing that you have more willpower than you think and finding strategies to put that into practice.”

Tags: email overload, work-life balance training, crazy busy, information management programs, technology addiction, productivity, work life balance programs, stress management programs, work stress, managing stress

The Hidden Agent of Job Stress: the Startle Response

Posted by Joe Robinson

Bracing for impact

You’re walking down the sidewalk thinking about the mouth-watering hoagie sandwich you’re going to sink your teeth into for lunch, when you hear a loud, “Bang!” In milliseconds, the hoagie vanishes from your mind, and your head jerks around to see what the danger is. It turns out that it’s only a car backfiring, but your blood pressure and breathing are still racing from the brush with this potentially ominous threat.

It’s known as the startle response, an instinctive flinch and bracing move at the sign of a threat. Even babies have this early warning system. A sudden, loud noise will cause them to bring their hands and feet closer to their chest. The reflex is designed to go off before we can even think and prepare us to brace for harm’s way.

EMAIL ALARMS

Like, say, another email or text dinger or a pulse from your smartphone. That’s right, digital alarms and noisemakers can also set off the startle equipment, along with the stress that comes with it. The more anxious you feel or stressed, the easier it is to overreact to the incoming stimuli and go into startle formation, ducking, cringing, blinking the eyes, and otherwise ready for impact.

In a world of unbounded email and smartphones, that turns most days into a startling performance—and that’s not a good thing. It amounts to repeated, jarring alarms throughout the day that signal threats, drive a defensive posture, and hijack attention.

Startling might be fun at a fright flick or on the local roller coaster, but it makes for lousy work and health. University of Minnesota researchers Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan found that interruptions can lengthen the time needed to complete a task by up to 27% and increase annoyance by as much as 106% by making everything seem more difficult that it is. In other words, a steady diet of startling from flashing and noise-making devices lowers the threshold of coping, which increases the stress load. That makes sense, since the startle reflex activates the sympathetic nervous system associated with the stress response, which colors all in doom and gloom.

Download "The 7 Signs of Office Stress"

FLINCH MODE

What doesn’t make sense is to be in flinch mode all day from unbounded devices. We have to set the terms of engagement with email and smartphones, or they will keep the the startling coming, raising the stress level and stealing attention for survival threats that don't exist. Most people answer the flashing visual notifications in the corner of their computer screens within six seconds. Because it plays to a survival instinct, these notifications are almost impossible to resist.

So much for free will. Or whatever it was you were thinking about when you got startled by the incoming noise or light. Interruptions vaporize short-term memory, which is why an interruption of just 2.8 seconds, can double the risk of error, according to researchers at Michigan State and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

The rings, bongs, chimes, and light shows that we’ve come to know and love not so much are part of what is known as “bottom-up” attention, part of the startle reflex that takes priority over anything you want to focus on. These intrusions are seen as perceived threats in a part of our brain that never got the manual for the 21st century.

BOTTOM-UP ATTENTION

Bottom-up attention lives to startle. Everything is an alert, 72-point headline font. It’s like having your own Breaking News ticker interrupting you every couple of minutes.

Luckily, there’s a better way of getting things done than cringing for the next alarm. It’s called “top-down” attention. Humans were designed to select and pay attention to one thing at a time. When we do that, we no longer have to be on guard all day, waiting for the next threat. We get to choose what we pay attention and when. That puts us in control. The more control we feel we have over our work environment, the less stress, the faster we get tasks done, and the more we like what we’re doing, say researchers.

How do we get more control and reduce the volume of startling we go through in a given day? Start by turning off mail software and noisemakers unless you are using it. The same goes for your smartphone. Check them both at designated times. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine to Oklahoma State say that the most productive email checking schedules are three or four times a day. If you have to have your email software on, turn the sound all the way down or set the volume extremely low on your desktop (higher decibel levels activate the startle response) and ask someone in IT how to turn off the visual alerts. These are easy and highly effective stress management tools.

