Within the heart of your company, saboteurs lurk. Disguised as instruments of productivity, they are subverting your staff’s most precious resource: attention. Incessant email alerts, instant messages, buzzing BlackBerrys and cellphones are decimating workplace concentration. The average information worker – basically anyone at a desk – loses 2,1 hours of productivity every day to interruptions and distractions, according to Basex, an IT research and consulting firm.
That time is money. Computer chip giant Intel, for one, has estimated that email overload can cost large companies as much as $1 billion a year in lost employee productivity. The intrusions are constant: each day a typical office employee checks email 50 times and uses instant messaging 77 times, according to RescueTime, a US firm that develops time-management software. Such interruptions don’t just sidetrack workers from their jobs, they also undermine their attention spans, increase stress and annoyance and decrease job satisfaction and creativity.
The interruption epidemic is reaching a crisis point at some companies and shows no sign of slowing. Email volume is growing at a rate of 66% a year, according to the E-Policy Institute, an electronic communication consultancy. More people are texting. More are using Facebook or Twitter for work. It’s worse than it’s ever been. Staff at insurance companies, for example, are pounded by the avalanche of messaging. And it’s hard to stay focused when everything bings and bongs and tweets at you, and you don’t think. Yes, it is possible to blunt the interruption assault. But business leaders must go on the offensive in a realm most are oblivious to: interruption management.
The Myth of Multitasking
Human brains come equipped with two kinds of attention: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary attention, designed to be on the watch for threats to survival, is triggered by outside stimuli – what grabs you. It’s automatically rattled by the workday cacophony of rings, pings and buzzes that are turning jobs into an electronic game of Whac-a-Mole. Voluntary attention is the ability to concentrate on a chosen task.
As workers’ attention spans are whipsawed by interruptions, something insidious happens in the brain: Interruptions erode an area called effortful control and with it the ability to regulate attention. In other words, the more you check your messages, the more you feel the need to check them – an urge familiar to BlackBerry or iPhone users. “Technology is an addiction,” says Gayle Porter, a professor of management at Rutgers University who has studied e-compulsion. “If someone can’t turn their BlackBerry off, there’s a problem.”
The cult of multitasking would have us believe that compulsive message-checking is the behaviour of an always-on, hyper-productive worker. But it’s not. It’s the sign of a distracted employee who misguidedly believes he can do multiple tasks at one time. Science disagrees. People may be able to chew gum and walk at the same time, but they can’t do two or more thinking tasks simultaneously. Say a salesman is trying to read a new email while on the phone with a client. Those are both language tasks that have to go through the same cognitive channel. Trying to do both forces his brain to switch back and forth between tasks, which results in a “switching cost,” forcing him to slow down. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that productivity dropped as much as 40% when subjects tried to do two or more things at once. The switching exacts other costs too – mistakes and burnout. One of the study’s authors, David Meyer, asserts bluntly that quality work and multitasking are incompatible.
Brian Bailey and Joseph Konstan of the University of Minnesota discovered that sleeve-tugging peripheral tasks triggered twice the number of errors and jacked up levels of annoyance to anywhere between 31% and 106%. Their interrupted test workers also took 3% to 27% more time to complete the reading, counting or math problems. In fact, the harder the interrupted task, the harder it was to get back on track. (A Microsoft study suggests it takes a worker 15 minutes to refocus after an interruption.) The damaging effects spread well beyond the office cubicle. Kate LeVan, a communications consultant, coaches executives whose brains are so scrambled by electronic interruptions that they stumble during key face-to-face interactions: board meetings, investor pitches, sales presentations. “They can’t have an extended conversation for more than a few minutes,” LeVan says. “That’s the impact of having all this data going back and forth. They have problems in conversation because they can’t focus.”
Here’s how the brain behaves when your attention slips away from a task: The hippocampus, which manages demanding cognitive tasks and creates long-term memories, kicks the job down to the striatum, which handles rote tasks. So the gum-chewing part of the brain is now replying to the boss’s email. This is why you wind up addressing emails to people who weren’t supposed to get them. Or sending messages rife with typos.The striatum is the brain’s autopilot. And no part of your business should be allowed to run on autopilot.
