Working Smarter

Time Management and the "I'm Too Busy" Mental Block

Posted by Joe Robinson

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Too much to do, not enough time. It’s the refrain of the crazy-busy age. But what if it wasn’t true? What if we had the time, but we weren’t using it properly? Studies by Geoffrey Godby and John P. Robinson (no relation to me) have found that we have more time than we think. It’s just not organized.

Organizing time isn’t just a case of savvy calendaring and prioritizing. The bigger hurdle takes place at the psychological and emotional level, in the beliefs we tell ourselves about the time we think we don’t have and the perceptions those thoughts lock us into.

THE MENTAL BLOCK OF "BUSYNESS"

Time operates on two levels—Greenwich Mean Time and the state of mind that interprets the world in temporal terms. The latter is the hidden key to time management and exiting the chronic frenzy and frazzle that happens when we confuse “busyness” with productive endeavor and make it our very identity. The “I’m too busy” mental block subverts time management and productivity on all sides.

If you tell yourself there’s no time, there isn’t any. If you tell yourself “I’m too busy,” you are. You’re too busy to have that extra conversation you need with a colleague, too busy to sit down for 15 minutes to plan priorities, too busy to get the recharge time to deactivate tension, too busy to understand the self-infliction of busyness.

In an unbounded, always-on world, it’s easy to get caught up in busyness. Yes, there is a lot to do, but we don’t have to do it all at one time, feel besieged, juggle all the to-do’s inside our head, default to terminal multitasking mode, or rush all day. Mental racing tells a part of the ancient brain that every minute of the day is an emergency. That turns on the danger signal of the stress response, i. e. fight-or-flight, and the false belief that we have to do everything faster than we’re doing it, or it will be Apocalypse Now.

EFFECTIVE PACE

Without stopping to think about what we’re doing, whether it’s a priority or not, and when the best time to do it is, the default is to action,  uninformed, reactive action that drives frenzy. The first step to time management, then, is a conscious mentality of effective pace. We have to step off the runaway train and put the conductor back at the cognitive wheel.

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As Daniel Kahneman reports in Fast and Slow Thinking, time pressure makes us do stupid things. We default to what he calls System 1 thinking—reactive, instinctive, making decisions not based on analysis or facts but on rash diagnostic bias, what appears familiar, or the last thought in our head. Time pressure impairs cognitive ability and fuels bad decision-making.

Obviously, there are deadlines that have to be met and urgent issues that land on our screens that need quick turnarounds. But when time pressure extends beyond due dates and immediate tasks to all the time, even at home, it can lead to perpetual time urgency. This drives a fixation with the passage of time that makes every task an emergency.

But it's not. It's false urgency, since the emergency your outmoded brain misinterprets is that you are going to die. You may have 200 emails, but you're not going to die from them. Since time frenzy activates the stress response, it's no surprise that studies show that time urgency is a heart attack risk. The pattern goes: Impatience leads to irritability, which leads to anger and clogged arteries. Unconscious speed mode undermines performance, rapport, and health. 

THE SPEED TRAP

It’s a speed trap. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. The way out of the frazzle and the first step to time management is to stop the busyness long enough to regulate pace, qualify urgency, prioritize, and change our perception of time and ourselves.

That means untangling identity from the reflex of unconscious busyness and redefining where true productivity comes from. When someone asks how we are, the tendency is to blurt out: Busy! Even if we’re not. Busyness has a habit of becoming ingrained with who we are. We wind up identifying as a person constantly in motion. Say "I'm too busy" often enough, and that is who you are.

Yet productivity is not a function of how busy you are or of constant commotion. Rote busyness is simply mechanical momentum, movement without an understanding of whether the commotion is moving things forward, without knowing where we are going or why and that we are creating extra work and stress by rushing through it.

It’s mobility that we want, not a badge of busyness and being able to say how swamped we are, which only intensifies time anxiety. Mobility comes from the opposite of hyperventilation—reflection and focused attention on the task, not the clock. This places us in the moment, instead of having to keep a part of our brain on the finish line. We get the work done faster without the ticking time bomb of the clock.

