in the workplace

Are you busy or are you productive?

March means Daylight Savings Time begins, at least in most regions of the county. Besides signaling the coming of spring, the name alone gives the impression that we’ll somehow magically have more hours in the day. Oh, if that were only true.

Don’t we often find ourselves wishing for more hours to accomplish more goals and see more results? As leaders, the challenges in the workplace—in-person or remote—continue to multiply and become less predictable. David Peterson, Director of Executive Coaching and Development at Google School for Leaders, describes the current world as “volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.” Within that context, he notes that leaders are faced with conditions that are “diverse, novel, and adverse.” That sounds like an accurate description of 2020.

Keeping up with the pace of change and the intense, rapid learning leadership requires, it could be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that multitasking is the way to increase productivity and level up skills. Sounds obvious—lots to do, so why not aim to do more at the same time?

Except productivity and effectiveness don’t work that way. Productivity isn’t about working more hours and piling on the activities; it’s about getting more accomplished in the hours worked. Increasing the beneficial results of time spent. Another way to put it, is that busy and productive are not the same thing.

Regardless of the shifting environment, resist the temptation to handle diverse demands on your time and mental energy through the popular but misguided methods of multitasking. Confronted daily with challenges of change and disruption, leaders need to strengthen personal skills that lead to results.

The juggling that we call multitasking is not so much simultaneous action as rapid task switching. Researchers report that productivity drops with each distraction or switch in tasks—whether that’s an interruption by a colleague stopping by to chat, that just-a-quick-look at a text message, or shifting between answering email and reviewing a spreadsheet. In The One Thing, Gary Keller and Jay Papasan point out that multitaskers, compared to monotaskers, retain less of the information they take in, make more mistakes, and even lose sight of the true length of time needed to complete tasks. And with every disruption or switch, extra time is lost to the refocusing needed when switching back to the original task.

Valuable work requires attention—a vital, limited—but renewable–resource. We have only so much will power and mental energy available each day to apply to all aspects of life, another concept described in The One Thing. When we attempt to spread our energy over too many tasks, especially at the same time, we forfeit effectiveness for the increased number of tasks.

Last time I checked, none of us lives in an ideal world, free of distractions and disruptions. We can’t eliminate them entirely, but we can learn to apply methods that support our ability to focus instead of splintering it.

  • Choose your favorite technique to achieve sharp focus within a set period of time. The element of a time deadline is not optional, but rather is the driver that hones your focus. Time blocking your calendar, with chunks of time allocated to completing specific tasks is one approach.
  • Block the time in priority order—when willpower is strongest, early in the day, you’re best equipped to tackle the tasks that are most important to complete. Put it off, and you have a whole day’s worth of decisions and interruptions siphoning your energy and attention from what matters most.
  • Remove distractions—or at least tame them—before you begin. No, this is not the time to clean your desk or entire office as a way to postpone action. But do turn off computer notifications and silence your phone—better yet, put it in another room or safely out of reach. And get to work for the time you’ve allocated.

Scheduled blocks of time could be long—two hours or more. Other methods, like the Pomodoro Technique, rely on shorter periods of time interspersed with timed breaks. Whether or not you choose to use a tomato-shaped timer, give your mind the benefit of dedicated time to focus on one task at a time and time to rest at set intervals.

You may wonder if short periods of focus can do any good? Stephen Duneier, an expert in applying cognitive science to both business and life, describes his own experience with corralling his attention even for five- to ten-minute periods in his TED talk. Working within his self-described attention limits, in college he went from low C’s to straight A’s and maintained straight A’s throughout his graduate work at NYU’s Leonard Stern School of Business. Making even marginal improvements, as his example shows, can lead to a huge impact in results.

Whether we need to step back for a fresh look at priorities, methods, or the incremental habits we need to build to move us closer to a goal, spring cleaning begins within ourselves. So many authors and speakers have shared clear and eye-opening methods, there’s no reason not to take that first step toward mastering attention and focus.

Accountability and the perspective of someone outside your office or organization can make the difference between a temporary improvement and empowering transformation. RoundTable Consulting can help you bring about meaningful changes in productivity and effectiveness for yourself, your team, and your organization. Give us a call and find out how we can help.

Nancy Owsianowski, Founder
RoundTable Consulting, LLC

Nancy Owsianowski is the Founder of RoundTable Consulting where her relational, insightful approach transforms teams, leaders, and organizations. Find Nancy on LinkedIn or reach out to her to learn more about authentic leadership and her coaching, facilitation, and training services.

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