Getting stuff done is great, right? Checking those little boxes feels super productive, and super validating. You’re happy because you’re cooking through your To Do list, and your boss will be really happy because surprise! You’re done already!
Except that you could be making more work for everybody on the team.
The myth of productivity
Many of us have been trained to think that it’s the volume and pace of our work that matters most. But in the frantic frenzy to finish first, we can miss a lot of things along the way.
I once worked with an intern who was a very stellar person. I liked her immensely. But she was super competitive and fixated on completing her work as quickly as possible. Popping her head into someone’s office to say, “I’m done! Got anything else for me?” was her favorite thing to do. Impressing people with her speed and productivity was how she demonstrated her value.
The thing is, she was so busy flying through her task list that she was skimping on processes and details. More often than not, the jobs she considered done needed to be fixed or redone. But because she would speed through those processes as well, she was often asked to do or fix things multiple times.
At this point, staff members would often get frustrated and take their tasks back. Over time, it became apparent this was more efficient than continuing to:
- explain the assignments over and over
- issue warnings about the consequences of mistakes
- coach her on how to slow down and work more deliberately
Eventually, most of us stopped giving her anything of substance because it was easier and less risky to simply keep doing those things ourselves. I discovered I could take her for coffee instead of giving her work— and still save time in the long run!
As a result, she became the queen of mundane tasks: envelope stuffing, mail runs, office storage organization. She completed these things quickly, and with a great attitude. But at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure everyone would have liked to see her to get more out of her internship experience.
Unfortunately, her focus on speed and multitasking kept her from gaining more advanced skills and experience. And it kept us from using her to her full potential.
Slow down to improve results
Our society places a huge value on working quickly, doing multiple things at once, and being constantly accessible. But all of these things can actually cause your work to suffer.
If your team operates at a frenetic pace all the time, you could be holding your business back. People will become frustrated, mistakes will increase, and accidents will be more likely to happen. More importantly, goals that could be achieved through thoughtful intention, detailed planning, and diligent follow-through will remain unmet. And that’s no good for anybody.
So how do we retrain our brains (and our teams!) to work more carefully, thoughtfully, and efficiently?
There are lots of articles and studies about the myth of multi-tasking.
- Research has shown that multitasking takes as much as 40 percent more time than focusing on one task at a time -- more for complex tasks.
- One study revealed that people who were considered heavy multitaskers were actually worse at sorting out relevant information from irrelevant details.
- Still not convinced? Try this little exercise.
Get in the habit of focusing on a single task. Schedule time on your calendar or even set a timer if you need to. Commit to working on one thing in that time period and one thing only.
Is your mind starting to work on an assignment even before the person explaining it to you is finished? This is your first mistake. Pay attention. Listen carefully. Make sure you fully understand the project, the process, and the purpose.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions before and during the process. Clarity is your friend. Taking five minutes to discuss details as you go can save you tons of time in the long run. Many speedy employees have had to go back and rework things they thought were “finished” because they either jumped in too fast or didn’t slow down long enough to get the facts.
Yes, you have a million things to do. So does everybody else. But working in a scattershot manner won’t help you get the right things done at the right time. For that, you need a plan.
Work with your team to determine which items are the most important and the most time sensitive. Rank your daily or weekly tasks so that you know which ones to funnel your time, efforts, and energy into. Choose one thing that you will get done, no matter what. If you find yourself getting sidetracked or distracted, refocus on your priority item of the moment.
Even with the best intentions, we all get distracted. But some of us are better than others at letting those distractions in— or keeping them out. Are you constantly checking your phone, texts, and email? If so, you’re using up valuable time and brain space switching back and forth between your inputs and outputs.
Questions, phone calls, and emails take a huge toll on your focus.
- According to one research study, it takes approximately 20 minutes to return to task after an in-person interruption, 15 minutes for a phone call interruption, and 64 seconds after an email interruption.
- The same study found that workers were dealing with email interruptions about every five minutes.
- This means we are wasting one out of every six minutes per day on email interruptions alone— not including phone calls and in-person questions!
Want to focus on a task? Put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Turn off your email alerts. Hide your Slack. The world won’t end if you’re offline for 15 or 20 minutes. And you’re much more likely to make real progress.
Quick vs. Quality
If you’re having brain surgery, do you want it to go quickly? Or do you want it to go well?
There’s a big difference here. And I think we can all agree which one sounds more appealing.
Photo by Earl Walker