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

When Working Memory Is Overwhelmed, You Are Too

Posted by Joe Robinson

Overwhelm and working memory

Everybody hates a nag, and that especially goes for the one inside our heads that keeps bugging us about all the to-do’s that have to be tackled NOW. The unfinished items swirl around and around, like a cloud of flies orbiting the cranium, interrupting focus and helping to fuel a belief that we are overwhelmed.

Productivity is a function of how much attention we have on a single task at a time, so any time our thoughts are straying to other projects or hurry-worry to get to the next task, we’re not paying full attention, and that undermines performance. The human brain was designed to do one thing at a time, to use our brains as processing centers, not storage devices.

THOUGHT LIMITS

One of the keys to getting anything done is working memory. Also known as short-term memory, working memory is a temporary holding pen for ideas/thought “chunks” that we are actively using to complete an action at any given time. It has very limited storage capacity over a very brief period of time, thought to be a matter of seconds. It was once thought that we could keep seven thought “chunks” in the brain at one time for working memory use, but researchers now believe the real capacity is three to five items, a core known as the central working memory faculty.

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In a study examining how much subjects could retain in short-term memory in a visual test of shapes and squares, researchers J. Scott Saults and Nelson Cowan (2007) found that subjects could hang on to no more than four items at a time. It’s important to point out that we are not talking about the capacity to do four separate actions at one time, as in multitasking, which is impossible for mortals, but merely to hold that many thought elements in mind while at work on a task.

Researchers aren’t sure why working memories are so limited, but theorize that it was too expensive, in both energy and time, to have excess information getting in the way of processing and action. Evolution appears to have selected out the reverse of information overload—focused selection—as a survival instinct.

Of course, just about everything these days is conspiring against focus, from information overload to stress, which can seriously reduce working memory performance by sidetracking your immediate attention to a perceived emergency.

THE INCOMPLETE LOOP

With working memory so constrained, it’s easy to see how the to-do nag can interfere with the task at hand as it interrupts short-term memory and plays havoc with recall of our primary task. Productivity guru David Allen noticed that “incompletes,” as he calls them, were a big drag on performance, and it led to the central principle of his “Getting Things Done” organizing system. He observed that unfinished tasks will harass in a constant loop unless the item is finished—or the brain is persuaded that you are on the way to completion.

It was the inspiration for his concept of the “next action.” The best way to keep to-do nagging at bay, he argues, is to let the mind know you’re on the case by jotting down the next physical action for each item on your list, breaking tasks down into a series of specific steps. That stops the loop and the brain lets go.

In recent years Allen’s gut instinct was confirmed by science. Florida State University researchers E. J. Masicampo and Roy Baumeister found that unfinished goals interfere with the ability to complete tasks and that writing down plans to finish a task released subjects so they could do their jobs undistracted by to-do nags.

Improving time management has a lot to do with how we manage short-term memory, that brief period of focus within which we get stuff done. That means sealing it off as much as possible, not just from our own incompletes, but also from the siege of electronic intrusions and interruptions, which studies show fracture working memory, and, therefore, productivity.

Interruptions blow up the tenuous hold we have on the three to five items in working memory. We forget thought associations we had before the interruption, or where we were going.

AVOIDING DISRUPTIONS

This is known as a ‘disruption,” when performance plummets because it takes longer to complete the task as you try to piece together the vanished items that were in short-term memory. Think how many disruptions you go through in a day and the downtime and mistakes that result when you try to piece together again what you were doing. 

If you have to take an interruption, finish the task or thought you are on first, and make a note about where you are going with the thought train. That prevents disruptions and helps you get back to where you were without a long backtrack.

Other keys to retaining working memory and avoiding overwhelm are setting the terms of engagement with devices—checking manually at set times, turning off noisemakers and notifications—as well as keeping distractions, such as that bowl of Haagen Dazs or the conflict you had with someone out of your precious few-second realm of working memory. 

When we break away from distractions and intrusions through better planning, organizing and prioritizing and dive deep into the absorption of the moment, we find a realm of focus far from the frazzle of overwhelm and self-badgering where we can be on the same page with, well, ourselves.

If your company would like to avoid the frenzy and frazzle of overwhelm and work less harried and more effectively, click here for more on our productivity trainings and a smarter way to work.

