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.

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

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

How to Stop Working the Hard Way

Posted by Joe Robinson

Sleeping_woman

Humans are prone to doing whatever takes the least effort—even though our brains want us to do the opposite and challenge ourselves. We are a little contradictory. The high brain wants the gratification of growth, while for the autopilot brain the default is to instant gratification and expending as little effort as possible. The TV remote may be the ultimate instrument for this impulse.

At the office, the “easy” reflex results in rote and last-minute behavior, along with the anemic productivity that comes with them. It’s why I usually hear from clients when overwhelm has peaked or work-life balance survey scores are underwater. 

HARDER THAN IT IS

It may seem like it’s easier to work on rote and avoid change, but it’s actually much harder, as clients learn in our work-life balance trainings. When we are stuck on reflex, that keeps us locked in habits that drive stress, slow us down, and make tasks more aggravating than they actually are.

Take interruptions, for example. Left unmanaged, they not only make it much harder to focus and finish the task you are on, but they also make anything you do seem more difficult than it is. They change the perception of the work to something harder. So which is easier? Managing interruptions or being managed by them?

It’s a no-brainer, as it is when it comes to letting devices call the shots or corralling them, so we are in charge. Do nothing and unbounded devices and messaging run amok, adding to workloads and disruptions that slow everyone down. Do out-of-control messaging and constant disruptions make the work easier or harder? Cut the volume of email and check it at set schedules, and you can reduce the amount of interruptions from 96 (checking every five minutes) to three or four times a day, the most productive checking schedules, report researchers at U. C. Irvine and Oklahoma State.

We can all free up hours of time to focus and get work done with a system that manages messaging. This makes changing how we work a lot easier than being bombarded by the anarchy of the status quo. But the law of least effort is seductive and most people today are also caught up in the autopilot of busy-ness, a condition that makes us think we can’t stop for a second, or it will be apocalypse now.

A HEALTHIER ROAD TO SUCCESS

Work-life balance is a process of stopping for a moment to find easier ways to work, of getting tools to carve out the space to live a quality life and take care of personal responsibilities and map out a healthier road to success. In our work-life balance programs we bring your team the best strategies vetted by the research to stop doing things the hard way and start doing things the smart way.

Bad work-life balance survey scores and crazy-busy workplaces rife with overwhelm are clues that things could be done a lot easier. If your team is drowning in meetings and teleconferences, that’s doing it the hard way. If deadlines are out of whack with reality, that’s doing it the hard way. If people are working in a way that drives stress and burnout, that is really doing it the hard way. Stress undermines intellect and drives irrational decisions.

A host of research and best practices tells us that we don’t have to do it the hard way. Instead, with the right self-management, boundaries, and effective norms, any team or organization can get work done faster, communicate more clearly, de-clutter brains, and help employees activate  lives off the job too. It all comes from avoiding the temptation to keep muddling through with the same-old, same-old.

Work-life balance training is about solving problems, taking inefficient habits and turning them into effective practices that create the space to think and manage demands and devices. It’s a collaboration in which we work together to identify the bottlenecks and pressure points that drive productivity and work-life south and get solutions that make work and life easier.

UNLEASHING EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT

I’m working with a client now on a post-work-life balance training sustainment program, two months of developing and practicing skills of sustainable performance. The managers of this global firm, with offices from Stuttgart to Hong Kong, Brazil, and the U.S, are super-enthused as we troubleshoot bottlenecks, set new norms, and make their days more effective. Each new practice they use to manage information or global time zones, or strengthen the work-family perimeter inspires more employee engagement—the very extra effort our species has an aversion to at the most basic level.

It turns out that effort isn’t a problem for people who are encouraged to participate and solve problems. In fact, we all are designed to be self-starters, to have a hand in writing our own script. Initiative and proactive behavior pay off core psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and connection with others as well as the quest our brain neurons have for novelty and challenge—the two key elements in long-term fulfillment 

So when it comes to working smarter with a work-life balance training, it’s a win-win-win-win. We improve work effectiveness, satisfy core needs, unleash the fulfilling powers of novelty and challenge, and inspire the discretionary effort that comes from employee engagement. And along the way, we make work, and life, a whole lot easier.

If you would like more information on our work-life balance training program, click the button below for details.

Get Prices, Details on Work-Life Programs

Tags: employee engagement training, work-life balance trainings, overwhelm, information overload programs, employee development programs, work effectiveness, work life balance, work-life balance and productivity

The Unspoken Key to Work-Life Balance: Stoplights

Posted by Joe Robinson

Traffic_Light_Small

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

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

THE GREAT UNSPOKEN

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

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

DEFAULT TO YES

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

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

Get "5 Strategies to Manage  Crazy-Busy Workload"     

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

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

ENGAGEMENT REQUIRES COMMUNICATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

 

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

Information Overload: The Art of Interruption Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Crazy guy.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIGITAL DISTURBANCES

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

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

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

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

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

THE BATTLE IN THE BRAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ATTENTION DEFICIT

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

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

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

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

THE NO-INTERRUPTION ZONE

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

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

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

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

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

INTERRUPTIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event, Meeting Planners: Click for Price, Program Details

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

Subscribe via E-mail

Latest Posts

Posts by category

Follow Me