Imagine for a moment…
It’s 7am and you’re on your way to work. You stop by the coffeeshop for some much-needed java and are met with a surprise: they have two new specials, both equally delicious at first glance. After a quick moment of deliberation, you make your selection and are on your way.
It’s 10:30am and you are in a meeting. 10 items are on the agenda, and as the person in charge of keeping things moving you act with military-esque precision, adjourning the meeting 5 minutes ahead of schedule.
Lunchtime rolls around, and you debate the merits of taking a half hour break to try the new burger place across the street and just staying at your desk and catching up on emails and phone calls. Eventually the allure of catching up on work wins out and you settle in with a bottle of water and a bag of vending machine goodies.
It’s 2:40pm and your eyes rove wildly back and forth from the clock overhead to the work sitting before you. You’re replying to a client email in which they have asked you if they should make choice A or choice B and – although you should have a ready answer – you find yourself laboring over your response much longer than necessary.
By 4pm you are slouching in your chair, racking your brain in an attempt to remember what one of your team members said during the morning’s meeting. Instead of quickly asking them, you mull the hour-long meeting over and over in your head…2 minutes…5 minutes…after 7 minutes you give up, exasperated, and move on to something else.
At 5:55pm you are desperately wrapping things up; the last hour got away from you and you are now late for a dinner date. You dash off for the restaurant mentally kicking yourself for not getting more done and for letting time get away from you, vowing to do better tomorrow.
Even if you don’t work in a corporate setting, chances are this is a scenario that you could easily plug yourself into. Starting your day off right only to end up frazzled and fatigued by the time the day ends…this is something that far too many working folks experience far too often. Why is this? Is it just part and parcel of being a working professional?
According to several studies and research reports:
These numbers show us something very telling: we are going about things all wrong.
Let’s explore the data a little more and then see how it can both positively and negatively affect our productivity.
40% of your productivity decreases when you multitask.
That is really a staggering number, when you think about it. According to Lifehack.org,
The term “multitasking” originated in the computer engineering industry. It was used to explain how a microprocessor can seem to process several tasks simultaneously. But in order for a single core processor to process tasks it actually has to “time share” the processor…So the idea that we can work on more than one thing at once is actually a fallacy. In keeping with the original meaning of multitasking, we now know that the multiple tasks that we are attending to are actually sharing brain time. And there is always a price to be paid when switching tasks.
If the tasks you are doing are relatively unimportant or mundane…multitasking can help to get more done. But if you have an important job or one that requires particular attention or care, the best solution is to stay focused on it (and, at the very least, turn off your phone).
This is hard-hitting stuff, especially when you consider that much of what we do should really be a PRIMARY task, not a secondary one (consider things like driving, talking on the phone, writing an email, etc.) There is a fantastic infographic over at Fuze.com that breaks this idea down really well – one statistic they reference is particularly sobering: it can take more than 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted, and – according to a University of California Study – people can get interrupted every 3 minutes on average. It’s no wonder we have trouble as a collective society with seeing things through to completion!
Equally interesting was that the study found that approximately half of those interruptions were self-caused. We are sabotaging our own best efforts even as we complain about not getting things done or about not having enough hours in the day.
4 things are all we can remember at one time.
Sure, there are tricks and tips galore that help us be better at recalling lists and names and numbers, but the facts remain the same: there is a finite number of things we can feasibly remember at one time, which means that at some point during our day we will likely experience information overload and will need to start “offloading” some of that information to make room for new data.
Working memory is a more active version of short-term memory, which refers to the temporary storage of information. Working memory relates to the information we can pay attention to and manipulate.
Early research found the working memory cut-off to be about seven items, which is perhaps why telephone numbers are seven digits long…Now scientists think the true capacity is lower when people are not allowed to use tricks like repeating items over and over or grouping items together.
So how does this relate to productivity? It’s simple: the more we rely on our brains as the sole information keeper for our days, the more we will find ourselves forgetting to-do items, losing track of time, and missing out on important details. It is really not so much of a “memory” issue as it is an issue of being disciplined enough to keep track of important events and even mundane tasks in one central location THAT IS NOT our mind. Keeping a calendar or using a planner is a valuable productivity tool that the most successful people in the world refuse to live without, and you would be wise to follow their lead on this one.
100% of adults have experienced decision fatigue.
Wait…100% That means EVERYONE, right?
Yes – it does. But if you want proof, check out this awesome article by the NY Times that explores in expansive detail the effects of decision fatigue and the ongoing implications it can have in our lives. Among countless other solid points that the article makes, they say,
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain.
This is so true, isn’t it! We’ve all been there – unable to make simple decisions at the end of a long day spent using up all of our willpower and decision-making skills at home and at work. The article goes even deeper, citing a brief study conducted at a mall:
For a real-world test of their theory, the lab’s researchers went into that great modern arena of decision making: the suburban mall. They interviewed shoppers about their experiences in the stores that day and then asked them to solve some simple arithmetic problems. The researchers politely asked them to do as many as possible but said they could quit at any time. Sure enough, the shoppers who had already made the most decisions in the stores gave up the quickest on the math problems. When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too.
The same could be said of anything really…just fill in the blank. “When you __________ till you “drop,” your willpower drops too.
This idea that our willpower is a resource that is easily depleted is echoed by Jane Hu, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology. Jane says,
Making decisions isn’t the only daily activity that can wear you down. It’s what you aren’t doing that can exhaust you, too. Maintaining self-control takes subconscious thought and effort—the box of donuts in the break room you’re resisting is a low-level distraction throughout your day. As one group of researchers put it: “Just as a muscle gets tired from exertion, acts of self-control cause short-term impairments in subsequent self-control.” Making decisions and exhibiting self-control are unavoidable daily activities; getting overwhelmed and sometimes making bad, impulsive decisions are occupational hazards of being human. But simple awareness of how to conserve your limited resources can help you stay productive throughout the day.
Simple awareness. That’s what can take us from a life filled with hectic, unproductive days to a life that is steady, relaxed, and extremely successful. So let’s briefly unpack everything and find some takeaway points we can use to “decode productivity” and tap into efficiency strategies that will make both our work and personal lives simpler and more fulfilling.
1. Make a conscious effort to stop with the multitasking already.
We’ve definitely established that it is – ultimately – counterproductive, so why not move toward “unitasking” and find ways to focus on one thing at a time as much as possible. For example, schedule time throughout the day to answer emails and then DO NOT LOOK AT IT when you need to do something else…the email world will not crash down around you if you are (gasp) unresponsive for 20 minutes. You could also commit to one night a week that is technology-free, giving you clear headspace to enjoy personal time or time with friends and family.
2. Get a planner and use it.
Use one online or one in print, it really does not matter. The only thing that does matter is that you use it. It will not be easy at first, especially if you have always just remembered things “off the top of your head,” but if you stick with it for a solid month you will find your productivity has increased and your stress levels have decreased, all thanks to removing some of the memory-based pressure from your data-weary mind.
3. Accept the fact that decision fatigue will find you and put a plan in place for fighting it.
Keep Sudoku puzzles in your desk drawer for when you need a quick break to try something new. Put your dog’s leash by your chair so you remember that he (and you) could use a short afternoon walk in the sun. Whatever your relaxation outlet may be, set time aside each day or each week to do that activity guilt-free.
Finding productivity nirvana is really not so much about doing MORE things as it is about doing the things already on your plate BETTER. Efficiency takes planning and discipline – two skills that will serve you well for the rest of your life and, like fine wine, these skills will only continue to get better with age.
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