TIME MANAGEMENT IS ATTENTION MANAGEMENT

The perception of time changes from tormentor to friend when we take a breath to see what needs to be done and why at a given moment. When you set terms of engagement with tasks, you are in control, instead of a fearsome deadline or stack of to-do’s. The more you can be absorbed in what you are doing in the present, you remove the oxygen of time panic, which is agonizing about the future, a tense you can never be in anyway.

Time management boils down to attention management. If you are truly paying attention and not self-inflicting time stress by checking clocks or allowing unbounded distractions, you stay focused on the task you’re on. Attention comes from focus on a target. Trying to pay attention to multiple targets through multitasking or keeping to-do’s circling the mind like jets at LAX accelerates time tension and the chances of making a mistake while rushing.

So how do you or your team manage time, instead of being run by default fight-or-flight? It’s a daily practice, since the accelerators of time frenzy are all around us—emails, instant messages, texts, and the influence of others flying on hyperdrive.

We pick up on the emotions and expressions of others through mirror neurons. We have to make conscious choices to resist false urgency, our own and that of others. Here are a few keys to time management we don’t usually hear about:

  1. “I’m too busy” is a story, not your identity. Getting things done is the goal, not nonstop commotion.
  2. Stop, pause, and target attention. If you’re rushing for no reason, stop and stare at the clouds in the sky, or put on some music. Target your attention on something else. That breaks up the time frenzy entrainment.
  3. Restrict the amount of self-deadlines. We drive a lot of stress by setting arbitrary self-deadlines for this task or that dry cleaners that no one is holding us to. Avoid setting yourself up by seeing these targets as more approximate deadlines.
  4. Limit clock-checking. Each time we check the time, we self-inflict time stress and an interruption.
  5. Resist the hurry-worry of others. Choose not to accept the time frenzy of others. "Yes, I see they’re freaking out, but that is them. I will not react."
  6. Do time estimates of all your key tasks. It’s easy to be overly optimistic on turnaround times. Analyze how long it takes to do each of your main tasks. When you take an assignment, you know how much time to budget for it.

A classic false belief of the “I’m too busy” mindset is that, if you pause or even slow down, then you will fall behind. In fact, an effective pace insures that you won’t have to do everything over again by making the mistakes that come with rushing. It’s mechanical busyness, without thought as to where the busyness is going, that undermines progress.

Busyness and the time frenzy it fuels also do something more insidious. They make it impossible to savor accomplishments, since you have to instantly move on to the next thing and next thing on a treadmill that never ends to keep from falling behind the self-inflicted schedule.

They also make it hard to carve out time for your life, because you are always too busy to step back from hyperdrive.

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Tags: work productivity, crazy busy, time urgency, time stress, time management

6 Ways to Prevent Deadline Stress

Posted by Joe Robinson

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If you’re wondering which deodorant works best, submit each to the time pressure test. Deadlines are a splendid way to do this, since they are world-class triggers of the perspiration equipment. As the due date arrives, the tension mounts and deadline panic rises. How am I going to get it all done? What if I don’t make it? Will I be fired?

The more unrealistic the deadline is, the more industrial-strength deodorant you need—and the more stress management, since deadlines are very good at simulating emergencies that set off the fight-or-flight behavior of the stress response and the worst-case ruminating known as “awfulizing.” Down to the word itself, deadlines feel like life-or-death, but you can survive them and make adjustments to how you deal with them that can turn these nags into reminders, instead of execution dates.

LESS FRENZY, BETTER OUTCOMES

There’s nothing inherently deadly about deadlines. They are a simple tool to insure that tasks get done on time and we don’t have to chase others indefinitely to move projects along. We have to have them, but we don’t have to be driven crazy by them. As with most things in a crazy-busy workplace, we can make adjustments that allow us to manage deadlines, instead of have them manage us.

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Sometimes market developments require extreme turnaround times, but most of the time better planning, more awareness of what’s on people’s plates, and less optimistic time estimation can help keep deadlines doable. Lack of information drives deadline problems. Managers don’t know everything staff is working on, and employees don’t have task time estimates to make an informed projection on turnaround time.

