Talk to anyone working today, be it in a startup or a well-established Fortune 500 company, and they will tell you the same thing – “I’m working so hard but there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do my job.” It’s not just that they are spending more hours working, but it’s also that they are trying to do two, three or four things at once. Simply put, American workers have lost all control over setting reasonable boundaries for how they spend their time and energy. Most agree that they are not delivering optimal performance at work, nor do they take the time to stop and rethink their priorities and work structure.
Recent studies have documented that the average employee switches tasks every three minutes, is interrupted every two minutes and has a maximum focus stretch of 12 minutes. Rather than making things better, this multi-tasking behavior actually makes things worse. Another study showed that when a person switches away from their primary task to do something else, they increase the time it takes to do the original task by 25%.
So why are so many people engaged in such unproductive behavior? Because they think it’s expected of them even though they know this behavior results in sub-optimal performance. Here are some recent quotes from employees interviewed by The New York Times:
- “I have new responsibilities that demand creative and strategic thought, but I’m not getting to them.”
- “I have too many meetings to attend and I can’t get any real work done.”
- “I have too many e-mails, and given day-to-day urgencies, the backlog keeps growing.”
- “I feel like I’m not giving the right amount of attention to what’s most important.”
Companies, for their part, are doing everything they can to squeeze more revenue out of fewer employees as they seek to bolster their bottom lines. In fact, since 2007 revenue per employee for those companies in the S&P 500 has increased 11.4%. The irony is that better overall productivity for the company may not translate to increased productivity for the individual worker.
“Think Weeks” a la Gates
So what can be done to help individuals from CEO’s to mid-level managers to front line workers regain some measure of control over what they do and how they do it? For CEO’s and other C-Level executives, they may want to try a steal a page from Bill Gates old playbook. When Bill was CEO of Microsoft, he would schedule periodic “think weeks” where he would literally go off to his cabin in the woods for a week and do nothing but read and think about the big changes that could impact Microsoft’s future success. It was on one of these think weeks that he finally came to the conclusion that Microsoft’s closed architecture business model was no match for the emerging open architecture model of the Internet. As such, he helped engineer a major corporate pivot for the company.
Try “Block Days”
I have worked with C-Level executives and other senior leaders to create “block days” which are full calendar days where the individual comes into the office but has nothing scheduled on their calendar for that day. How they have used these days has varied, but for the most part it gave them large chunks of uninterrupted time to think about major issues and events that had the potential to fundamentally change the desired outcomes for their organization or business unit.
Core & Context Assessment
Another tool I have found to be very effective is to ask the individual to go through his or her calendar for the preceding month and put everything they did into one of two columns. Column one was Core Activities that is any activity that directly contributes to improving the business growth and financial performance of the company. Column two is Context Activities which are all the other things that have to get done that do not directly contribute to improving the revenue and profits of the company. We then added up the time in each respective column that gave the individual their core & context ratio. Much to their chagrin, most individuals saw first-hand that 75% – 80% of their time was spent on context activities that had no direct impact on the performance of their company. The next step was to make significant changes in how they allocated their time in order to drive that ratio toward over 50% on core activities.
Lastly, I just recently came across a very interesting article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Employees, Measure Yourselves”. It identified six different tools that individuals can use to track and measure how they spend their time and energy and what they can do to improve their performance at work and find a better balance on a personal level. Here is the list of six:
- RescueTime.com: This tool automatically measures how long users spend on various websites and applications, and allows them to keep track of how they spend their time away from the computer.
- TallyZoo.com: Users can track any type of data they choose to input, personal or work-related, and view interactive graphs to spot trends and patterns.
- iDoneThis.com: Users track their productivity by responding to a daily e-mail that asks “what’d you get done today?”
- Simpleology.com: This tool helps users organize, prioritize and track their activities, and offers help in dealing with distractions and information overload.
- GravityEight.com: This tool aims to give users a comprehensive view of their lives by guiding them through the tracking of eight different variables in their life – health, finance, relationships, career, spirituality, community, learning and leisure.
- HeartMath.com: It provides tools for monitoring heart-rate variability as part of a stress-reduction program.
So while there are lots of tools and processes an individual can access and use, at the end of the day, I think it comes down to each person finally saying “Enough is Enough — today is the day I start to set reasonable boundaries on how I am going to spend my time and energy.” Resetting those boundaries should go a long way to regaining control over how you deliver optimal performance at work and still have a life outside of work that is worth living.