The humans are allowed to set the rules on devices, and in the process reduce a lot of needless startling and stress. If you want to get the tension and time urgency down and improve work-life balance, make a vow to check messages on your terms, and not at the hysterical beck and call of every call or spam message that appears in your in-box. 

Tags: email overload, interruptions and productivity, overwhelm, stress and email, startle response, smartphone addiction, stress response, setting boundaries

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crazy guy.jpg

IT JUST MAY BE the crime of the century. Our minds, thoughts and chief productivity tool--attention--are being stolen by a thief operating with absolute impunity: incessant, unbounded interruptions. An ever-growing volume of intruders--e-mail, texts, apps, phone calls, social media alerts--combined with assaults from increasingly time-panicked humans, are leaving few places safe for chirp-, chime- or ding-free concentration.

Information overload, which includes the recovery time from unnecessary interruptions, cost the U.S. economy $997 billion in 2010, according to Overload!: How Too Much Information is Hazardous to your Organization by Jonathan B. Spira. An Intel study found that lost productivity from information overload alone would cost $1 billion per year for a company its size.

Chronic intrusions shrink attention spans, drive stress by burning up mental and emotional resources and trigger mistakes. An interruption averaging 2.8 seconds--say, one of those blinking notifications in the corner of your computer screen--can double the risk of error, a study by researchers at Michigan State University and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory found. Increase the duration of the interruption to 4.4 seconds, and you triple the chance of a mistake.

Interruptions play havoc with working memory, fuel overwhelm, and undermine intellect. A study that measured the effects of forced interruptions on resident surgeons performing a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal) found that surgical mistakes occurred 44 percent of the time with the distractions, and only about 6 percent without. Interruptive questions triggered the most errors, followed by sidebar conversations.

There's a reason airline pilots have mandatory no-interruption zones just before takeoff and landing: Federal regulations prohibit any activity--from nonessential conversations with crew or others in the cockpit to reading nonessential publications--that could distract a pilot during critical phases of the flight.

So, what are the main sources of intrusion, how do they affect us, and what can be done to curb them?

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

The average businessperson receives and sends about 109 e-mails per day, and that rate is growing each year by 7 percent, according to studies by technology market research firm The Radicati Group. Instant messages are increasing 11 percent, and texting, once confined to the nonwork realm, is bombarding offices, with 67 percent of professionals saying they text for business, according to messaging service HeyWire Business. How interruptive is this? Mobile Marketing Association reports that 90 percent of all texts are read within three minutes.

"It's a huge problem," says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Massachusetts psychiatrist and co-author of Driven to Distraction, which chronicles the siege on attention. "It's the newest addiction. There are in-patient centers now for people with technology addiction. Marriages break up."

"There's a thrill to it," adds Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. "Your texts and e-mails are like video games. There's a stimulus and rewards."

The surge of texts and social media notifications in recent years may be leading to a tipping point of terminal distraction and always-on availability. Michael Salem, co-founder and CEO of Vorex, a Plano, Texas-based provider of cloud-based professional services automation software, says he gets 1,000 messages per day. "I'm overwhelmed," he admits. "Responding is a daily thing, 24 hours a day." For a while, he says, he barely slept, taking calls from global users of his product from his bed. His health started to suffer; he gained weight and became anxious from the never-ending assault.

"I counted recently," says Matthew Bellows, CEO of Boston-based Yesware, an e-mail productivity service for salespeople. "I have 22 inboxes, from e-mail to LinkedIn. The idea that I'm supposed to monitor and troll through these is absurd. I get hundreds of e-mails a day. Interruptions and distractions are the biggest drain on productivity for the modern office worker."

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

The volume of intrusions today is unsustainable by any metric: productivity, engagement, physiology or common sense. So what can we do about it? The first step is to understand the impact of constant interruptions on our brain neurons.