 

 

 

 

Tags: stress management and change, employee engagement programs, increasing productivity, overwhelm, productivity programs, managing interruptions, email management, employee training, stress, information overload, productivity, stress management

The Hidden Enemy of Employee Productivity: Impulse

Posted by Joe Robinson

Harnessing the brain's impulsive nature

It’s called the law of least effort. Given a choice, the brain would rather exert less than more effort. Instead of sticking with a demanding task, we find it hard to resist the temptation of something easier, really hard when the attention span has been shrunk to that of a gnat’s.

That tends to be the case often these days, thanks to the barrage of distractions and devices. The more you check email, for instance, the more you have to check it. Interruptions erode impulse control. The ability to regulate impulsivity is compromised, and without it, the default is to more checking and attention that flits from one task to the next. It’s a pattern that kills concentration and, as a result, productivity. The condition thrives without interruption management policies and is aided and abetted by someone we wouldn’t suspect: us.

INTERRUPTING OURSELVES

Gloria Mark at the University of California at Irvine says that 44% of interruptions are self-inflicted. With friends like you around, who needs enemies? The more attention is compromised by interruptions or time urgency, the less ability you have to stay on task. When you divert yourself to check email or a grab a secondary task, say, one that shows up as a visual alert on your screen, it takes 25 minutes to get back to the primary task, says Mark. That drains productivity, slowing progress, trains of thought, and performance.

Technology and human nature are driving teams and the individuals in them to be their own worst enemies. Every time you stop to check email you self-interrupt, which leaves you further behind and rushing to catch up to where you think you should be. That causes time anxiety and a false urgency that makes it seem okay to interrupt anyone else at any time—because you’re behind.

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MULTITASKING: KING OF SELF-INFLICTION

One of the biggest cogs in the productive wheel is multitasking, which is 100% self-inflicted. Every time you multitask, you are self-interrupting and forcing your brain to do what it doesn’t want to: shift back and forth between tasks. This fractures working memory, as brain neurons strain to figure out what they need to do on a new task while trying to remember where they were on the old one.

That takes time, which is why multitasking can cut productivity 50% and more, according to multitasking expert David Meyer at the University of Michigan. This self-sabotage also kicks thinking downstairs to the rote floors of the brain, where we make mistakes triggered by a state of simultaneous inattention.

The constant barrage of distractions does something else particularly insidious. It makes you think the work is more difficult than it is, and that in turn ratchets up the stress, which goes off when something overloads perceived ability to cope with it. Interruptions increase annoyance 106%, say researchers Brian Bailey, Joseph Konstan, and John Curtis. That further diverts attention from the task at hand to a threat to coping resources.

RESTORING FULL PRODUCTIVE FACULTIES

While our attention spans have no doubt taken a hit from devices and distractions, we are not helpless bystanders. Proactive management strategies can cut down on the self-infliction that comes from multitasking, excess email checking, and other saboteurs. It’s not easy to do, since we have to find a way around default behaviors and the law of least effort.

In my Optimal Performance productivity trainings, we learn that the way to a more productive work style is a lot less use of the automatic mind that puts action before thought and more reliance on the effortful brain, which is needed to manage impulsivity, patience, and discipline. We are really of two minds, and one often gets in the way of our better judgment and productive efforts. The instinctive brain gets the upper hand in a time-sensitive world, because it’s much faster—and also more prone to mistakes, making snap assumptions that have not been vetted by the analytical brain.  

The idea is to manage impulse and reflex with a system that can catch the brain’s least-effort machinery in the act and prime it to defer to a higher authority, informed decision-making.  You can get more done faster and with a fraction of the aggravation when the productive brain is in charge, instead of the knee-jerk one.  

WHAT IS PRODUCTIVITY, ANYWAY?

The majority of people in every organization I visit are overwhelmed by distractions and devices. If you could control 44% of the avalanche, the self-inflicted portion, how much more productive could your organization be? 

Messaging is seductive, because it provides positive reinforcement. You send a message, you get one back. But, if we let the analytical brain think about it, that reinforcement isn’t all that positive after all. It reinforces a lot of bad habits that sabotage attention and productivity. Each email you send can result in 18 minutes down the electronic rabbit hole.