Paying Attention to Paying Attention
In her book Rapt, Winifred Gallagher argues that humans are the sum of what they pay attention to: What we focus on determines our experience, knowledge, amusement, fulfilment. Yet instead of cultivating this resource, she says, we’re squandering it on “whatever captures our awareness.” To truly learn something, and remember it, you have to pay full attention.
E-interruptions are making it so hard to do that that Google, Microsoft, IBM and Intel are members of the Information Overload Research Group, formed in 2008 to collaborate on research, develop best practices and host forums to share new approaches. It’s self-preservation as much as anything; computer engineers were among the first to show symptoms of e-interruption exposure. Ten years ago, Harvard Business School’s Leslie Perlow famously chronicled the interruption of a high-tech software company. Its engineers were interrupted so often they had to work nights and weekends. After studying the workplace for nine months, the source of the dysfunction became clear:
No one could get anything done because of the bombardment of messages. Perlow came up with an intervention: Quiet Time. For four hours in the morning, the 17 engineers worked alone. All messaging and phone contact was banned. In the afternoon, communication could resume. Given time to concentrate, the engineers got a project for a colour printer completed without the graveyard shift. Intel is using Quiet Time at two of its sites. Other companies, including US Cellular and Deloitte & Touche, have mandated less email use, encouraged more face-to-face contact and experimented with programmes such as “no email Friday.”
The results often are surprising: employees build rapport with colleagues – and they save time. Co-workers can settle something in a two-minute phone conversation that might have required three emails per person. Each change reverberates throughout a company, especially since – as a University of California, Irvine, study found – 44% of interruptions an employee experiences are from within the company. Nearly everyone needs such boundaries to get anything done in this 24/7 work world. Count Chad Willardson among the converted. He’s a senior financial advisor at Merrill Lynch Private Wealth Management Group and operates a financial services practice with a partner for Merrill in California.
He used to check for new messages every five minutes, a potential 96 interruptions during an eight-hour day. “The more I checked email,” he says, “the more anxious I would feel over every request and question.” Now he checks email manually, and only four times a day at prescribed hours – the schedule that Oklahoma State University researchers describe as optimum. He says he gets a lot more done, is more in control of his calendar and feels much less stressed. In fact, stress-management seminars often reveal executives driven to wits’ end by their own inboxes. During one session at the aerospace company Lockheed Martin, many managers vented this frustration – until one raised his hand. “It’s not a problem for me,” he said. “I’ve gotten my email checking down to twice a day.”
He explained that his staff knew he preferred to communicate by phone and they don’t send him email unless it’s important that the information be in writing. And because he checked email only twice daily, they had been weaned from the idea that they’d get an instant reply. Chances are this wasn’t just good for the manager, but for all his employees, too. By modelling interruption-management, he was probably reducing the volume of interruptions throughout his division. Everyone understood that he viewed excessive messages as a drain on his performance – and by extension, theirs. One thing was clear that day at Lockheed: when the manager volunteered his solution, it was as if he’d levitated. Other managers looked stunned. And envious.
Debunking the Multitasking Myth
Businesses praise multitasking, but research shows that it reduces productivity and increases mistakes.
In his book The Myth of Multitasking Dave Crenshaw sheds light on an interesting statistic. Studies have shown that each person on average loses about 28% of the workday due to interruptions and inefficiencies. Multitasking – or switchtasking – is probably the biggest culprit.
In Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School, John Medina quotes research that shows a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to accomplish a task. Not only that, he or she makes up to 50% more errors. Medina also says that the brain is a sequential processor, unable to pay attention to two things at the same time.
Here are some more tips for surviving the daily torrent of communication:
- Create an interruption-free zone at some point during the day.
- Turn off your email, cellphone, instant messaging programme (and yes, the BlackBerry too), and see whether you get more done.
- Write a “to-do” list in the morning. Stick to it and try to do each task one at a time. Use a pen and a notepad to manage your to-do list and record other information.
- Put your cellphone on silent and respond to calls twice a day.