Out of all the things your brain could focus on right now, your attention at this moment is on this sentence. This is because you are implementing what's known as top-down attention, in which you choose what to take note of. You set the terms of engagement, giving you control and concentration--that is, if you can block out the distractions of the other kind of attention: bottom-up, which is dictated by something or someone else. Bottom-up attention is part of our survival equipment. When you hear a siren or a car backfire, your attention instantly shifts to the potential threat. The cavalcade of electronic noisemakers--e-mails, texts, IMs, phone calls, notifications--are all bottom-up intruders. They arouse defenses and hijack concentration.

It's a battle that's daunting but winnable. "You are the boss of what's in your head," Gallagher points out. "Attention is a tool, and you can take charge of it. It's a matter of knowing when you want to use your top-down attention, and then you have to suppress the bottom-up stimuli. Otherwise, you become a victim of stimuli."

Interruptions trigger detours that tax working memory and increase the time it takes to accomplish tasks, all of which drives stress. When an intrusion occurs, "it sets off a chain of random events, with people switching activities," explains Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, and co-author of a study on the subject. On average, she says, "you work on two intervening tasks before you get back to the original task." For example, you might be at work on a marketing project one minute, then shift to an e-mail from a customer, then off on a trip to LinkedIn.

Mark followed 35 managers, engineers and project leaders for three days. She found that the average time people spent on a single task before being interrupted or switching to something else was a whopping three minutes. The amount of time they worked on a device before switching was two minutes, 11 seconds.

The interruption blitz is held in place by fallacies that the human brain is an inexhaustible well that can be crammed with an unlimited amount of information, perform multiple functions simultaneously and switch tasks without decrease in output. The shocking truth is that our gray matter has limits, from working memory to data volume to neural channels that permit us to perform only one high-cognitive task at a time.

Interruptions undermine effortful control, which reflects the ability to regulate impulse control. The more interruptions one has, the more they erode the self-regulation equipment. Feel like you have to check your e-mail even though you just checked it five minutes ago? That's your impulse control and attention span on the blink. Interruptions shred the ability to self-regulate everything from checking e-mail to consuming Häagen-Dazs or Jack Daniel's.

ATTENTION DEFICIT

This is why technology is so addictive. It can destroy the ability to control impulsivity, which means more frequent message checking and web browsing and shorter attention spans. That, in turn, leads to more distractibility and less ability to see tasks through to completion--exactly the sort of symptoms psychiatrist Hallowell began to see in the '90s in patients who thought they had attention-deficit disorder.

But people with true ADD are born with the condition. So Hallowell's patients' fractured attention was a byproduct of something else--an affliction that mimics ADD, set off by interruption and information overload "filling our heads with a cacophony of mental noise" until the brain "loses its ability to attend fully and thoughtfully to anything," Hallowell notes in Driven to Distraction. He dubbed the condition "attention deficit trait."

Once high-producers, people with this condition flit from one thing to the next and find themselves falling behind in their work, which in turn increases time panic and anxiety as they try to catch up. Thus the constant disruptions feed a fear of being overwhelmed and not being able to cope, a signal to the ancient brain to set off the stress response.

"I can feel my heart racing," says Karen Swim, who launched her Sterling Heights, Mich.-based public relations firm, Words For Hire, 10 years ago. She used to be able to manage the electronic flood, but she says the increase in texting over the last couple of years has pushed her coping resources over the edge. "There are days when I feel I have to stop and breathe. It feels like you're on a treadmill that keeps speeding up, and you can't keep up."

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

Everyone knows the volume of intrusions is counterproductive, but attempting to moderate the flow strikes fear in the hearts of business owners and managers. It shouldn't.

More entrepreneurs would crack down on interruptions if they knew how much it was costing them, says Dan Adams, CEO of Woburn, Mass.-based New England Network Solutions, which provides computer services to small and midsize companies. "Business owners don't know how much time is being lost to these distractions," says Adams, who installs firewalls to track and monitor internet and social media use.

As relentless as the siege is, entrepreneurs and employees don't have to throw up their hands. There is a range of tools available to control the onslaught, improve productivity, and along the way build in stress management controls.

