Beating the Post-Summer Office Blues

Three research-backed tips to get you back in the game at work this fall

Posted Aug 29, 2017

In our work-obsessed world, the month of August can be a glorious reprieve. Somehow, it feels easier to abandon the daily grind to savor the precious last days of summer—to unplug; to have fun with our family; to enjoy life.

But now the days are getting shorter, family vacations are over, and school is back in session. At work, the race to year-end is heating up, and it’s time to get our collective heads back in the game. (For this reason, my editor calls the week after Labor Day “back to work week.”)

Here are a few of the biggest enemies of workplace productivity, and, more importantly, how to defeat them so you can have your most productive September yet.

Enemy #1: Distractions

Source: burst/CC0

The average person spends just six hours per week in focused work. And shockingly, once our focus is pulled away from a task, it can take up to 25 minutes to regain it. Our daily distractions can have a startling effect on our productivity. What’s more, because we tend to compensate by working harder and longer, they also increase our stress.

Although “distraction zero” probably isn’t possible, we can work to curtail them. For example, instead of checking email several times an hour, research shows that four times per day is best.

We can also take charge of our calendar. Nathan Latka, CEO of Internet marketing firm Heyo, spends Sunday evenings reviewing his upcoming meetings and canceling the ones that aren’t absolutely necessary. As billionaire Warren Buffet advises, “you gotta keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no.” Often, this means being assertive and unapologetic about your boundaries—after all, no one else is going to do it for you!

Enemy #2: Multitasking

No matter how great multi-tasking feels at the time—and we do get an emotional boost from the activity—it’s a trap. Despite our beliefs to the contrary, roughly 98 percent of people are completely incapable of multi-tasking (a fact that’s shocked and disappointed even preeminent researchers).

Author and computer science professor Cal Newport is a passionate proponent of “deep work”—focusing on one and only one thing at a time. When one software company blocked two hours in the morning and afternoon for deep work, the majority of employees reported improved productivity. Nearly half felt more productive during their non-deep work hours!

Deep work is part art and part science. On the science side, research has shown that the best way to tackle it is in 90 minute chunks punctuated by 15 minute breaks. But the art is finding the approach that works for you. For example, if your post-vacation brain is struggling with the concept of 90 straight minutes of work, start with the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes on with a 5 minute break. (I used this technique when I wrote this article, and it worked like a charm!).

Enemy #3: Action Without Intention

I once had a colleague who worked more than anyone I’ve ever met. He’d be in the office at all hours, sent multiple emails during the weekend, and had no compunction about scheduling a 6pm meeting. One day, I showed up to the office and learned he’d been let go. I was even more shocked to hear his boss say, “He worked so hard—but it was on all the wrong things.”

How often do you dive right into a task without stepping back to figure out whether it’s the right task? Most action-oriented people are often helpless to resist the urge to dive in without examining the bigger picture. Luckily, there is a simple solution—I call it the 1% rule. Spend 1 percent of your day planning how you’ll spend the other 99 percent. Start by asking: if I accomplished only one thing today, what should it be? Then, structure your day around that one thing. And before adding something to your list, take a step back and ask: Is this important, and if so, do I need to re-assess my “one thing?”

As a final point, though it’s important to push yourself during “back to work week,” it’s just as important not to stress about it. Remember that and you’ll be back in the groove before you know it!