Deadlines are an ad hoc item without much of a system to corral them. The tendency is to pull dates out of the air or decide on the spur-of-the-moment without careful consideration of doability. Granted, there’s not always much recourse with a deadline that comes from on high, but a more systematic approach to the process can produce better outcomes and less racing pulse rates. Here are a few steps to prevent deadline dread and make the process work better.

AVOID DEADLINE PANIC

1. Do time estimates of all key tasks. The more you know exactly how long it takes to do each of the components that make up tasks and assignments, the more accurate time estimates will be, and you’ll know whether you can meet a due date or how much extra time you might need. Break down tasks and projects into their constituent parts and time them. How much time is needed to complete each task practice, from product development, to meeting preparation, customer training, monthly reports, or meetings? Add those together with estimates for other projects you might have, and you will be able to determine how realistic a deadline might be and how long it will take to accomplish it.

2. Resist over-optimism. Humans are lousy predictors of the future, particularly of personal ability to get done what we think we can in a set period of time. Type A’s, in particular, tend to be overly optimistic in what they think they can accomplish, believing they can will their way to a best-case due date. We also have to think of a worst-case estimate and what can go wrong. If you take the time to estimate what it takes to complete all tasks on your watch, you can’t go down the Shazzam road to the genie school of instant materializations. Always build in an extra 20% of time for scope creep, as parts move and Murphy’s Law intervenes.

3. Deadline-setters: Plan more. Viability all starts with the deadline-setter. Have you allowed enough time for the job to be done well, or will it take rushing and crisis mentality to complete the task? The first is much more preferable since it leads to quality outcomes and avoids mistakes and conflict, but that requires thinking ahead and better planning to allot adequate time. Over-optimism also strikes at this stage of the process, with the belief that others can get it done at an appointed time because it has to be done. Sound out colleagues and other members of the team on the feasibility of the request before announcing due dates. It’s better to over-deliver with a great project than over-promise a raggedy or late one.

4. Assess deadline feasibility. One of the things I hear often from managers in my productivity trainings is that team members tend to say “Yes” to deadlines automatically without examining whether there is enough time or resources to complete the request, boxing themselves in to a date tough to pull off. If you take on more than you can do well, you are not doing anyone a favor. Unless the time estimate is doable, the deadline-setter is in trouble as well as you, so make the time work for both of you with as accurate an estimate as possible. Build in a pause to assess the deadline for its viability and say you’ll get back with an answer after checking resources and schedules.

5. Negotiate a more realistic due date. If the deadline isn’t feasible, propose or negotiate an alternate date, if that is possible. Managers are more open to making due dates work than is thought, especially when mitigating facts are brought to their attention that they are not aware of. Demonstrate why the deadline could be adjusted to insure a better outcome. Catching unrealistic deadlines on the front end is one of the best ways to prevent heartburn, mistakes, and missed deadlines later.

6. Create more informed timing expectations. Leaders and sales managers may have an idea of how long it takes to get something done that is at odds with the reality on the ground. Establish timing expectations through communication that insures that everyone has a clear idea of how much time is needed for each step of the process or project. 

Deadlines tend to fall through the management cracks, yet they play a huge role in daily operations and stress loads that drive crisis mentality, rushing, errors, conflicts, poor decisions, and health problems that undercut productivity. Every team and organization needs to make the time to create a deadline process that puts the emphasis on the best outcomes, not just rote speed. A little inspiration can save a lot of perspiration.

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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.

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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.”

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The Antidote to Job Stress and Overwhelm: Conscious Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

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No doubt, we are creatures of habit. We put on the same shoe first, sit in the same chair in class or meetings, and drive the same route to work so often we don’t remember passing any exit signs or landmarks. We just show up at the office, as if we had one of those Google cars that drives itself. This is because we are often on autopilot, unconscious to present awareness, letting muscle memory and the rote part of our brain run the show.

Habits make the world safe and familiar and remove potential threats from our day, but they also prevent us from thinking, planning, managing demands and stressors, growing, excelling, or even being gratified. It turns out that gratification comes from two things that habit rules out: novelty and challenge. That’s what we really want, says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

The brain stops paying attention to things we do over and over, preferring to focus on new data. The result is that we operate on rote reflex most of the time, particularly in a tech-dominated workplace, in which we react to devices and others’ crisis mentality all day and chase our own tails. This plays right into the hands of stress and burnout, mistakes, overwhelm, anger, and a host of other unconscious and unhealthy behaviors. Attention is the chief productivity tool, and when we don’t have it because we are operating on rote mechanical momentum, the work takes longer and feels harder, studies show.