Strategies range from curbing e-mails to limiting personal pop-ins from colleagues. U.S. Cellular, Intel and professional-services giant Deloitte are among large firms that have attempted no-e-mail days--not mandating a complete shutdown of electronic messages, but encouraging in-person or voice communication, especially among co-workers--which may cut down on unnecessary distractions.

"Without uninterrupted time you can't listen to someone, write good code or think," says Yesware's Bellows, who once spent a year at a Buddhist retreat meditating for hours a day. "Those tasks take concentration and focus that is quickly taken away by devices."

INTERRUPTIONS

Bellows is trying to stem the tide of interruptions. Instead of interrupting one another with questions, Yesware employees send messages via a HipChat.com intranet page that colleagues can review on their own time, when they have a break in the action. Bellows blocks out uninterrupted time on his calendar to think, urges everyone to close laptops and not check messages during meetings and reads and responds to his e-mail in designated chunks a few times a day.

The latter strategy in particular can dramatically reduce interruptions. If your e-mail automatically checks and feeds you messages every five minutes, that's a potential of 96 interruptions over an eight-hour day. However, if you manually check it every 45 minutes, that cuts the total to 11. Researchers at Oklahoma State University say the most productive checking schedule is four times per day. UC Irvine's Mark recommends that you plow through as much e-mail as you can in three scheduled periods per day; the rest of the time, it should be turned off.

Other interventions aim to block off no-interruption zones. Leslie A. Perlow, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, developed the "quiet time" program, which walls off all intrusions during certain times of the day.

She deployed the method at a software company whose engineers were having trouble creating products without working nights and weekends. After a period of investigation, Perlow discovered that the engineers were being interrupted so often they didn't have time to think and couldn't get enough done during regular hours. With everyone falling behind schedule, a crisis mentality developed, in which people felt entitled to interrupt anyone at any time.

Perlow's solution was to set aside a certain portion of the day, before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., for uninterrupted work. (Normal interruptions could take place during that four-hour window.) The results: 59 percent of engineers reported that their productivity increased in the morning interruption-free zone, and 65 percent said the same for the afternoon. With heads cleared, 41 percent even reported that their productivity jumped during the interruption portion of the day.

Harman Singh likes the idea of quiet time. The founder and CEO of WizIQ--who gets upward of 200 messages each day--says he's been thinking about the need for rules to control the flood at his online education company. "It's gotten crazy," he says. "I don't get enough time to think. It's a menace."

His most frustrating distraction: mobile messaging via WhatsApp. He has considered getting off the app but is concerned about how investors who contact him that way might react. As with most thoughts of managing interruptions, there is fear. Would they respect boundaries? But Singh believes that ultimately his investors would rather have him engaged in productive thought and running his company than buried in social media and needless communication.

If you would like to learn how to implement these and many other tools to create a more productive office click on the button below for more information.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

Tags: email overload, overwhelm, productivity programs, productivity and stress, managing interruptions, reduce distractions, multitasking and stress, information overload programs, email management, interruption management, information overload, stress management programs

The Thought Break: 8 Ways to Beat Device Reflex and Build Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Task overload keeps out work-life balance

With all the time people spend looking down at their phones, future generations may be endowed with additional neck muscles to manage the posture. We don’t have to wait for one of the side effects of too much time in screen mode. Researchers have found that when the default in every spare second is to automatically check a digital devicd, you are doing serious damage to memory and learning.

The impulse to fill spare moments with a check of electronic devices robs brain neurons of the downtime they need to process and remember thoughts. Ideas, problems, dilemmas, musings, and experiences don’t have the space to be weighed, so we have a hard time remembering them, research at the University of San Francisco suggests.

In experiments with rats, they discovered that only when the animals took a break from activity were they able to process the patterns of a new experience. They suspect humans operate the same way. In fact, a very novel study from the University of Michigan, which examined how humans (monitored by portable brain sensors) reacted to natural surroundings, found the same dynamic. Walking in a park or in a natural setting created a meditative state in the brain ideal for reflection and processing.

