Wired for Success

How to fulfill your potential

Slowing Down Can Increase Productivity and Happiness, Part 1

"Slow and less" may be better than "more and fast."

Today’s hectic, fast paced and overstimulated world can create a work and lifestyle of hurriedness, busyness, multitasking and workaholism, all aimed at increasing productivity and life satisfaction. Yet, there’s compelling evidence that slowing down can actually improve productivity and increase happiness.

I’m sure many of you share my experience of going on vacation for relaxation. Our pace slows down, we usually feel more calm and relaxed, and we take a much needed respite from our fast pace of life and its responsibilities.Time slows down.Yet, when we return from work, that calm, slower pace disappears and we’re back on the hamster wheel.

Myths About “More And Faster”

While it is conventional wisdom in the workplace and management reinforces the “more is better” “and faster is better” approach to work, the assumptions are not supported by research. Let’s look at these myths:

Myth 1: More hours of work make you more productive.

We now equate busyness and overwork with productivity but the two are not the same. In the same way, we’ve equated “seat time” --that is time workers spend in their seats at their desks or in meetings--as equivalent to productive work. It may be the reverse. In a New York Times article, “Let’s Be Less Productive,” author Tim Jackson defines productivity as “the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy.” Jackson’s view underscores the perception that productivity in all its forms is measured in terms of money and time. Jackson goes on to say, “time is money…We’ve become conditioned by the language of efficiency.”

Sara Robinson, writing an insightful article in Salon magazine, on the issue of overwork, “Bring Back the 40-hour Work Week,” says “150 years of research proves that long hours at work will kill profits, productivity and employees.” Yet, for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was “stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive—and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management,” Robinson argues. Citing the work of Tom Walker of the Work Less Institute’s Prosperity Covenant, “That output does not rise or fall in direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be learned each generation.”

A Business Roundtable study found that after just eight 60-hour weeks the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70-or 80- hour weeks, the fall-off happens ever faster; at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks.       

Myth 2: Being Busy Improves Productivity And Happiness

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing,” contends Tim Kreider in his article, “The Busy Trap,” in the New York Times. He says often this is said as a boast, “disguised as a complaint,” but often these same people complain about being dead tired and exhausted.

U.S.A. Today published a multi-year poll to determine how people perceived time and their own busyness. It found that in each consecutive year since 1987, people reported that they are busier than the year before, with 69 % responding that they were either “busy,” or “very busy,” with only 8 % responding that they were “not very busy.”

I work as an executive coach and advisor to many senior executives and professionals. Almost without exception they either complain or observe that they can “barely keep up,” or “have no time for vacations,” or to do things for fun, and that their families often suffer. The result is often that they are overstressed and overworked, but tell me there is no choice—the job requires it. Telling people you are really busy has become some kind of a badge of courage, and people who are not so busy are looked down upon.

Even children today are overscheduled. Today's adolescents and teens are overtaxed and overburdened and stressed to a degree that was once seen only in child psychiatric patients, according to an analysis of research spanning five decades by Jean Twenge, PhD, a psychology professor at San Diego State University.

Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap, "Overscheduling our children is not only a widespread phenomenon, it's how we parent today," he says. "Parents feel remiss that they're not being good parents if their kids aren't in all kinds of activities. Children are under pressure to achieve, to be competitive. I know sixth-graders who are already working on their resumes so they'll have an edge when they apply for college."

Tim Kreider argues that overly busy people are busy because “of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and read what they might have to face in its absence…They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” He says that busyness serves as a kind of “existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness.”  For busy people’s lives cannot possibly be “silly or trivial or meaningless” if they are completely booked with activities, and “in demand every hour of the day.” Krieder contends that our culture has assumed a value position that idleness or doing nothing is a bad thing. But “idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice,” he says, “it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

Increasingly, management in organizations are concerned about productivity and regularly assess employee engagement levels. But the problem with this approach is that engagement is associated with “seat time.” A study by Julian Birkinshaw at the London Business School and author of Becoming A Better Boss shows in his research that many employees are engaged in tasks to keep busy rather than focusing on priority work, and managers measure busyness levels rather than results.

Myth 3: Multi-tasking increases productivity.

This is another workplace and lifestyle myth that is perpetuated despite evidence to the contrary. First, let's start by defining what we mean when we use the term multitasking. It can mean performing two or more tasks simultaneously, or it can also involve switching back and forth from one thing to another. Multitasking can also involve performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

In order to determine the impact of multitasking, psychologists asked study participants to switch tasks and then measured how much time was lost by switching. In one study conducted by Robert Rogers and Stephen Monsell, participants were slower when they had to switch tasks than when they repeated the same task. Another study conducted by Joshua Rubinstein, Jeffrey Evans and David Meyer found that participants lost significant amounts of time as they switched between multiple tasks and lost even more time as the tasks became increasingly complex.

