Working Smarter

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

7 Signs the Office Needs Stress Management

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress drains productivity

You can’t see it or taste it, but chances are good your office is up to its workstations in it—the colorless, odorless toxin of stress. It’s so widespread a U.N. report called it the “21st century epidemic.” Yet stress is so invisible that most organizations have a hard time realizing the threat and may not know what and when to do something about it.

The symptoms don’t manifest physically as with the hacking cough of a flu. Stress is a silent stalker, with employees and managers leery to speak its name. This is exactly what stress thrives on, adaptation to stressors that lead to stewing about, instead of resolving stress, with entrenched tension leading to chronic stress and very high costs for the company and individual.

TENSION AND PANIC FOR ALL

The reality is, stress is as contagious as any bug, spreading through pass-along strain and crisis mentality throughout the organization. Humans are born with an amazing capacity to mirror the emotions of those around them through what are known as mirror neurons, which mimic the facial expression and movements of others. We easily pick up on the emotions of others, and that translates into anxious, crisis-prone, unproductive organizations—not to mention, $407 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and medical costs, says U.C. Irvine’s Peter Schnall.

Every organization can prevent huge hits to the budget each year by spotting the signs of stress and knowing when it’s time for a stress management program to get this hazard to critical thinking, rapport, and productivity under control. Despite the interior nature of stress, there are many signs that can tip off the problem. Let’s take a look at seven key indicators:

1. Absenteeism and retention problems. Since discussing stress is seen as taboo or a sign of weakness, health problems set off by chronic stress, which suppresses the immune system, the tissue repair system, and digestion, multiply along with sick days and absenteeism. If employees know how to manage stress, and management understands what fuels it, absenteeism is no longer the only coping option. When employees feel there’s no possibility of stressors changing, and the health bills mount, they may decide to quit. Forty percent of employees leave because of stress. If your company is seeing more people heading for the exits, look closely, and stress may be the driver.

2. High pressure and tension. Everyone can feel it when tensions are high. For certain deadlines and projects, pressure is a given, but when high tension is the normal day-to-day, it can overwhelm coping abilities and productive output, since relationships suffer, cynicism reigns, and exhaustion guts engagement. High demands can be handled with some control. Without it, chronic stress rules. Managers can measure stress levels with a cognitive survey that can be managed on Survey Monkey. Once the data is in, you can see the extent of the problem and have the evidence to bring a stress management program forward.

3. Doing more with fewer resources. Almost every organization is having to make do with fewer resources today. At the same time, there are physiological limits to how much individuals can do. Are your troops maxed out? Is your top talent teetering on an exit strategy because there’s not enough support? High-demand workplaces more than most need to have their employees trained in stress management and sustainable performance practices.

4. A recent merger or restructuring or preparation for one. The most stressful organizations today tend to be those that are getting ready for a sale and want to show off the highest profitability, but which don’t have the resources to get the outcome they want. That turns up the pressure on everyone. A stress management program is paramount in this situation, as well as in the aftermath of the restructuring, when insecurity, convulsive change, and a new culture create high stress loads. Don’t scrimp on staff development funds if your organization fits this bill.

5. The word burnout is being tossed around. This is a red flag for high stress. The term “stress” is seen as a word to avoid, so often the problem will manifest with staff citing burnout, which tends to be more acceptable. Those mentioning “burnout” are usually are on target. The terminal fatigue and cynicism that comes with it allows them to surface the issue. Again, a survey can be a great way to measure the extent of the problem and arm managers with the data needed to bring in a stress management solution.

6. Productivity is down. In the knowledge economy, the source of productivity is a refreshed and energized brain. Employees with high stress have an extremely limited cognitive function, with the brain constricted to a narrow field dominated by the perceived crisis of the moment. Rumination on the stressor distracts from attention on the task at hand, not to mention future planning. In addition to cognitive issues, chronic stress saps the physical vitality of employees, as stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline deplete the body’s energetic resources. It’s not working harder and longer that will pick up productivity (which plummets in hours beyond eight a day); it’s working smarter through programs that help employees control stress, recharge brains, and then get more done in less time.

7Intense emotional pressures. Some professions by their very nature require a high level of involvement in intense emotional domains, such as caregiving, social work, community healthcare, and law enforcement. Employees in these arenas are particularly susceptible to burnout from lack of support and reward. If you’re a manager in these realms, you know that it is essential to have regular, comprehensive development programs to manage emotional pressures and tough workloads. The job of staff isn’t to take on all the stress and demands of clients and customers. It’s to show them a way out of intractable issues, which they can’t do convincingly if they themselves are caught up in a crisis. 

Of course, there are many other signals and settings that translate into high stress levels, from intense deadlines to develop a new product, to global competition and/or offices across multiple time zones, to workaholic leadership. Whatever the cause, a solution is at hand: knowledge and strategies to handle stress and the autopilot behaviors that keep the dysfunction going.

If you’d like to learn more about our stress management programs, click the button below. 

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Tags: stress management, chronic stress, burnout, work stress, stress management programs, stress and productivity, stress management and change

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