NO TIME TO THINK

The research is providing a very good picture of why so many feel so overwhelmed these days in the always-on world. There’s no time to think. We can’t prioritize, solve problems, or take the time needed to plan an organized workday or time off the clock to refuel the batteries. Instead, there is constant commotion and busyness, which masquerades as productive behavior, but is actually very different from forward progress. Commotion isn’t motion. It’s a mechanical momentum without intentionality or mobility.

Nonstop busyness has become the real business today. Many of us live to be occupied, while being unconscious to what it is that we’re actually doing, since there’s no time for thinking. For busyness to work, it has to be connected with thought and prioritization. Otherwise, everything that comes through the unfiltered digital pipeline is urgent.

When there’s no allowance for critical thought, there’s frenzy and frazzle. Thinking is how we tamp down the load, decipher paths forward, delegate, and make adjustments to how we do our tasks that help us work smarter. It’s how we process the experiences and notions that plant the seeds that lead to discoveries and solutions.

SQUEEZING OUT MEMORIES

When we sleep, our brains process the events of the day, look for patterns, and file the data in our memories. Filling up every minute with reflex digital checking or busyness deprives brain neurons of the thoughts needed for processing during shuteye. That can affect memory, since the information is being squeezed out by preoccupation from entering the incubation process. Besides making our lives a lot easier, memories play an important role in mood state. Our memories are a kind of ongoing status report as to whether we like our lives or not. Researchers say we’re as happy as the most recent positive and novel experience we can remember.

On the front end of the day’s events, reverting to the digital default can affect working memory, since the self-interruptions play havoc with our ability to retain short-term information.

The habit of busyness can become self-defining to the point that if we are not in hyperventilation mode on a task every moment, there is guilt—even at home. Yet productivity is something that depends on informed performance, thought before action. Without thought, we can wind up doing more than we can do well and at times doing tasks we shouldn’t be doing, when others are more urgent.

THINK WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Without thought, there is no work-life balance. That is not the default position. In fact, it’s the opposite. A semblance of work-life fit requires proactive planning and regular check-ins to see how we are doing. Keeping work-life balance in mind can serve as a conscious check on the autopilot that drives frenzy and overwhelm. Having a work-life goal of low-stress, effective work practices, and time for family and friends outside the job insures time to plan and reflect.

A state of busyness can make it seem that you don’t have a moment for reflection, but that is a mirage from stress-addled thoughts that make you feel every minute is an emergency. The I’m-Too-Busy mental block is very effective at screening out the things we need to work more effectively or squash any notion of time off-the-clock for recharging. As the old saying goes, you have to take time to make time, so let’s look at times when you could do that and schedule something new and very exciting into your day: thought breaks.

1. The first ten minutes of your day. When you get into the office, before you check email, write down your top three priorities for the day.

2. Use the transition points between tasks or work spheres, when you have finished one and are moving into another, to take a moment to celebrate the finish of one task and think about what you want to accomplish with the next item.

3. Use coffee or water cooler breaks to take a deep breath, think about what you’re doing next, or muse on something unrelated to help rebooting.

4. Take a five-minute walk three or four times a day to let your mind reflect and wonder.

5. Shut off all devices at lunch and have uninterrupted time to space, observe, muse, or plan a weekend activity.

6. The first 30 minutes when you get home from work. If you’re doing exercise, do it without digital screens in front of you. But music is good for letting your mind drift to thoughts and associations that may connect some dots.

7. Anytime your brain is fried, and you are going in circles mentally, get up, take a walk, do some stretching, and let your mind reset. Even five minutes is helpful.

8. Do a work-life balance check once a week to see how you are doing. What are the challenges? What’s going well?

If you would like more information on how to build more attention and effective work practices, click the button below for pricing and details on one of our work-life balance or productivity programs.

Click for a Price Quote

Tags: email overload, work overload, work breaks, productivity, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

Follow Me