Working Smarter

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 distracted.

MULTITASKING SLOWS BRAIN NEURONS

The reflex is 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 task each time there's a switch, fractured attention, inability to retain information, rote behavior that results in mistakes, and stress.

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.

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 reacting, 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 have increased 67%. An interruption of just 4.4 seconds can triple the risk of errors. How sustainable is this path and at what risk to safety and bottom-lines? There is a better way than terminal startle response all day. 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.

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

The Unspoken Key to Work-Life Balance: Stoplights

Posted by Joe Robinson

Traffic_Light_Small

I wouldn’t want to live in Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, or any other city without traffic lights. The roads are crazy enough as it is, but without rules of the road, you’ve got anarchy. Yet that is the situation we face at companies large and small these days.

The anarchic flow of messaging and interruptions pour in without rules or any kind of traffic management, causing massive tie-ups that lead to always-on availability, disruptions and distractions that torpedo productivity and drive overwhelm and unbalanced characters.

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN

The pattern operates unchallenged, devices calling the tune, with the humans caught up in a kind of learned helplessness. The unbounded pattern runs the show because of one basic behavior: silence. We don't address the elephant in the room and so it proliferates.

When vagueness rules, so do lack of boundaries, constant device-checking, and expectations of instant response. Researchers say this doesn’t make sense, because it’s highly counterproductive. An  unbounded world shreds working memory and attention, drives stress and burnout, and leaves staff disengaged and cynical. But there's a lot we can do to bring traffic management to work.

DEFAULT TO YES

I led a half-day work-life balance program last week for a global organization facing many of these issues. The group of managers, hailing from China to the U.S., to England and Germany, were highly committed to their work—and, prompted to zero in on hurdles, turned out to be hungry to talk about ways to manage competing demands and time zones and carve out better boundaries and work-life balance.

My experience is that it’s not lack of interest on the part of managers that keeps the cycle going. In the course of our session, the consensus was that in the scramble of information overload and exploding to-do lists, there has been a default to take on more than we can do well. Too many of us don’t pause long enough to reflect if we can really take on one more thing right now. 

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Traffic management in the working world is handled through boundaries. Speaking up about them and identifying bright lines is as logical for business as it is for work-life balance, research shows. Boundaries build focus and attention, chaos delivers the opposite.

One Harvard report found that people who have true satisfaction in their working lives are good at recognizing the "just enough" point on a given project or day. The number one factor in that satisfaction was the "deliberate imposition of limits."

ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES COMMUNICATION

If we knew how important communication is for employee engagement, there would be a lot more talking. Studies show that the worst engagement is for employees whose managers never have time to meet with them, while 87% of engaged employees know their managers well.

When no one has a second to communicate, we don't ask questions, prioritize, and work effectively. Collaboration is the most effective leadership model for employee engagement, and that comes from communication, something that satisfies core psychological needs that make people feel valued. Feeling valued is the driving force behind the discretionary effort of engagement, something that can make employees 28% more productive, according to Gallup.

Reining in the unbounded world can start in any department and organization with a conversation about task bottlenecks, deadlines, overcommitment, and the work-life challenges that come from letting devices and blind frenzy call the shots. The humans can install traffic lights, using the most basic management tool: boundaries.

And that is how the global company I’m working with is proceeding, moving forward with a new handbook on effective work norms to provide best-practice guidance for regulating devices and interruptions as well as understandings about availability and emergencies.

Solving the traffic-light problem solves many others in the process, increasing productivity, morale, and engagement, as it reduces stress and helps everyone find the space to strike a better work-life balance. Isn’t that worth stopping the traffic for a second so we can go forward without crashing?

If you would like information on our work-life balance, productivity, employee engagmenet, and stress management programs, click the button below for more details.

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Tags: employee engagement programs, interruptions and productivity, information overload programs, employee productivity, avoiding burnout, increase productivity, employee engagement

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.

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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

The Myth of Multitasking

Posted by Joe Robinson

Multitasking multiplies frustration

It's the gospel of productivity in a maxed-out world: Multitasking helps you get more done faster. The only thing is, it doesn't, says David Meyer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, where he serves as director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory.

"When you perform multiple tasks that each require some of the same channels of processing, conflicts will arise between the tasks, and you're going to have to pick and choose which task you're going to focus on and devote a channel of processing to it," explains Meyer, one of the country's leading experts on multitasking.

Meyer has been at the forefront of research for several decades on how the brain processes information and copes with multitasking. He has investigated the brain's speed, accuracy and memory in information processing while working with psychologist David Kieras for the Office of Naval Research. A study Meyer co-wrote on the limitations of multitasking ("Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching") went viral in 2001, setting off the first awareness of the counterproductivity of simultaneous tasks.

Meyer's work has documented that humans have distinct bandwidth challenges, which makes multitasking problematic. It turns out the brain's ability to process information is limited in a variety of ways—from processing channels to limits on data volume, velocity and working memory—that stymie true, simultaneous activity. Multitasking multiplies only frustration.

MENTAL BROWNOUTS

Counter to conventional wisdom, you can't do two high-cognitive tasks at once, Meyer says. When you're on the phone and writing an e-mail at the same time, you're not doing them at the same time. You're actually switching back and forth between them, since there's only one neural channel through which language flows. In that switching there's a cost: stress, as your brain neurons try to get themselves around the new task or where you were on the primary task each time you switch.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," he says.

That's heresy in a time-urgent world with the attention span of a macaque on crack. Meyer admits that multitasking is not only getting more prevalent, but it's also "very often highly inefficient and can be dangerous to your health."

Multitasking kicks thoughts down from the top floors to rote mode, where you don't have full attention on what you're doing, triggering mistakes and surface understanding. You wind up on autopilot in a retatiatory pattern of acting before you think. 

Even the most adept multitasker will "crash and burn" trying to resolve simultaneous conflicting demands, Meyer says. That means you could wind up sending the wrong e-mail; blow an account; have a brownout in which too much access to the cerebral grid shuts down critical thinking; or worse, find yourself in a truly hazardous situation, such as driving while using a cell phone.

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"When you're driving, you have to use the language channel to talk, read signs, plan your next move. If you're trying to have a cell phone conversation while you're doing that, either the phone conversation will suffer or the driving," Meyer says. He points to the growing number of auto accidents caused by people sending texts from behind the wheel.

SIMULTANEOUS INATTENTION

The conflicts triggered by incessant multitasking can set off chronic stress and slow you down, shredding productivity. In fact, trying to complete two or more tasks at once can take 40 percent more time or longer, depending on the complexity of the task, Meyer says.

Performance isn't the only thing that suffers when brains are overwhelmed by multiple tasking. Creativity and innovation don't come from people who are multitasking. "You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think," Meyer says. "Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity."

The good news is that there is hope for the attention-span-challenged, in the form of self-regulation through better time management and scheduling. "If you're disciplined enough, you can map out the usage of your time in a way that minimizes your exposure to interruptions," Meyer explains.

To improve attention and productivity, you have to shift the idea of  multitasking from simultaneous to alternating tasks. You do one task for a while, then another task. Unless you prefer the mistakes, meltdowns, and overwhelm of trying to do what your brain can't.  

If you'd like to get multitasking, interruptions, and information overload under control for your team or office, visit our time management or information management pages, or click the button below for details on our Managing Crazy Busy Workload or Email/Information Overload training programs.

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Tags: email overload, increasing productivity, stress and multitasking, interruptions and productivity, multitasking, information overload, work life balance, stress management

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