What is productivity, if not the ability to fully concentrate on the task at hand, so that we have more output per input? All we have to do is get out of our own way.

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Tags: effect of stress on productivity, increase productivity, increasing productivity, stress management programs, employee productivity, productivity training, productivity programs, workplace productivity

Task Tweaks That Fuel Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Work-life balanced

It’s repeated so often it’s practically a cliché: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result. It’s a popular expression, because it captures a distinctly human talent for knowing something is absurd while continuing to partake in it.

By this definition, there are certainly plenty of certifiable behaviors at the office these days, particularly when it comes to doing things that don’t make productive sense, such as not managing email or conflicting deadlines. The more we are on autopilot, the more we are doomed to repeat the bad habits.

Every team in every company has a habitual practice that makes the work take longer, fray nerves, and drain performance. We know the bottlenecks that make work and life more difficult, but seldom do things change, because it’s believed that it’s just the way it is.

BEATING BOTTLENECKS

The reality is, though, that change is possible, and when the suggestions come in from everyone on the frontlines, not only does work get more effective, it becomes much more economical. Accounting giant Ernst and Young had a retention problem a few years back that had set off alarm bells. A growing number of women at the company were leaving because long hours were incompatible with family and work-life balance.

The company launched an initiative to address the issue. They identified practices that weren’t working and driving people away. The suggestions on how to fix bottlenecks came from all stratas of the company, including those at the bottom of the totem pole best equipped to know what didn’t make sense. From this process Ernst & Young wound up creating a much more family-friendly organization. They also saved $15 million by making tasks more effective and policies more flexible.

The step that’s usually missed on the road to work-life balance starts with the actual nature of the work itself, with practices that take longer, disrupt productivity, spread false urgency, and bleed into the home arena minus boundaries and time management. Identifying and fixing those issues within each team and organization can play a major role in reducing exhaustion and overwhelm and organizing a clearer path to responsibilities on both sides of the work-life divide.

QUIET TIME

Researchers have been doing their best to point the way to a more productive path that also produces more time for family and life. One of the leading academics in this arena is Harvard researcher Leslie Perlow, whose work with companies drowning in interruptions and always-on workweeks has shown that we don’t have to keep self-inflicting habits that make work more frenzied and unsustainable. The key is having the ability to self-examine, look the counterproductive faults in the eye, and then fix them.

Perlow worked a while in management consulting before going back to grad school dedicated to finding a better way to work than the burnout model. At a tech firm having trouble getting new product to market without its engineers working nights and weekends for months on end, she uncovered one of the major drivers of excess hours and unbalanced schedules—interruptions. The engineers were being interrupted so often, they could only get work done at night and on the weekend.

She devised a solution called Quiet Time, in which the engineers would have two periods during the day with no interruptions—8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The rest of the day the interruptions could continue as normal. Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% from 3 to 5 p.m. With minds unbesieged, productivity even went up in the period with normal interruptions. The team got a new product designed in record time without the all-nighters.

That simple adjustment to a work behavior made a big difference in work-life balance for the employees of that firm. Perlow took on an even tougher assignment with the Boston Consulting Group. Consultants are among the highest-hours workers on the planet, typically working 60+ hour weeks, weekday nights, and usually decamped in other cities on projects for clients that can take multiple weeks.

Her field research this time uncovered the biggest work-life problem straining retention at Boston Consulting: no predictable time off. When you’re always on, it’s hard to plan off time, which makes it very difficult on families, health, and living.

MORE WITH LESS

Her adjustment was a system that allowed each team member to take one night off per week. It took her several months to persuade a team leader to let her try out the plan. Most thought it was a ticket to disaster and that clients would go ballistic if not every team member was available after hours. The experience proved the doubters wrong.

It turned out the team was able to do its consulting work with each member taking a night off per week. What’s more remarkable, she was able to repeat the experiment with consultants taking a full day off in the middle of the week. Productivity didn’t dive, it increased. The secret was that, with fewer hands to go around, the team had to communicate much more closely and as a result found ways to coordinate better. Boston Consulting was so happy with the program that “predictable time off,” as she called it, is a company-wide program, operating in 32 offices in 14 countries.

