12 stress-tested work hacks to boost the output of you and your team
Jessica Stillman, Emily Hill, Gabrielle Lane
Use the brain’s unconscious biases for goal-setting.
When thinking about a deadline, tell yourself it’s ‘X days away’, rather than a number of weeks, months or years.
“If the future doesn’t feel imminent, then people won’t start working on their goals,” Daphna Oyserman, a researcher who studies the phenomenon, explains. “When I use days rather than years… it feels like the future is closer.”
Another brain hack: when planning for a long-term goal, start by imagining the end result and then work backwards to figure out the steps you need to take to accomplish it. Taking this approach, rather than planning ahead, from where you are now makes it significantly more likely you’ll succeed.
Is that rational? Not in the slightest. But science does suggest it will help you be more productive.
Having fun first and starting work later could boost productivity.
In a series of experiments that asked volunteers to either complete arduous tasks before relaxing with an enjoyable game or treat, or doing those two things the other way around, University of Chicago social psychologist Ed O’Brien and his colleagues found that play before work helps people avoid burnout and perform better in the medium and long term.
“Leisure improves our work,” O’Brien insists in a write-up of his team’s research for Harvard Business Review. “People often work better and are more satisfied with their jobs after returning from restful breaks. Enjoying work also helps people stick to longer-term goals.
“If people… fail to take advantage of such leisure opportunities, [they] end up feeling burned out or dissatisfied at work,” he warns.
So, if you want to get more done, stop saving up all your fun for the weekend and consider scheduling in a pleasurable pre-work activity or two during the week.
You’ll be happier and achieve more too.
Your brain is not built for hours of ongoing knowledge work. Regular breaks improve productivity.
Robert Pozen, senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, suggests pausing workflow every 75-90 minutes. “That’s the period of time where you can concentrate and get a lot of work done,” he has said. “We have studied professional musicians, who are most productive when they practise for this amount of time.”
A study by software company Draugiem Group, using precise time-tracking, came up with a slightly different ratio of work to rest – the ideal, they found, is to alternate 52 minutes of intense effort with 17 minutes of relaxation.
“Productive employees get the most done during comparatively short periods [because] they’re treated as sprints for which they’re well rested,” the company said.
Whether you opt for blocks of 52, 75 or 90 minutes, the underlying point is the same: find the rhythm of effort and recovery that works best for you and your team. Just don’t try to power through the entire day without taking enough breaks.
When our productivity is held up by the lack of a good idea, we tell ourselves we’re ‘stuck’ or we have some kind of ‘block’. These physical metaphors suggest being pinned down or unable to move. Physical activity can help get ideas flowing again.
Walking is a form of exercise that demands some of our attention, leaving us with enough mental horsepower to continue processing difficult problems while we take in the passing sights and sounds. Studies have linked this half-absorbed mental state, in which our thoughts are divided between the inner and outer worlds, to creative breakthroughs.
Intellectual greats, from Beethoven and Darwin to Thoreau and Dickens, were known to take regular walks to spur their thinking.
“In a knowledge-based economy that depends on sharp minds, a few minutes of shut-eye could be good for business,” Harvard Medical School sleep researcher Robert Stickgold argues.
Science shows that naps drastically boost the retention of newly learned material, improve cognitive function and creativity, sharpen motor skills, and beat caffeine for improving performance. No wonder leading companies such as Zappos, Google and Nike provide comfortable facilities for their employees to sleep on the job.
That might be a step too far for your company, but simply announcing that napping is no longer frowned upon is a free way to boost productivity.
For the first 30 minutes or so of a nap, we sleep relatively lightly and can wake up without grogginess. Nap longer than that and you fall into a deeper sleep and feel foggy-headed on waking. Therefore, unless you have 90 minutes to spare, that means quick naps of less than half an hour are usually best.
Drinking tea or coffee immediately before closing your eyes will ensure you’ll awake bright-eyed around 20 minutes later when the caffeine kicks in.
“It’s easy to become a ‘busy fool’, improving processes and gaining efficiency improvements with a scattergun approach. What is really needed is to focus on the areas that limit total output and affect the bottom line.”
That’s the experience of David Broadhead, managing director of Partners in Management.
Once business leaders have identified a bottleneck, they should alleviate it by whatever means appropriate and then look for the next developing bottleneck. “Participants on our CMI-recognised 21st Century Leaders programme are encouraged to practically apply the theory, and we have seen some highly beneficial results,” Broadhead explains.
Email denial (yes, really)
On average, emails are opened six seconds after they arrive. Yet it takes 25 minutes for employees to return to maximum productivity after opening them, according to New York University professor Adam Alter. Therefore, make like Chartered Manager Andrew Hacquoil MCMI and turn off inbox notifications.
“My best productivity tip is ‘Rule your inbox to stop it ruling you’,” he says. “If you turn off alerts, you can choose when you look at your messages.” When he does look at his inbox, he recommends doing something with every email to maintain workflow. “Decide to ‘do this now’, delegate it immediately, do it much later or simply delete.” A synced calendar helps him compile a to-do list of dated tasks.
Your email strategy can help you manage others too. “Follow up with those you’ve asked to do something quickly and easily by adding the relevant sent items to your inbox,” he says.
How much you get done is a function of how much enthusiasm you bring to your work. Showing employees how their efforts affect others could boost motivation by up to 20 per cent.
Wharton School professor (and author of the 2017 CMI Management Book of the Year) Adam Grant recruited 71 new employees of an American call centre. During training, half were introduced to a colleague from another department whose salary depended on the revenue generated by the call centre. Half were not. When they hit the phones, those who had met an ‘internal customer’ generated significantly more revenue per shift. The cost to the company was essentially zero.
“These results shocked me,” Grant said. “I had to replicate the study six times before I believed it.” You can significantly increase your team’s productivity by introducing them to someone their work helps. And at little or no cost.
“Use a prioritisation matrix to assess the urgency and importance of tasks on your to-do list. This really helps to prioritise workloads and helps you to work out which tasks can be delegated to your team,” says Daniel White MCMI.
The ‘Eisenhower matrix’ was devised by the former US president during his time as supreme commander of the Allied forces during the Second World War. There are four categories of task that determine when they should be done, and by whom.
First, urgent and important tasks are critical for success in work and life – they should be done first (they could include an emergency call from a client or handling an employee crisis).
Second, not urgent but important tasks will be long-term projects that affect the success of the business – this could be hiring a new team member.
Third, tasks that are urgent but not important are those that can be delegated to employees, such as answering general enquiries.
Finally, tasks that are neither important nor urgent, such as mindless internet browsing, should be largely eliminated to free up time.
Research by Masicampo and Baumeister, Consider it Done!, has proved that writing lists of outstanding tasks reduces the intrusive thoughts that arise from our desire to satisfy goals during unrelated tasks.
Contrary to popular belief, stress isn’t all bad. It’s your body’s way of preparing you for a challenge: a mild increase in levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol can increase concentration.
By rethinking how we respond to stress, we can transform it from a problem into a performance booster.
“When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to it,” says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal.
When experiencing a pounding heart and sweaty palms, reminding yourself that your body is on your side can transform how stress affects you, McGonigal’s research shows.
The software giant Oracle has a “learning culture”. At Dropbox, senior leaders hold quarterly book clubs to discuss new business books and ideas. Study after study shows the link between continual learning, acquiring professional and university qualifications, and high productivity. Time to upskill those managers?
Reduce the time spent on administrative tasks, such as finding items you need often, by keeping multiple versions in different locations – store notebooks in both office drawers and meeting rooms, say. “Put items as close as possible to where you use them,” says Dr Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkit.
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