I’ve taken a real shine to podcasts recently. Whilst walking or driving or at the gym, I’m plugged into my bluetooth wrap-around headphones doing two things at once. For most guys, multitasking is microwaving a pie whilst having a shower. Sometimes my phones goes and it automatically cuts the podcast and brings on the call, which is inevitably an offer of easy, high-fee work. I’ll accept the work, the caller will compliment me on the high-energy music in the background, the call ends, the phone brings back up the podcast and I go back to my workout. Such multitasking must surely be a shining example of productivity. (This happens to me all the time and isn’t a made-up example for this article in any way).
People talk about multi-tasking and being productive all the time. I’m not entirely sure everyone shares the same understanding of what it actually means. Technically, it’s a measure of the ratio of outputs to inputs in a production process. You know, a genuinely measurable thing you can track against a baseline and assess the effectiveness of changing variables. Probably my podcast at the gym example isn’t really about productivity, although my vertical leap has increased ten percent in the past three months and surely that’s a kind of productivity?
That ‘outputs to inputs’ stuff must just be about companies and countries though, right? Let us just fret about personal productivity. Let us all read about four hour work weeks, attempt four hour bodies and outsource our low value activities to some kids in Kazakhstan via fiverr.com. As a self-employed person, I do outsource much of my, for want of a better term, work. I have an accountant. I have a graphic designer. I buy their time and outputs as and when required. Those aren’t low value activities but they’re areas where my skill levels are amateurish on a good day with the wind behind me. Other tasks that are low value, I might assign to one of my low-skill non-Kazakhstani kids at low but not Fiverr.com-low rates. I probably shouldn’t be in charge of running a country but it seems to work for us. To be fair to Nahir my Fiverr guy, his work isn’t low skill. He is a skilled creative and I could never have drawn that cartoon myself of a desert scene made up of popsicles and cupcakes to go along as a background image with a comedy song I’d written about how I’m annoyed when people confuse the words ‘desert’ and ‘dessert’.
One technique worth considering, to the extent that you find it do-able, is performing different types of activities at different times of the day. I once met a professor of chronobiology (look it up) and she told me of circadian rhythms and such. People are different but the average person has two peak periods of alertness in a given day – around 8am to 10am and 6pm to 8pm. Our droopiest period of non-alertness is 1pm to 3pm. She argued that, if you can, you should schedule high value / high thinking activities in your peak alertness periods and your mindless, low-value tasks in your trough alertness periods.
Gloria Mark is one of the world’s leading experts on workplace interruptions. If I was to ask you what you thought were the primary causes of workplace interruptions, you might say things like phonecalls, emails, pop-in visitors or meetings. Mark did a videoed study of many workplaces where they’d had time management training and knew at a conscious level that they should be working on one task at a time until completion and that the tasks should be done in priority order according to agreed high-level goals. It’s fascinating to watch as the number one workplace interruption isn’t any of those you would’ve thought of. Our number one workplace interruptor is… ourselves. You watch the videos and people are working studiously on their high priority task, then, for no overtly obvious reason, they stop, shuffle sideays and do something else briefly, and finish by sliding back to that high priority task they’d just interrupted themselves from doing. And they’d do this repeatedly. Every time you interrupt a task and return to it, there is abundant opportunity for errors, duplications, ommission and so forth, nevermind the inefficiency.
One option to deal with the ill-disciplined, unproductive, troublemaker that is yourself is the pomodoro technique. When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals that are spaced out by short breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines. If you gradually increase the duration of the working periods, you can even train your brain to be more focused. The guy who invented the technique used a wind-up timer in the shape of a tomato and pomodoro is Italian for tomato.
Sorry, that last paragraph was a lot funnier in its original Kazakh language. It lost a bit in translation.
Technology has had an amazing impact on productivity over the years. For example, manufacturing has roared ahead in recent years, especially when you include the manufacturing of tweets.
Sarcasm aside, technology has enabled those with a view to being productive the tools for being so. Equally, technology enables those more into goofing off the tools for doing so. In my own efforts for a work-life balance, computers and networks have allowed me to pack so much more productivity into the hours where I’m capable and inclined to being so. And my goofing off efforts are off the charts. If there were charts for goofing off. Which there aren’t. Who’s going to make them?