Again, because of a sensible adjustment to how people worked, people were able to find a more sustainable way to work and open up a much better work-life balance. Out of that experience Perlow developed a model that any team can use to rewrite the script that drives the burnout track. The formula is Collective Goals + Structured Dialogue, a strategy that zeroes in on a universal problem that’s making life difficult, creates a solution, and through weekly conversation overcomes backsliding and keeps everyone on track with the new behaviors.

The results of Perlow’s research and others who have helped organizations overcome the inertia of bad work habits show that behaviors that promote work-life balance and more energized brains increase effectiveness, cut costs (from stress, longer task practices, redo’s), and dramatically increase collaboration—all of which have a positive impact on the bottom line. Ask Boston Consulting, who have the program operating around the world and a couple dozen people working on nothing but the predictable time off process.

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Tags: job stress, work life balance programs, work life balance, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, stress management programs, productivity and time off, interruptions at work, Quiet Time

Attention and Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

Focused team demonstrates employee engagement

With the growing advances in brain research, we’re getting a much better picture, literally, of when our command center works and when it doesn’t. Researchers say MRI scans of fatigued brains show so little activity, they look like they are sound asleep.

I’m sure you know that feeling around 4 p.m., when it seems like you’re swimming in molasses, and you have to expend twice the effort to get something accomplished that you need when you are fresh. The reality is that there is a limited period that the brain can stay focused without wandering or going into brownout mode. Researchers say 90-minutes to three hours of time and task, and the brain has to step back from task to reset.

The instinct to never pause and go to the mental wall may be admirable, but it’s not productive—and it’s one of the best ways to kill employee engagement. Studies show that engagement is not so much an attitude as a state of motivated attentiveness.

FULL ABSORPTION

One of the key hallmarks of engagement is absorption, full concentration in the moment. Pushing gray matter to the edge insures there won’t be much of that. Fried, overloaded brains are characterized by tension, inability to focus, slower processing, and an inability to handle complex tasks.

Even if dedication and commitment are there, engaged employees can’t deliver extra effort when mental resources are spent. Fatigue and exhaustion also undercut another key metric of engagement, the physical, energetic resources of vigor.

There is a fallacy in the knowledge economy that, because we are just sitting on our behinds, that the brain is a kind of unlimited well. We’re not being physically taxed, so the mind can just keep going. Brain scientists I’ve spoken with have told me that the brain goes down well before the body. That means, so does the chief productivity tool, attention, and the prospects for engagement.

FRACTURING FOCUS

Any organization that wants engaged employees has to have attentive employees, yet everything about the nature of work today undermines that—unbounded interruptions, information overload, social media intrusions. It’s not how much volume we can cram into our heads, but how we manage demands that leads to the focus necessary for engaged performance. Yet few organizations have tied shrinking attention to engagementm si more and more intrusions pour in.

It’s often thought that engagement can be measured by the amount of commitment to the organization, but that’s not enough to drive engagement, which is a function of the specific effort an employee brings to the task. As Alan Saks at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto put it in one study, “Engagement has to do with how individuals employ themselves in the performance of their job,” not attachment to the organization.

It’s great when people are dedicated to the cause, but, if they have the attention span of a gnat, there won’t be much in the way of engagement. Disengagement is more like it, and, in fact, that is the trend these days as attention spans shrink, thanks to nonstop interruptions and information overload.

Leaders need to be alert for the signs of disengagement—withdrawal, absenteeism, personal conflicts, falling behind schedule, burnout—when attention vanishes in the face of excessive demands without compensating latitude or choice. Researchers say that burnout is a marker for the opposite of engagement’s dedication, absorption and vigor. Instead, there is estrangement from the goals of the organization and a downward spiral of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and futility.

THE OPPOSITE OF BURNOUT: ENGAGEMENT

That leads to the logic that less burnout can promote more attentive employees who have the potential to be engaged. What areas do organizations have to adjust to reduce the burnout track and promote more focus? Saks points to research from burnout scholar Christina Maslach and associates. “Job engagement is associated with a sustainable workload, feelings of choice and control, appropriate recognition and reward, a supportive work community, fairness and justice, and meaningful and valued work.”