- This way you manage the incoming calls, not the other way around.
- Work on email only once or twice a day. This will stop you from spending hours answering emails when you should be working on your “to-do” list.
How To Multitask Like Tim Ferriss, Randi Zuckerberg And Other Very Busy People
Nine entrepreneurs tell us how they get it all done.
Think you’re busy? Take a look at Guy Fieri‘s calendar. Or a U.S. Army general’s. Or an in-demand teenage actor’s. Or the CEO of a globally recognised company’s.
Some of the busiest people on the planet took time out of their days to tell us how they get it all done. Take note!
6 Questions Entrepreneurs Should Ask When Choosing Medical Aid
As a young entrepreneur, what are the questions you should ask yourself when it comes to choosing a medical aid plan?
One of the most valuable assets in any small business is something that entrepreneurs often overlook – their own human capital. Part of making sure that you give the best of yourself to your new business is to make sure you’re in good health, and one way to invest in your health is to make sure you have a solid medical aid policy in place.
Besides being a financial safety net if you get sick or are in an accident, it can also encourage you to stay healthy in the longer term. So, as a young entrepreneur, what are the questions you should ask yourself when it comes to choosing a medical aid plan?
1. How healthy are you?
If you’re young, there’s a good chance you’re relatively healthy and not plagued with serious health issues – but this isn’t always the case. You may have a chronic condition such as diabetes or asthma, where you need regular checkups and medication. If this is the case, will your medical aid plan cover the costs of managing your chronic condition?
2. How much can you spend each month?
If you’re self-employed, you won’t have the luxury of your company paying your salary – or your medical aid cover. Compile a budget and work out exactly how much you can afford to pay towards your medical aid cover per month, bearing in mind that you may have to pay in extra for things like day-to-day medication, medical specialists out of network or even membership fees for your medical scheme’s rewards programme.
3. Is there a waiting period involved?
Medical aids are able to apply waiting periods, where you won’t be covered for a certain period of time after you join their scheme depending on your health and previous medical aid cover.
If you’re joining with a pre-existing condition, remember that you won’t be covered for up to 12 months as soon as you become a member, so you’ll need to set aside money for any related costs during this time.
4. Are you planning on starting a family?
As a young entrepreneur, starting a family may be the last thing on your mind – but it’s important to factor this in when joining your medical aid, as it becomes very important later on. This is because you can’t join a medical scheme if you or your spouse is already pregnant (just as we explained in point number 3, there’s a 10-month waiting period for the “pre-existing condition” of pregnancy). Things like maternity benefits can be a lifesaver in terms of footing the bill for pregnancy and birth costs, so it’s worth thinking about this long before you’re ready to settle down.
5. What does the hospital plan offer?
If you’re young and healthy, chances are you’ll most likely opt for a hospital plan, so don’t just compare medical schemes in general – compare their hospital plans specifically. A hospital plan has the lowest premiums but also the lowest coverage: generally, it covers you if you’re admitted to hospital, but you pay for any other day-to-day medical expenses such as doctor visits and medication. Many hospital plans also come with the option of a medical savings account (MSA) attached, where you can access a certain portion of money per year for these day-to-day expenses. Others, like Fedhealth’s MediVault offering, take this even further – you can “borrow” a certain amount of money for day-to-day medical expenses from the Scheme, and then pay it back over 12 months, interest-free.
Related: Why Employees Need Funeral Cover
6. What does the fine print say?
Before you choose a medical aid plan, make sure you know exactly what’s covered and what’s not, including things like in-network and out-of-network hospitals, co-payments, limits and exclusions. Also research the scheme’s pay-out rate: do they pay medical aid rates or higher rates, which many hospitals and specialists charge?
Owning your own business is about investing in yourself, including your time, your ideas – and your health. It’s also about juggling lots of balls in the air at the same time. With a solid medical aid plan in place, you can at least know that you have your health looked after should something happen – which means your business can keep going and thrive well into the future.
4 Psychological Reasons Entrepreneurs Should Embrace Procrastination
Do you struggle with procrastination at the office? If so, believe it or not, it might not be such a bad thing.
