Category: Productivity

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

do only one thing

Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, remarks that the biggest cost to splitting our attention among various activities is to productivity.

He offers some advice on getting back on track: do the most important thing first in the morning; establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically; and take real and regular vacations.

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It’s not just the number of hours we’re working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

What we’ve lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It’s like an itch we can’t resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

The biggest cost — assuming you don’t crash — is to your productivity. In part, that’s a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you’re partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it’s because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.

But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.

If you want to be even more productive, try sleeping.

Still curious? Schwartz is the co-author of a book a former boss recommended to me: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. Also check out how to boost the productivity of computer programmers and engineers and why open plan offices suck.

Increasing The Productivity of Computer Programmers and Engineers

If you want to make your computer programmers and engineers more effective give them “privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Via Susain Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

To find out, DeMarco and his colleague Timothy Lister devised a study called the Coding War Games. The purpose of the games was to identify the characteristics of the best and worst computer programmers; more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10: 1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter— such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work— had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below— even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

Still curious? This is a follow-up to a previous post: Open-plan Offices Suck — Privacy Makes Us Productive. If you have to work in an open-plan office, here is how to survive.

The Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips

Many of us have constant access to information. We are so used to looking up the answer to any question immediately that it can feel like withdrawal when we have to wait. Of course, storing information outside of our brains is nothing new.

I came across this interesting study: “We investigate whether the Internet has become an external memory system that is primed by the need to acquire information. If asked the question whether there are any countries with only one color in their flag, for example, do we think about flags—or immediately think to go online to find out? Our research then tested if, once information has been accessed, our internal encoding is increased for where the information is to be found rather than for the information itself.”

The results suggest that our memory is adapting to the advent of new computing technology. The authors conclude:

We are becoming symbiotic with our computer tools, growing into interconnected systems that remember less by knowing information than by knowing where the information can be found. This gives us the advantage of access to a vast range of information—although the disadvantages of being constantly “wired” are still being debated. It may be no more that nostalgia at this point, however, to wish we were less dependent on our gadgets. We have become dependent on them to the same degree we are dependent on all the knowledge we gain from our friends and coworkers—and lose if they are out of touch. The experience of losing our Internet connection becomes more and more like losing a friend. We must remain plugged in to know what Google knows.

Has anyone run across anything on how the impact of outsourcing our memory to Google and availability bias?

Here is the abstract from the study:

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can “Google” the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.


The Focus to Say No

The most powerful skill they don’t teach you in school is how to say no. School is all about compliance. You’re assigned work and expected to do it on time or face the consequences. So it’s only natural that you never really learn how to say no.

Think about it … Success in school is about saying yes. It’s about putting your head down and doing what other people tell you to do when they tell you to do it. Success in life is about saying no to the non-essential. It’s the things you don’t do that give you the time and space to work on the projects and deepen the relationships that matter to you.

The Hidden Cost of Yes

You can do anything but you can’t do everything. Too often we get confused about speed and velocity. We think saying yes means we’re doing more, when in reality it often means we’re doing less. Saying yes to a project, a meeting, or a request commits you to something that’s often larger than you think. And things you say yes to have a habit of growing.

Saying yes to a request feels good … in the moment. We want to be the type of person that helps someone. We want to be seen at the type of person that helps someone. But saying yes carries a cost. One that’s often paid in the days, weeks, or even years in the future. You say yes to one meeting but it quickly becomes a weekly meeting. You say yes to working on a new project, thinking it’s small, only to watch as it grows like a week. You say yes to dinner with a colleague, that turns into another dinner. Saying yes consumes time, whereas saying no creates time.

Saying no is hard. Nobody knew that better than Steve Jobs, who said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

The first time I said no to my boss I thought I was going to be fired. Of course I wanted to impress him. But I knew that saying yes wasn’t going to impress him for long if I couldn’t deliver on all of his requests. So I said no to the non-essential requests. And there was a lot of them. As the new guy you get the grunt work. I wasn’t opposed to doing that, but I also saw it as my job to make sure I carved out and protected space to do my actual work. And because I wasn’t weighed down with too many projects, I could be more opportunistic, saying yes when a particularly challenging or interesting project came up.

Saying no is like saving your money in the bank whereas saying yes is spending it. Most of us are on overdraft.  It’s easy to say yes. It’s hard to say no.  Before you say yes, ask yourself if it’s necessary.

Still curious? Check out eight ways to say no with grace and style.


Multitasking: The Costs of Switching From One Task to Another

You may think that as you juggle emails, my-book, twitter, google, work, life, the phone and casual web surfing that you’re really doing all of that stuff at once, but what you’re really doing is quickly switching constantly between tasks. And switching carries a cognitive cost.

Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, says:

In addition to the switch cost, each time you switch away from a task and back again, you have to recall where you were in that task, what you were thinking about. If the tasks are complex, you may well forget some aspect of what you were thinking about before you switched away, which may require you to revisit some aspect of the task you had already solved (for example, you may have to re-read the last paragraph you’d been reading). Deep thinking about a complex topic can become nearly impossible.

What if I told you that some people (singletaskers) claim that our most valuable mental habits—things like deep and focused thought—must be learned through concentrated practice.

Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, comments on his blog:

The fact that people who fiddle with cell phones drive poorly shouldn’t make us less concerned about the cognitive effects of media distractions; it should make us more concerned.

And then there’s this: “It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people.” Exactly. And that’s another cause for concern. Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warned in a Science article last year that our growing use of screen-based media appears to be weakening our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

Throw Less At The Problem

There is a lot of wisdom in this brief excerpt from Jason Fried and David Hansson’s book Rework.

Jason and David are the founders of 37signals.

Watch chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and you’ll see a pattern. The menus at failing restaurants offer too many dishes. The owners think making every dish under the sun will broaden the appeal of the restaurant. Instead it makes for a crappy food (and creates inventory headaches).

That’s why Ramsay’s first step is nearly always to trim the menu, usually from thirty-plus dishes to around ten. Think about that. Improving the current menu doesn’t come first. Trimming it down comes first. Then he polishes what’s left.

When things aren’t working, the natural inclination is to throw more at the problem. More people, time, and money. All that ends up doing is making the problem bigger. The right way to go is the opposite direction: Cut back.

So do less. Your project won’t suffer nearly as much as you fear. In fact, there’s a good chance it’ll end up even better. You’ll be forced to make tough calls and sort out what truly matters.

If you start pushing back deadlines and increasing your budget, you’ll never stop.

You won’t regret reading Rework. Plus it will make you seem cool at work.