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RAT RACE OF HABIT

Some habits can be helpful—brushing teeth, practicing piano—but a lot of our habits at work aren’t. The thing about habits is that we continue to do them even when they don’t work for us. An MIT study trained rats to run a T-shaped maze. In the first test, they got rewarded with chocolate milk if they turned left at the T. With that incentive, the rats doggedly ran left, even after the researchers mixed their chocolate milk with a substance that caused light nausea. They lost their taste for the milk and stopped drinking it, but kept running to the left, even without a reward.

Human habits are just as reflexive, relentlessly pursuing courses that don’t get us anywhere—going ballistic when someone pushes our buttons, reacting immediately to a visual notification on your screen. The good news is that, unlike rodents, we can choose to turn off bad habits by activating the higher brain, the prefrontal cortex to overrule the reflex.

The MIT study discovered that when they turned off certain cells in the rats’ IL cortex, that the rodents stopped their habit of running to the left. They concluded that automatic behaviors dictated by the lower floors of the brain, mainly in the hippocampus region, can be bypassed by our higher command and control center, the cortex.

ACTING CONSCIOUSLY

In other words, we can opt out of habitual behavior that gets in our way and the way of our work by bringing back the thinking. Acting consciously is something essential for time management, information management, and stress management, or events run us, instead of the other way around, which drives stress. I did a 30-minute interview on this topic as part of an online conscious leadership summit that runs through May 25. You can catch my comments at Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line, presented by Allison Gaughan of Corporate Prana, at: http://www.boostyourcompanysbottomline.com.

Gaughan’s company provides meditation and yoga wellness services, techniques that help build attention and focus, which help make us more conscious. It’s when we’re not paying attention that the default behavior pops up in the form of stress, burnout, and overwhelm. All that stuff happens as a reflex reaction. We have to build in a step-back to catch ourselves.

We can do that by rehearsing rational reactions to common buttons that set us off, by building attention to counter reflex through techniques that train our brains to focus on a target, by cutting stress, which drives robotic, blind action, and by making adjustments to how we work that allow us to manage demands, instead of the other way around. Full attention is the definition of employee engagement as well as optimal experience, when we are at our best. It puts the driver, you, back at the wheel of the runaway, unconscious train.

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7 Ways to Avoid Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

Feeling overwhelmed by workload

There’s enough on most plates these days to keep an 18-armed Hindu goddess busy. As a result, more and more of us feel overwhelmed by all we have to do and the scant time with which we have to do it. A study by the Families and Work Institute found that more than half of Americans have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work on their agendas.

As a result, “overwhelm” has morphed from a verb to a noun and a growing problem for buried individuals and companies alike. Overwhelmed minds get hijacked by stress and have trouble focusing, planning, and solving problems. It’s a condition I see everywhere in my work-life balanceproductivity and stress management training work, and it’s a serious one, since feeling overwhelmed is a sign that demands have outstripped the ability to cope with them.

When humans tell themselves they can’t cope by thinking or saying they are overwhelmed and, therefore, out of control and helpless, that tells an ancient part of the brain that doesn’t know how to compute non-life threatening social stressors in the 21st century, “I’m going to die.” Off goes the stress response and the fear, anxiety, and crisis mentality that go with it.

PILING ON

Managing overwhelm and crazy-busy schedules is about restoring a sense of control and what the psychology world calls “agency.” You feel you have the ability to act to change things. When you feel overwhelmed, there’s a sense of being a helpless bystander as everything and everyone piles on. The constant barrage of interruptions and email keeps you jumping to their demands, instead of you calling the tune, at the mercy of what’s known as “bottom-up” attention, a survival and startle instinct that fuels loss of control.

The more perceived control you feel you have over your work environment, the less stress you have and the more confidence you have that you can handle whatever comes your way. The University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman showed in seminal research that, faced with an overwhelming threat that appears to have no end, some people give up and wind up in a state he calls learned helplessness, believing resistance is futile.