People who have a sustainable workload are naturally going to be able to bring more focus to the task than if they have depleted their coping resources. Choice and control keep stress away, which prevents the brain from having focus constricted to the narrow fixation of a perceived false crisis. Recognition and supportive work means that attention is appreciated and nurtured, while fairness and meaningful work internalize the importance of doing quality, attentive work.

So much of the way we work today is simply autopilot, reflexively responding to the demands without managing them. The research shows that engagement, and productivity, are not the result of brain drain, of cognitive feats of endurance, but the opposite, promoting behaviors and policies that allow minds to find the space to focus.

That’s hard to engineer when most people are in a state of triage all day. Yet there are other choices than triage, other approaches to the way we do our work that are actually based on the evidence of what has been proven to be productive. From no-interruption zones to email management to the power of full-absorption goals, there are a wealth of tools that can bring about the gains in commitment, attention, and motivation that prime the pump for engagement.

This is where development programs can make a big difference, providing a path out of reflex mode to practices that are the most engaging and productive. If you are interested in increasing the attention, engagement, and productivity of your employees, click on the button below for more details.

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Tags: increasing productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, information overload, employee engagement speakers, employee engagement training, employee engagement programsburnout

Work-Life Balance: A Break Dance for Brains and Bodies

Posted by Joe Robinson

Multitasking.jpg

A few people perform fabulously in a trance, like the Whirling Dervishes, the dizzying Turkish dancers who spin themselves into human tops, but for most of us a trance-like, mechanical work style doesn't deliver a transcendent outcome. It produces a a rote commotion and busyness that fuels stress, undercuts productivity, and keeps work-life balance on the sidelines.

Nonstop motion makes everything seem urgent when we haven’t taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t. Mindless frenzy is not the same as forward movement and mobility. The default is to acting before we think, kicking decisions down to the rote parts of the brain that don't have our full attention. 

The mechanical momentum, can't-stop-for-a-second approach, plays to the autopilot of stress, which is itself all about reflex action before thought. The more we are driven by default behavior, the less control we have and the more stress. 

With the proliferation of devices and information overload, it’s easy to wind up on mechanical output, devoid of the input needed to tailor the right effort to the job. Just because there’s activity doesn’t mean it’s the right activity. Most of the action in this state is reflexive, coming from a defensive posture. That’s not a prescription for critical thinking. 

In the tunnel vision of reaction, there’s no time or inclination for proactive managing, planning, or even the upkeep of health. We get so far on task that there is little maintenance of the equipment. 

ARE YOU A HARD DRIVE WITH HAIR?

And there needs to be, because our physiology prepared us for hunting and gathering, not for hours on end at workstations. Sitting at a computer monitor for eight to ten hours a day is an act loaded with reasons to take a breather. Repetitive motion injuries—carpal tunnel, back problems, neck problems, stress—thrive on the continuous motion loop. Unlike the computer we're working on, we don't have Pentium procesors.

A study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that brief but frequent breaks can reduce the risk of a host of injuries. Four five-minute breaks a day for walking or stretching resulted in less discomfort in the neck, arms, shoulders, and back for study participants. Workers also reported less eyestrain. Short walks at regular intervals buoyed energy and helped people recover from fatigue, which enhanced performance.

Cutting stress and improving work-life balance is a "break" dance, knowing when to step back and energize on a regular basis to charge up full engagement.

Time-outs rejuvenate brains and break up rigid postures. They can help prevent an assortment of back injuries, from bulging discs to lumbar strain. Medical experts advise frequent breaks and exercise to prevent and treat carpal tunnel syndrome, the painful and sometimes disabling inflammatory disorder that affects wrist, hands, and fingers, now an epidemic among office workers.

COMPUTER VISION SYNDROME

Another injury triggered by unbroken sessions at the keyboard is computer vision syndrome, a complex of eye and vision problems caused by staring for hours at computer monitors and screens. The syndrome afflicts 90% of people who use a computer for more than three hours a day, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Chances are very good that includes you. 

The problems include eyestrain, dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, change in color perception, excessive fatigue, and double vision. Sitting at the computer for hours can also aggravate existing conditions, such as farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. Scientists have found that we blink less when we’re zoning into the glow, which creates dry-eye problems.