In the brain, multitasking is managed by what are known as mental executive functions. These executive functions control and manage other cognitive processes and determine how, when and in what order certain tasks are performed. According to researchers Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein, there are two stages to the executive control process. The first stage is known as "goal shifting" (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and the second is known as "role activation" (changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task). Switching between these may only add a time cost of just a few tenths of a second, but this can start to add up when people begin switching back and forth repeatedly. This might not be that big of a deal in some cases, such as when you are folding laundry and watching television at the same time. However, if you are in a situation where safety or productivity are important, such as when you are driving a car in heavy traffic, even small amounts of time can prove critical. Meyer suggests that productivity can be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks.

Myth 4: Time is fixed and the same for everyone.

To be most effective, leaders must move beyond time management to time mastery. Time managers are reliant on clocks and calendars; time masters develop an intuitive sense of timing. Time managers see time as a fixed, rigid constant; time masters view it as relative and malleable. Time masters have what John Clemens and Scott Dalrymple, call the critical skill of "temporal intelligence."

Based on more than four years of research, "Time Mastery" includes dozens of examples of leaders whose temporal intelligence has helped them achieve business breakthroughs at organizations such as GE, 3M, Staples, and Dell. Readers will learn to develop six time-mastery behaviors, including how to: treat time as a continuous ""flow"" of peak experience; set the rhythm of their organization; look beyond the moment and encourage long-term, strategic thinking; and use time as an energizing principle that drives improvement. With intriguing examples from sports, science, history, and the performing arts, as well as business, "Time Mastery" takes a fascinating, in-depth look at a surprising new leadership skill.

According to neuroscientific research highlighted by Inc. Magazine, how the brain perceives time passing determines whether our days feel luxuriously long, or short and harried -- and it's something that we have a  certain level of control over. By paying attention and actively noticing new things, we can slow time down.

The 2011 New Yorker profile of David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who studies time perception and calls time a "rubbery thing" that changes based on mental engagement. The more detailed the memory, the longer the moment seems to last. "This explains why we think that time speeds up when we grow older,'"Eagleman said "why childhood summers seem to go on forever, while old age slips by while we’re dozing. The more familiar the world becomes, the less information your brain writes down, and the more quickly time seems to pass."

British journalist Claudia Hammond echoed the idea that the amount of input our brain is receiving at any given moment can create a "time warp." An Elle review of her new book, "Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception," explained: “Humans seem to process the world in three-second increments (the duration of a handshake, the length of the annoying sound computers make when they start up, and the periodic rhythm of speech), and we develop a sense for how those increments sync with clock time. Time can warp when our brain receives much more or less input than usual in a three-second span. (For example, time slows down when you are about to crash your car, but you can easily lose a whole day watching things on YouTube.)”

One study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that the more attention we pay to an event, the longer the interval of time feels. Another study from the Journal of the Association for Psychological Science had similar findings.

Myth 5: Quick decisions are better than slow decisions.

How many leaders struggle with decision-making? They know it’s a key measure of their effectiveness — in fact, many of the leaders I work with say the best bosses they ever had were “decisive.”

What exactly do they mean? One dictionary says “decisive” people make decisions “quickly and effectively.” Another says “quickly and surely.” Still another says “quickly and confidently.” Notice what they have in common. Decisive people, the dictionaries say, make decisions quickly.

In their book, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, brothers and academics Chip (of Stanford Graduate School of Business) and Dan Heath (of Duke) explore how to eliminate biases and improve the quality of our decisions. One of the biggest decision-making mistakes they tackle is our tendency not to waffle but to decide too quickly. Stanford's Re:Think newsletter explains that the authors devote a considerable portion of the book to the idea of widening your options, advice that may seem at odds with the very definition of decision making.

If decision making is the process of zeroing in on the best choice, why would you widen your array of choices? The reason, [Chip] Heath explains, is our tendency to get quickly locked into one alternative. We ask ourselves, for example, whether we should fire an underperforming worker--as if to do or not to do is the only choice we have. But when you stop to think of other options--one of the authors' many tips is to imagine that your current options are vanishing--you'll often discover an answer that’s better than what you had been pondering. (Could you move your employee to a role he’s more suited for? Or give him a mentor to improve his performance?) Heath cites research showing that people who had considered even one additional alternative did six times better than those who had considered only a single option.

The goal, in other words, isn't to go fast and eliminate options. It's to slow down and add them. So how do you accomplish this? The key, the authors say, is taking the time to gather information and alternatives. Using devil’s advocates, asking people who have solved similar problems, gathering relevant statistics, and soliciting the advice of friends and family members can all help.

The Heath brothers aren't the only people warning leaders not to be seduced by quick decision making, of course. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole best-selling book on the limitations of quick thinking called, appropriately, Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven't picked it up yet, it's well worth a read in full and is packed with examples of how our knee-jerk decision-making machinery can lead us astray, as well as techniques to short-circuit bias. But for the quick-and-dirty summary, look to Harvard Business Review, which offers this article on one technique, the premortem, and another article by Kahneman himself outlining the basics of why quick decision making is often bad decision making.

Summary:

So, if there is considerable evidence to  show that our assumptions about “more and faster is better” may be more myth than reality in terms of being more productive and happier, what are the strategies for slowing down. 

Part 2 of this article forthcoming will address that question.

Follow me on Twitter @raybwilliams

My website: http://raywilliams.ca

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

more...

Subscribe to Wired for Success

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?