As an owner or manager you need to get the best from your team. It’s a hard world out there and there is no time for slacking. On the other hand you need to keep your staff happy – you can’t drive them too hard or they’ll be off.
As an employee you have a variation of the same problem – you need to get the work done to keep the job, but you don’t want to become demotivated or burnt out. And you often wonder if you’d get a better deal somewhere else…
So if there’s a limit to how much harder you can work, how else can you get to the end of the day feeling fulfilled but not exhausted? The solution lies in three little bits of human biology – skip to the end for the short version, but this is what you need to know to get the best from the day.
We can’t just keep working harder
As the pressure-performance curve shows, there is a limit to what you can get out of people. When you have a good day at work you can be sure it will have been spent at the upper end of the ‘comfort’ zone and/or in the ‘stretch’ area (which is also where life seems more meaningful). Spend too much time under higher pressure and the end result is burnout, with serious physical and mental consequences.
That means we have to ask a different question: how do we get the best out of the effort that is available sustainably.
We are not good at doing more than one thing at once
Multitasking is a myth, one of the great red herrings of our time. People multi-task because they want to do more, but they end up sacrificing quality and achieving less.
The reason for this is that you don’t actually do two things at once – conscious thought has very low bandwidth so you actually have to switch back and forth between the two. The act of switching attention takes time, and then it takes more time to re-orientate onto the first task, so you end up using most of your mental energy on switching, leaving very little for the real tasks. Research has shown that for concentrated activities it can take 25 minutes to fully re-connect with the task after an interruption, so it’s a good idea to turn off email notifications and put your phone in a sound-proof box if you really want to get things done.
Given the way we have taken to technology, that means the last time anyone really paid attention to anything was probably back in about 1990.
Of course it is in the nature of some roles that new tasks and interruptions come in all the time – that’s fine, but don’t expect to have all your intelligence available.
Take regular breaks
The tea break exists for a biological reason, but nowadays people tend to take drinks – even lunch – at their screens. This is madness. The human mind not only collapses if given too much to do, and needs time to recover from interruption, it also behaves differently at different times of day. It may sound inconvenient, but that’s biology…
This is how our minds and bodies change through the day:
At some times we active and can focus, concentrate and ‘do’ – at others we think in different ways, become reflective and want to take a physical rest. We’re built that way.
During the ‘dip’ phases we recover from the last 90 minutes of activity, do some mental filing and clear space for the next active phase. It is possible to over-ride this mechanism but it is counterproductive and pushes us a little further towards the ‘strain’ area of the pressure-performance curve.
Should people take time away from the front line at these times to do their mental housekeeping and get ready for the next onslaught? Well, they are going to do it anyway – the lights may be on but there’ll be nobody in – so it’s better to do it properly and get the best out of it. This means a real break – no catching up on Facebook or whatever…
Let work stretch you, but if you feel you’re going to break, stand back, find out why, and do something about it. It’s not sustainable and everyone will benefit if you find out why it’s happening and sort it out.
Do one thing at a time. Email, instant messaging, twitter and so on can be useful, but not if you want the fruits of concentrated attention. Intelligence disappears if you throw enough information at it, so keep a clean in-box and don’t retrieve your mail too often – say once an hour.
Take proper breaks every ninety minutes – no electronics, get away from any screen. This will increase the available processing power and reduce fatigue and upset.
To find out how well your workplace is meeting the fundamental needs of your staff take a free trial of Performance Review Pro – an easy-to-use online tool that diagnoses the causes of underperformance and gives you a prioritised list of actions to sort it out.
Piers Bishop, Performance Review Pro
Pressure-performance curve thanks to http://media.lanecc.edu/users/howardc/PTA103L/103LStressBioFeed/StressBioFeed_print.html
The Twitter Curve modified from http://headrush.typepad.com
Basic Rest Activity Cycle after Ernest Rossi