Since humans were designed to spot dinner on a savanna off in the distance, not Internet fine print, the muscles of the eye are in their most relaxed state when looking at faraway objects. The eyes need to stretch, which is why excessive close-up duty can disrupt distance vision. People who have been in a submarine for a while have trouble with distance vision when they emerge from close quarters. Their eyes have adjusted to see only short distances.

Ergonomic experts recommend frequent brief breaks for those with intensive computer usage—30 seconds every 10 minutes, or if you can’t do that, five minutes every hour. One study showed that microbreaks every 15 minutes were very effective in reducing physical discomfort at computer monitors (Balci, Aghazadeh). During the breaks, get up and move around, gaze out the window, do some stretches, walk down the hallway. Once your body starts aching, you concentration has already left.

POPPING BLOOD VESSELS

The traditional approach to fighting mental fatigue has been to press harder and pop those blood vessels to the finish line. But the evidence shows that brains don’t respond well to this approach. On study found that mental fatigue took hold after three hours of continuous attention (Boksem). Mistakes and false alarms increased with time on task, and goal-oriented planning decreased. Other studies show that too much time on task reduces the ability to prepare future actions.

Jim Goodnight, CEO of North Carolina software giant SAS Institute, believes software developers can’t do more than two hours of great work a day. As mental fatigue increases, so do the number of errors.

As logic would have it, the way around the fatigue factor is to step back and recharge the spent mind with a Strategic Pause. Never fear, it’s only a “pause,” not a dereliction of duty. You are coming back to the action, refueled.

Since physical movement drives energy and creativity, it’s important to get away from the desk and out of the office to get the most out of your Strategic Pauses. Take two 10-15 minute pauses in the morning and two in the afternoon. Use the time to make a mental break from the work. Walk a few blocks. Listen to some music you like, plan your weekend. These are energy opportunities to fortify flagging gray matter.

Recharging throughout the day increases vitality and productivity. Studies show that breaks from a few seconds on the assembly line to 15 minutes to vacations increase productivity. Response times go up and fatigue goes down. 

It's easy to get caught up in the action and forget that we're not on a sprint to the death. It's a marathon. We have to allow bodies and brains to refuel regularly to avoid breakdowns and brownouts. 

Tags: work life balance, burnout, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, stress management programs, breaks and productivity, carpal tunnel, work stress burnout

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

The Secret of True Productivity: Employee Engagement

Posted by Joe Robinson

The look of employee engagement

The usual approach to increasing engagement is to demand it and bump up the quantity of work. That can have the opposite effect, say researchers. To really motivate people, it has to come from within each individual, through intrinsic motivation.

A study by Judith Harackiewicz and Andrew Elliot found that employees who are intrinsically motivated are continously interested in the work that they are doing. Inherent interest in task leads to more attention and extra effort.

"It's an illusion that the harder and faster we work, the better our solutions will be," says Diane Fassel, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based Newmeasures, an employee survey firm. "The mindset is that more is better. They're not thinking that effectiveness is more productive than quantity," she says.

It's a focus that can lead to a major dysfunction: disengaged, burned-out employees, simply going through the motions.

Fassel, a Harvard grad, sounded the alarm on the unsustainable workplace in her books The Addictive Organization and Working Ourselves to Death. She discovered that an addiction to busyness drives a contagious loop in which company leaders model bravado behavior that undermines productivity and engagement. To break out of this counterproductive reflex, leaders must gather information about how people work—and how they feel about their work and turn that into the engine of a more productive office: employee engagement.

Engaged employees are more energized, dedicated and committed to their tasks and to the company than folks operating by rote. The oomph they provide, or "discretionary effort," has been shown to increase performance and profits.

The Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study measured 32,000 people in 29 global markets, focusing on engagement brought about in the following areas: leadership (leaders show sincere interest in employees' well-being and earn their trust and confidence); stress, balance and workload (stress levels are manageable, there's a healthy work-life balance and enough employees to do the job); goals and objectives (employees understand how their job contributes to achieving company goals); supervisors (managers assign appropriate tasks, coach employees and behave consistently); and image (the company is held in high regard by the public and displays integrity in business practices).

The study found that companies with the highest engagement levels had an operating margin of 27 percent, while those with the lowest were at less than 10 percent. At disengaged companies, 40 percent of employees were likely to leave in the next two years; at the most-engaged firms, the number was 18 percent.