There’s always something you’d rather be doing. Even right now, you might be reading this article in an attempt to avoid carrying out a less palatable endeavor.
Procrastination is normal, and especially so these days. Social media, streaming television and movies, the ease of internet access, and the ubiquity of smartphones can all distract. There are ample reasons why people procrastinate, and it’s always been thought of as a blockade to productivity.
But the perception of procrastination doesn’t always match the reality.
“Procrastination is not just avoiding or delaying a task,” says David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organisational Excellence. “It also has to include an aspect that’s counterproductive, irrational or unnecessary.”
1. Procrastination helps spur creativity
West Wing creator and Molly’s Game director Aaron Sorkin once said on the Today show, “You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.” Sorkin puts off writing sometimes until the last minute, and the results speak for themselves.
Even if we’re not all award-winning writers, when you’re putting something off, it doesn’t have to be a distraction. It can simply be a break, and that break can open up a world of new ideas.
When you allow yourself more time to sit and think about what you’re working on, different pathways to a result can bubble into your brain. A 2012 study in Nature discovered – through brain imaging – that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) lay largely dormant when rappers were free-styling. Some athletes might even refer to this as “the zone.”
For entrepreneurs, procrastination might be just the thing to trigger an answer that would be impossible to reach if they didn’t let their minds wander away from the task at hand.
2. Procrastination aids memory recall
In 1927, Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first discovered how interrupting an event can actually help people remember it. After her professor noticed waiters at a nearby cafe remembered open tabs better than those that had already been paid, she tested the hypothesis by giving a series of puzzles to people to complete, while subtly interrupting half of them.
Those that were interrupted were able to recall details with 90 percent more accuracy than those who were allowed to complete the task. The Zeigarnik Effect was borne.
The same could be said for today’s entrepreneurs. Breaking for lunch, hitting the gym, reading a book, jumping on another task or simply staring out the window can help you better remember the various moving parts in the mission you’re trying to finish.
3. Shockingly, procrastination can enhance focus
This seems like a paradox on its surface. How can you focus better by interrupting what you’re doing – i.e. procrastinating?
Instead of bearing the monotony of working on a single task until it’s done, it’s more helpful to move away – at least briefly. Concentration wanes if we don’t break up the the tedium. Similar to triggering creativity, we’re better able to concentrate if we take a brief blow.
A study in 2011 looked at this psychological effect. Subjects were asked to remember random digits while performing a visual task. They found that once people were asked to recall the digits, their performance on the visual task declined over time. But when researchers interrupted the visual exercise with sporadic reminders of the digits, their visual scores remained high no matter the duration.
The short of it: Take a break every once in a while, even if you’re on deadline.
4. Procrastination often yields better decision-making
Oftentimes, entrepreneurs will receive an important email that needs an answer. There’s no hard timetable on the answer, but because of the weight of the question, people drop everything to arrive at an answer. If you don’t take a moment to sit back and let the full import of the question sink in, you’re liable to make the wrong decision.
Researchers at Columbia performed an experiment to test this idea. Would a little more time actually lead to better decisions?
First, they asked the subjects to determine which direction a set of black dots was moving across the screen. At the same time, a cluster of coloured dots starting moving to distract them. Participants were asked to judge as quickly as possible.
When the coloured dots moved in the same direction as the black dots, the results were basically perfect. But when they moved in opposite directions, the accuracy dropped.
Second, they performed the exact same experiment, but subjects were asked to answer when they heard a clicking sound, which they varied between 17-500 milliseconds – a time span meant to mimic real-life decisions, like driving. Researchers found that when decisions were delayed by about 120 milliseconds, their accuracy significantly improved.
However, the researchers differentiated between prolonged and delayed decision-making. If subjects made the decision too quickly, the brain was still filtering out the distractions (coloured dots). But if it took too long, it could be hindered by other distractions.
The same could be said for procrastination. Procrastinate too much, or for too long, and nothing will ever get done. But, as we’ve seen, there are some serious psychological benefits to procrastination.
This article was originally posted here on Entrepreneur.com.
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