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An Easy Way to Boost Your Productivity at Work

OverwhelmedBusinesswoman_400Reduce the static in your office. If you relieve your staff of the pressure of responding immediately to your emails and phone calls, you allow them the uninterrupted time needed to finish tasks that require strategic work and deep thinking. From my book, Make Your Brain Smarter.

We all too often measure our productivity by how quickly we respond to emails and phone calls, juggle countless demands each day, and cross off item after item on our long to-do lists. The problem is, most tasks are done quickly without thoughtful processing—and instead almost with mind-numbing automaticity. Our quick responses make us feel like we are moving forward at the speed of light—as if we are keeping our daily bicycle moving forward. But are we running over pieces of glass or nails that may flatten our tires into mental exhaustion, making us lose our brain balance?

For some, there is a sense of guilt when they don’t respond immediately to interruptions.

I remember when a client of mine, Paul, asked me: “What if it’s your boss who is demanding immediate responses? If I fail to be timely, I will not be looked upon favorably. It’s easy for you to tell me to stall rather than respond quickly, but you better let my boss know or I’ll be coming to you when I fail to get promoted.”

I replied, “You are absolutely right. There must be buy-in at all levels—especially management. Leaders are some of the leading offenders—causing the state of constant distractedness and shooting themselves in the foot by reducing their team’s productivity.”

The guilt you feel from not responding instantly spurs you into action but does not pay off in terms of brain efficiency. For many, your competitive nature makes you your own worst enemy. We think we can do everything well, in record time, regardless of task.

Take Jim. A middle-level manager, he once told me, “I feel like I’m in a competition with myself and my team. It makes me feel worthy and important to know the answer and to be the first to send the answer out.” But a polar opposite of Jim is Carmen, a woman I recently worked with who noticed the following: “I’ve found that if I don’t respond immediately or engage in knee-jerk reactions, most of the problems solve themselves. Instead of a flurry of emails trying to solve a problem instantly, I let the problem take its course (if it’s a nonemergency) and strategically select when to attend to it. By that time, eighty-five percent of the problems are solved and no response is necessary.”

Dorie Clark, in a Harvard Business Review article titled “Five Things You Should Stop Doing in 2012,” recommended that people stop responding to email like a “trained monkey.” She commented on how responding to email was becoming like a “slot machine for your brain”—with variable interval reinforcement. In fact, few of our emails require immediate responses. As Clark writes, “A 90-minute wait won’t kill anyone, and will allow you to accomplish something substantive during your workday.” I couldn’t agree more.

Through my research, I’ve found that more than 87 percent of professionals report that they are interrupted more than 80 percent of their day, making it difficult to take even five minutes to deeply ponder the important work needed to be accomplished or thinking through ideas that would advance major conference calls concerning key problems. Much effort is wasted because we have not allowed space and time to ponder.

The unfiltered, massive influx of new information competing for your consideration and the constant interruptions from cell phones chirping, emails dinging, and in-person intrusions rob you of clear, strategic, insightful thinking. Constant interruptions are depleting your productivity. These interruptive expectations and environments are increasing rather than decreasing, causing a higher incidence of interruptions. The result is lower performance, more errors, and greater stress.


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