Employee engagement is a major concern among large companies and human resource professionals, but the proven benefits can't be realized unless concrete steps are taken to change the way management and employees relate to one another. Engagement is the X-factor managers would be wise to harness.

The key is appealing to core psychological needs, such as autonomy, competence, and connection with others that are at the root of the most potent motivation: intrinsic. When people act for the sake of it, for the excellence, craft, service, or challenge, they feel more interested and gratified and deliver extra effort.

When the connection element is improved, with quality communication taking place between manager and employee, the employee feels more trust and value, another key element to eliciting the self-propulsion of engagement.

Feeling valued means that the work culture supports the employees' growth and development, removes obstacles to getting the job done and allows employees to use all of their gifts in the service of the organization. If they don't feel valued, they can burn out quickly. But if they feel valued, they tend to work hard and cope well.

Recognizing value requires effort from leaders to find out what people really think, by taking time to dialogue solutions and showing a willingness to communicate beyond mouse clicks. That means offering positive feedback, looking employees in the eye and affirming that they are doing a good job. Recognizing a good idea or dedication to a project fuels engagement, particularly when it goes to a person's sense of competence, rather than just results. ("I like how you handled that.") A sense of competence is a core psychological need that drives intrinsic motivation and a continuous interest in the work at hand.

A personal touch can go a long way to building an engaged team. It's not just, 'What a great job you did,' but 'When I saw you solve this problem, I realized what a wonderful asset you are to the team, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate that.'

If you would like to unleash the power of engaged effort in your organization, click the button below for details on our employee engagement program and visit our Employee Engagement page. Get the latest tools to unlock your X-factor.

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Tags: productivity, burnout, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, employee engagement, employee engagement programs, employee retention, employee training

How to Get a Work-Life Balanced in 2013

Posted by Joe Robinson

Balance isn't a problem at Kings Canyon's Zumwalt Meadow

I was on the dance floor at a local restaurant when the New Year kicked in, letting the backbone slip with my wife and a bunch of friendly strangers to an old disco number like “We Are Family.” Dancing makes just about everything better, and about a thousand times more than just watching.

The crowd was thin but animated, a diverse bunch in ages and ethnicities all united in hopes for the coming year—and in shaking it no matter what their rhythm aptitude was. Several had already stepped onto the floor solo without regard to what others thought. Bravo! A great start to a year of no regrets.

Above the band there was a giant TV with ABC’s Times Square countdown. Just before the midnight hour, I caught a glimpse of a graphic showing the Top 5 New Year’s resolutions. Of course, “lose weight” was there, but also “enjoy life more” and “do more things with family and friends.”

In other words, I couldn’t help notice, two of the top five resolutions, the resolution behind the resolutions, had to do with a more balanced life (you can add "exercise more" to that category too). A lot of us know we need to do better in this department, but it can’t happen without a couple of key ingredients that the first weeks of a new year can help us with—time to think and commitment to change.  

At the beginning of the year we do something we seldom do beyond January—take a moment to self-reflect. Usually, mechanical busyness holds off the questions that need to be asked to chart a different trajectory. What is it I really need in my life, as oppose to want? What can I do to make life and work more enjoyable, meaningful, less stressful? Where am I going? Where do I want to go? 

Thinking prevents regrets later. As researchers have found, we regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do. It’s called the “the inaction effect.” That’s why resolutions like “enjoy life more” pop up on a lot of lists. There’s a nagging void when we are caught up in action to the exclusion of the thought that puts life on the calendar.

If you don't make the time and the resolutions, the world does it for you by default. Unconscious mode leads to the kinds of resolutions you don't want: 1) Do nothing about the stressors in my life, 2) Make sure devices and messages can badger me at any second, 3) Do tasks in the most inefficient way, 4) Run myself into the ground by not having any self-maintenance and recharging.

Resolutions get a bad rap, because the concept is excellent—fixing what's not working. The problem is that we aren’t taught how to use the right goals to create or achieve resolutions. Studies show that external goals, such as losing weight or getting rich, don’t stick. They’re about what others think. You don’t really buy these goals, so it’s hard to stay motivated.

Intrinsic goals—for learning, growth, excellence, challenge, fun—are much more effective at helping you commit and persist with an objective. The goal is meaningful to you in and of itself, and that keeps your self-regulation equipment sustaining the effort.

