2 Golden Rules for Increased Productivity

An Effective Executive is the one who reserves large blocks of time on his calendar to do important work. Whilst doing important work, he doesn’t answer the phone, and returns calls in short bursts once or twice a day. “Always-on”, multitasking work environments are killing productivity, dampening creativity, and making us unhappy!

This post was inspired by the McKinsey Quarterly article “recovering from information overload“.

For all the benefits of the information technology and communications revolution, it has a well-known dark side: information overload and its close cousin, attention fragmentation.

These scourges hit more than just CEOs and their colleagues in the C-suite, every level of the modern organization badly needs uninterrupted time to synthesize information from many different sources, reflect on its implications, apply judgment, make trade-offs, arrive at good decisions and then act on them.

The root of all evil

An unceasing rhythm of daily meetings, a relentless expectation of touch-points with internal & customers of the organization. Add to these challenges a torrent of e-mail, huge volumes of other information, and an expanding variety of means; from the ever-present telephone to blogs, tweets, and social networks and you have a recipe for exhaustion.

Many senior executives, and the teams they manage, literally have two overlapping workdays: the one that is formally programmed in their diaries and the one “before, after, and in-between,” when they disjointedly attempt to grab spare moments with their laptops or smart phones, multitasking in a vain effort to keep pace with the information flowing toward them.

Two Golden Rules

1) Multitasking is a myth; A body of scientific evidence demonstrates fairly conclusively that multitasking makes human beings less productive, less creative, and less able to make good decisions. If we want to be effective (leaders), we need to stop.

2) Addressing information overload requires enormous self-discipline; A little like recovering addicts, you must labor one-day-at-a-time to keep yourself on track by finding time to focus, filtering out the unimportant.. & every now and then forgetting about work. More on this point in my follow-up article this coming Friday.

The Dangers of Multitasking

Just like a powerful drug, multitasking can lure us into the deception through its intoxicating feeling of being in control & productive when doing several things at the same time and rushing toward getting more done.

Multitasking is interrupting one task with another, and is often a welcome distraction from more difficult and challenging tasks. It helps us feel, at least briefly, that we’ve accomplished something. Unfortunately, current research indicates the opposite.. multitasking unequivocally damages productivity.

It slows us down; It’s scientifically proven that our brain is best designed to focus on one task at a time. When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence. The delay comes from the fact that our brains can’t successfully tell us to perform two actions concurrently. When we switch tasks, our brains must choose to do so, turn off the cognitive rules for the old task, and turn on the rules for the new one.

It kills creativity; Creative problem solving typically requires us to hold several thoughts at once “in memory,” so we can sense connections we hadn’t seen previously and forge new ideas. When we bounce around quickly from thought to thought, we’re less likely to make those crucial connections.

It’s addictive; Edward Hallowell and John Ratey from Harvard, have written about people for whom feeling connected provides something like a “dopamine squirt”.. the neural effects follow the same pathways used by addictive drugs. This effect is familiar too: who hasn’t struggled against the urge to check the smart phone when it vibrates, even when we’re in the middle of doing something else?

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