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This leads to a pessimistic “explanatory style” that locks in futility and ultimately depression. Explanatory style is the way we frame stories in our heads about why things happen to us. It’s the little-known culprit behind everything from stress, to negative mood, to taking things personally, to depression.

CHANGING SELF-TALK

The way out of the overwhelm trap is to change the thinking and actions that drive it. That means telling ourselves a different story, since self-talk drives stress, and, instead of operating on reflex with devices and people around us, getting proactive with boundaries, prioritization, and breaks to refuel minds and bodies.

Let’s look at seven ways we can activate these strategies to keep overwhelm at bay:

1. Change your explanatory style. It’s easy to lock in false beliefs by repeating them often enough. Setbacks and stressors set off catastrophic stories, courtesy of the caveman brain, that aren’t true even though they are in your head. They have to be countered. You can feel less overwhelmed by not telling yourself you are. Also ban language/thoughts such as, “I won’t be able to handle it,” “I can’t cope,” etc., which are easy triggers for the stress response. Tell yourself you can cope, you have coped, you will cope. Yes, you have 200 emails, but you can handle it. The glass is half-full.

2. Get it out of your head. Human brains are not built for storage, but for processing. Trying to keep all your to-do’s sloshing around in your brain fuels anxiety about how you’re going to get it all done. Cut to-do angst by writing down next actions for each task on your list. As Florida State researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister and Getting Things Done guru David Allen have proven, unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks. Writing them down releases the brain to focus on the moment.

3. Qualify urgency. Time pressure is a huge factor in overwhelm. It drives a belief that everything is an emergency and must be done immediately. Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent. We need to qualify the urgency of tasks, and take a breath to do so. What’s the urgency of doing it now? Busyness isn’t the same thing as being productive. If you are the type of person who celebrates how busy you are, that can add to the workload and lock you in to overperformance at every moment as essential to your identity.

4. Say, “Let me get back to you.” People who are overwhelmed tend to have a hard time setting boundaries. They are over-optimistic about how much they can get done and how fast. Self-management begins with basic boundaries. You can’t take on more than you can do well. When you get an assignment and you have a big stack on your plate, say, Let me get back to you. Clarify your time lines and priorities, and let them know what's on your plate.

5. Set the terms of engagement with devices. Turn off devices and check them at set times. Shut off the bottom-up attention of unbounded messaging and interruptions, and you feel in control, not at the mercy of an avalanche of notifications, rings, pings, and pulses. Cut the volume of email, and use strategies to do so. Every email results in six emails.

6. Stop multitasking. Multitasking is a myth. A host of studies from the University of Michigan to Vanderbilt show that you can’t do two cognitive tasks at one time, particularly anything involving language. There’s only one channel for language to flow through. Each time you multitask you self-interrupt. That causes it to take longer, some 50% longer, to complete tasks, and the interruptions make your brain feel that tasks are harder than they really are, which fuels overwhelm.

7. Reach out for support. When overwhelm is at a level that is causing serious health issues, say something—to a manager, supervisor, spouse, significant other. Reach out for support. Others can vet our stories and bring fresh perspective. There are always other ways of arranging workflow.

Overwhelm is a cumulative condition. It builds by default without boundaries and systems to work more productively and create more work-life balance. The hardest workers can easily turn into burnout cases when they are doing more than they can possibly do well. That's a lose-lose for organization and employee.

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Tags: job stress, job burnout, stress management programs, overwhelm, productivity programs, crazy busy, multitasking and stress, feeling overwhelmed, information overload and stress, interruptions

5 Ways to Manage Crazy-Busy Work

Posted by Joe Robinson

 Crazy_guy.jpg

Brian, a VP for a large tech firm in San Diego, gets up at 5 a.m. every morning and spends two hours plowing through messages at home before he goes to work. “It just seems futile some days,” he says. “Like I can never dig out.”

It’s a feeling that cuts across many organizations today. I heard a lot of similar stories from executives at the Supply Chain Leaders in Action conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I gave a workshop on how to deal with the central fact of work-life these days: Crazy-Busy Work. The executives I spoke to, from Safeway to Starbucks, were drowning in email, interruptions, and trying to do multiple things simultaneously.