If enjoying life more or having more time for family and friends are on your resolution list, upgrading work-life balance is the intrinsic goal that gives you the best chance of success. Is that really possible? Can you get more life on the agenda and do all the work your job demands? The science says, unequivocally, yes.  

Work in the right way and you get more done in less time, and with a truckful less stress. Work-life balance means that you and your organization are using the research tools available to work more productively, have better time management and prioritizing and more control over devices and stress, deploy regular recharging and refueling, and explore the proven flex options.

Like most resolutions, it’s not easy, but unlike most vague resolutions, there are many practical tools to build a more effective work style and stop stress in its tracks. Key adjustments to how you and your colleagues do your work make all the difference.

It takes courage to change the same-old, same-old. That means speaking up, reaching out, whatever it takes to make things different in 2013. The ability to identify what’s not working and be receptive to another approach is invaluable to any organization. One Harvard study says speaking up results in improved practices and satisfaction. It called the word “No” the “voice-oriented improvement system.”

Doing things differently isn't as much of a stretch as it would seem. In fact, it's something humans were born to do. We get a burst of the brain's reward chemical, dopamine, at the mere expectation of doing something new. So change is who we are. We simply need to find the will and motivation to become who we are. 

As with all resolutions and goals in life, we achieve what we believe we can. We have more belief this time of year, so now is the time to move. Let's jump through the wormhole of change before it closes and work smarter, live better this year.

I'm happy to show you how you can make that happen. Just click on the button below for a free consultation and learn how to put a work-life balance program into action this year, for your organization, yourself, or someone you love. This is the time of your life. 

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Tags: job stress, productivity, work life balance programs, work-life balance trainings, work life balance, increasing productivity, employee engagement, employee engagement programs

The Yin-Yang of Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Life balance in nature

A recent study confirmed a missing key to work-life balance in a hyperventilating 24/7 world. It found that constant connectivity—sending, receiving, and checking messages to the exclusion of a moment to think about any of it—makes it hard to remember the incoming or make any complex decisions based on the information. The problem: too much output and no time for brain neurons to absorb the input or its meaning.

We need time to process the work we do and to step back to determine the best course ahead. None of that’s possible when we are in continuous output mode. Our brain neurons need comprehension of the day’s events to process them and incubate the data during sleep to build the associations that lead to solving problems.

There’s a duality to work, as there is in life, a yin-yang dynamic that is essential to balance and the engaged minds that comes from it. Quality input is mandatory for quality output. Without input, time to process what’s coming at us, our output is missing analysis and reflection and driven by mechanical momentum. That, in turn, drives job stress, which thrives on reactivity and emotional frenzy devoid of thought.

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Researchers have found that the brain has to step back every 90 minutes, or it fatigues and defaults to rote mode. We make a lot of mistakes when flying on autopilot output, send emails with the wrong names on them, forget to send attachments, plow ahead on projects without knowing what our objectives are. Where are we going? Why are we going there? We have no idea when autopilot output controls all.

We all seem to know instinctively that being unbalanced doesn’t add up. Millennia ago Chinese sages held that we are complimentary, not exclusionary, characters. Yang and yin referred to the dark and sunny sides of a hill, and came to be associated with the positive and negative, male and female, two sides of the same coin.

“The art of life is not seen as holding on to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other,” wrote philosopher Alan Watts.

When you're all-output, all the time, physical maintenance and stress management are non-existent, and that affects performance. Cumulative fatigue comes out of your hide the next day and the next, lowering productivity as output overrules the input of recharging, researchers tell us.

You can build input into your day by setting aside a few minutes each day to catch up on reading, research, and conversations needed to stay ahead, not behind, the eight-ball. Step back before you take an action and ask what your goal is. What should this task accomplish? Why? Take the time to refuel during the day to allow your brain to reset. Monitor when you are flying on mechanical momentum and being run by commotion, instead of motion.

Input is the engine of productivity, vitality, innovation, and it's the essence of any good work-life balance program. Without it, work and physiologies head down a dark, slippery slope.

 

 

Tags: work life balance, job stress, productivity, stress management, chronic stress, increasing productivity, work life balance programs, improving productivity

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