There are some days when getting through a day at work can feel like an epic struggle. You’ll be facing a fast-approaching deadline while coworkers seem to be lined up at your desk vying for attention, and the number of unread emails in your inbox is reaching staggering new heights. It all seems like more than any one person can possibly manage!
Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to reclaim peace of mind – and, while you’re at it, increase productivity. While finding ways of working undisturbed can be part of the solution, as author Bruce Daisley in the book “The Joy of Work” makes clear, there is a less intuitive part of productivity: the social aspect.
Yes, we need to block out distractions while we work, but there are limits to how much time we should spend working before the harmful effects of exhaustion set in. Plus, what we do when we take our much-needed breaks can also have a tremendous impact on our well-being and overall efficiency.
If you’ve worked in an office, you may have had bosses or company executives that would stay hidden away in her office for hours on end. Perhaps you even thought poorly of them for being so detached and unsociable. However, if we look at the reasons behind good working habits, those aloof bosses may have been onto something.
For starters, keeping your workspace free of distractions is a key component to working efficiently.
In 2011, Danish management researcher J.H. Pejtersen conducted a study that revealed how people working in open-plan office spaces tended to take more sick days than workers who have private offices. The study also showed that those working in an open office space tend to be interrupted from their work on an average of once every three minutes.
These breaks in concentration aren’t just due to colleagues popping over to ask you a question – they also take the form of distracting conversations coming from neighboring desks and cubicles. What makes these interruptions so bad for your efficiency is that once your concentration is broken, it takes a long time for you to get back to that same level of focus.
This is the same reason why you shouldn’t try to juggle too many tasks at the same time. In his book Quality Software Management, the computer scientist Gerald Weinberg found that software managers who tried to jump between five different projects during the same day would only manage to work at a quarter of the efficiency they’d have achieved if they stuck to one project at a time.
One excellent way of reducing distractions is to practice the Monk Mode Morning, which involves shutting out all incoming calls and visitors until 11:00 a.m.
At first, your office mates may not appreciate this distraction barricade, but if you explain that it isn’t about being antisocial, but rather an attempt to put in a few hours of uninterrupted work before engaging with phone calls and meetings, then they’ll likely understand.
If Monk Mode Morning sounds appealing but you don’t have an office door to enforce it, you can try using headphones until 11:00 a.m. in order to create your own space.
If you’re feeling stuck with a creative task, especially one with a quickly approaching deadline, you may not feel like stepping away from your work to go for a stroll. Yet, as J.K. Rowling, author of the world-famous Harry Potter books says, “There’s nothing like a night-time stroll to give you ideas.”
As it turns out, Rowling’s claim about the creative benefits of going for a walk are supported by science.
In a 2014 study by two Stanford psychologists, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz, participants were asked for creative responses to certain scenarios. For instance, coming up with uses for a key that is shaped like an eye.
Some responses were considered uncreative, like using the key as an artificial eye. A highly creative response was for the key to be used by a murder victim to carve the name of their killer into the floor.
After testing participants who either sat still or; got up, went for a walk and sat back down, 81 percent of those who took a stroll were found to be more creative with their answers. According to the researchers, the act of walking reinvigorated the participants’ thinking and led to better ideas. Oppezzo and Schwartz also found that it helped to sit back down afterward and concentrate in order for the ideas to flourish.
One way of fitting more productive walks into your routine is to have a stroll while you’re conducting a meeting.
Productivity expert and coach Chris Barez-Brown encourages his clients to go for walks with another person. During this time, one person is allowed to talk about a pressing issue without interruption for up to 30 minutes. Then, the two people switch roles and, for the rest of the walk, the other person gets to talk.
By walking with this purpose, you’ll both energize your thoughts by allowing each other to say whatever comes to mind without censoring or correcting each other. Barez-Brown has seen this work wonders for his clients, who often come back from their walks with added clarity and exciting ideas.
It’s common to feel like you’re in a rush or under pressure to get things done, but did you know that having a persistent level of stress can affect your behavior?
Just think of those times when you’ve been waiting for the elevator and feel the need to keep pressing the call button again and again, even though you know it won’t make the elevator arrive any faster. This is a typical example of what’s known as hurry anxiety.
Essentially, hurry anxiety is characterized by a constant low-grade stress due to the feeling that you’ll never be able to finish all that you want to accomplish. Hurry anxiety is especially common these days thanks to the level of connectivity and abundance of information that the internet age provides.
For example, according to a 2015 study by the Radicati Group, which looked at the daily habits of 2.8 billion workers worldwide, the average person responds to 130 emails during a typical day. And these emails are just the tip of the iceberg!
In his 2011 book, The Organized Mind, social scientist Daniel Levitin revealed that the average American worker processed around 100,000 words of information every day – which is five times more than what workers processed in 1986. Given all the tasks we hope to tick off and information we need to process, is it any wonder we feel constantly overwhelmed?
Well, fortunately for us, there are steps you can take to lessen those levels of anxiety.
One of the important things to realize is that being constantly busy isn’t the same as being productive. In fact, instead of striving to be busy, you can be more productive by setting aside time in your daily schedule for doing nothing.
According to Dr. Sandi Mann, who works at the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Psychology, we’re better at solving problems and coming up with innovative solutions when we engage with our brain’s default network. This is the part of the brain that includes the subconscious. It is when we are at rest and doing absolutely nothing that we can really tap into this source of creativity.
So, make sure you include time off during your day when you can take a break from all those incoming messages and emails. And rather than stressing about every email, just focus on responding to the few that are truly urgent.
In a 2013 interview, British tennis champion Andy Murray explained just how exhausting a tennis match can be. As he explained it, physical exhaustion is only part of it. A tennis match also results in a great deal of mental exhaustion, due to having to make so many split-second tactical decisions.
As Murray’s comments suggest, we are only capable of making so many decisions before we’re left feeling exhausted, which is why there’s a limit to how much work we can do before our productivity begins to suffer. Ultimately, the more decisions we’re asked to make, the more exhausted we become and the more we’ll gravitate toward undemanding tasks.
In a 2008 study, psychologist Kathleen Vohs had participants make a series of decisions, such as which movie, ice-cream flavor or washing detergent was their favorite, or how to solve different problems – most of which were purposefully unsolvable.
In between making decisions, the participants were asked to choose which activities they would rather perform – a challenging activity, like creative writing or studying a new subject, or something easy like watching TV or playing a simple video game.
As Vohs discovered, the participants not only showed signs of mental exhaustion early on, but as the level of exhaustion increased, so too did their preference toward less challenging activities.
So, the next time you come home from work and can only muster the energy to collapse on the couch and stream the first thing you see on Netflix, this is likely a sign of decision-making mental fatigue.
This exhaustion can also have repercussions at work – especially when people ignore these signs of fatigue and continue working.
Scott Maxwell used to work for the consultancy company McKinsey, which was the kind of workplace where people would sleep under their desks so they could put in as many hours as possible. Eventually, Maxwell realized that this behavior wasn’t increasing productivity. In fact, after he launched his own venture capitalist company and studied the data, he found that an employee’s productivity routinely declined if they worked over 40 hours a week.
So, just because you’re pushing yourself to work more hours, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing better work. In the long run, by keeping your work under 40 hours a week, you’ll actually be more productive.
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