Crazy-Busy Work isn’t just a problem for individuals, it’s a major productivity issue for organizations, since it drives disengagement, burnout, shrinking attention spans, poor decision-making, and creates a style of work based on autopilot reflex, action before thought. When we operate in defensive mode, reacting to the incoming, instead of managing the practices that drive overload, it takes longer to get the work done and we make a lot of mistakes.

DIGGING OUT

The truth is, the way we work isn’t based on what the science says, or anything at all. Most of us are simply reacting to people and devices all day. The number one productivity goal of every organization should be to use the data on what works to help teams dig out from under the siege of devices, interruptions and information overload.

It may seem hopeless, but it’s not. A series of adjustments to work style and how we manage demands, from devices to multitasking and stress, can turn it around, so that we are less crazed and more productive. As the mariners say, we can’t control the wind, but we can adjust the sails.

 

If your organization would like to rein in Crazy-Busy Overload and the reduction in productivity that comes with it, here are five keys to getting it under control:

1. Control Time Urgency.  The unconscious habit of rushing is the “Crazy” in Crazy-Busy. It drives frenzy and false emergency, making your team think every minute of the day is an emergency. It has been shown by researchers to be a heart attack and burnout risk even for people in their thirties. Speed isn't the key factor; velocity is, conscious movement in the right direction.

Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. It’s a speed trap easy to get caught up in, since time panic and the stress it sets off is very contagious. We are hardwired to pick up on the emotions, facial expressions, and tone of voice of others. It’s part of our social bonding equipment, but it’s destructive in this case. We have to opt out of the frenzy, and ask when we’re rushing, is it an emergency or is it a speed trap?

2. Set the Terms of Engagement with Devices. An unbounded approach to devices, allowing messages to avalanche in at any time, is not sustainable. Every email results in six emails, three going, three coming back. The average corporate user today gets 133 emails and 77 Instant Messages per day.

The solution lies in adjusting how we respond to email. Instead of allowing devices to set the terms of engagement, we have to do it, by checking email at designated times and keeping mail software and noisemakers turned off unless they're in use, and by doing what some leading companies are—mandating less email and more phone messaging. An email etiquette handbook or norm guide is a great way to make sure that humans are setting the terms of engagement.

3. Increase Attention. The chief productivity tool, attention, is under siege these days from interruptions, devices, and multitasking, which researcher David Meyer at the University of Michigan says slows you down. The result is shrinking attention spans that can’t find the space to concentrate. That means it takes longer to get the job done, and there’s more sense of overwhelm as the devices and their “bottom-up” attention make our days feel out of control.

The more you check email, the more you have to check it. Impulse control is eroded by interruptions and the increased stress they trigger (up to 105% more annoyance, a study by Bailey and Konston showed). Strategies to build attention and manage interruptions are essential to keep fractured brains focused on task.

4. Set Boundaries. Technology has blurred perimeters and boundaries and created the illusion that we can do it all because we have our digital friends at our side. The reality is that this is an illusion. Brains go down well before the body does, brain scientists tell me, and take the work down with them.

We are not hard drives with hair, and when we try to be, productivity and health suffers. Harvard researchers Nash and Stevenson say that boundaries are a success tool, something we can all get better at. What boundaries does your team need, and how can they make them more effective? Our productivity program gives you a batch of tools to choose from.

5. Refuel Energy. Contrary to what most of us would like to believe, humans need to be refueled on a regular basis. In fact, the source of productivity in the knowledge economy is who has the freshest brain. When we pay attention to the brain’s natural 90-minute alertness cycle, the need for cells to refuel after activation through oxygen and glucose, and the power of energy-creating breaks during the day, productivity soars.

Your organization can put an end to the siege of Crazy-Busy Work by reining in devices, interruptions, multitasking, and information overload. The research shows that productivity is not a function of how fast you can go or how many things you're doing at one time. It’s about informed performance, thinking before we act, and managing demands, instead of being managed by them. 

If you would like more details and pricing information on our time management and productivity program, "Managing Crazy-Busy Work," click the button below.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, productivity programs, productivity and stress, employee productivity, work productivity, multitasking and productivity, employee stress management, crazy busy, increase productivity, work life balance programs, burnout

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