There’s also that grey inbetween time where we’re doing stuff that’s not necessarily economically driven but could be worthwhile. Now technology allows us to measure this. Go to a store that sells smartphones and the like – one of the bigger outlets – and you’ll notice a whole aisle dedicated to a type of product that didn’t exist even five years ago. It probably could have but the people marketing the concept had to catch up with the technology. Broadly, they’re called ‘wearables’ and mostly they’re about fitness. The great grand children of the pedometers from the 1990s when all we thought we needed to know was whether we more or less than ten thousand steps a day. They connect via bluetooth to your smartphone, or via wireless broadband to a cloud and monitor and track your pulse, blood pressure and, possibly in the not too distant future, your attitude.
These are consumer items for personal use for customers who care about improving their health and fitness but it cannot be to far before employer apps can be developed. Already GPS apps tied to vehicles increase productivity by making personal love afairs during working hours using company wheels unviable. Patients prone to wandering from institutions are similarly tagged. Call centre workers for years have been tied by electronic umbilicals into measurement systems that assess everything they do and say, and control and record their work, as well as limit their non-work goings-on during work time.
A researcher recently ran a study on how people might interact with robots in the workplace. The robot in question was described as looking like, “the maid from The Jetsons.” (Disturbingly, that was all the reference I needed.) Several variations of the study were conducted, as two human workers worked with the robot on a task to erect a complex construction using building blocks. The most productive scenario was the one where the robot was in charge. The researcher surmised that this was because it was a complex task and most people are happy enough to let someone else make the tough decisions. I can see myself in many future situations rolling my eyes and muttering something like, “#@%* this, let the robot do it.” (I’ve been using Google for most of my parenting tasks for years.)
Until the robot boom comes along, we’ll just have to rely on LinkedIn articles with titles like, ‘Seven Things Successful People Do Before Breakfast’ to get us up to speed on being more productive. (I’m hoping one of the seven things is ‘prepare breakfast.’) I’m not a complete luddite – tablets and smartphones and broadband have let me make tremendous strides in my personal and professional productivity. That said, I still reckon getting our organic brains into an optimal state for work is far and away the first thing we should do if we want a productive day: Have challenging and specific goals and a plan for each day; keep your workspace tidy and organised; sleep properly; take breaks and get away for a lunch break even if it’s quick. Stop consuming sugar.
I visited the Department of Statistics website for some info around productivity in New Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. I then went to the Treasury website and found a presentation on productivity. Apparently, New Zealand has been doing better over the past decade than the OECD countries we like to compare ourselves to but only because we were so bad to begin with. It would take another 10 years at our current rate of productivity growth to catch up to the United Kingdom’s, if their productivity didn’t change at all. The presentation’s author from treasury must be an expert on productivity – he produced 146 PowerPoint slides. (I’m assuming it was a ‘he.’ A ‘she’ would’ve done away with half those slides and communicated much the same thing with her eyebrows.)
The Zeigarnik Effect is a psychological phenomenon that makes humans very umcomfortable with unfinished things. A great way to drive yourself productively is to start. Be it that university essay, the kitchen shelves that need putting up or the drafting of that marketing plan at work, just starting is a powerful tool. Well, that’s what I found when I wrote this article fifty minutes from deadline.
Deadlines, scarcity and pointless shouting are three techniques for influencing productivity with differing degrees of success.
So 3M, you’re telling me that your post-it notes will adhere 317 separate research notes onto a wall for sorting into categories but after an hour, with the window slightly ajar on a not-especially-windy day, they will not remain adhered to said wall? Is that what you’re telling me 3M? I only ask because it didn’t say that on the packet! Maybe I should’ve stapled them to the wall? I know what I’d like to staple to a wall. Seriously, I love your product but I fail to see how this is, in any way, my fault. Much like how I fail to see how anything is my fault. This was my fault. In fairness only a hundred or so fell off. So, the glass is half full. 31.545% full. On the plus-side, they’ve all clumped together on the floor so they’re not being blown around anymore. Except the ones that have. Which I can’t find. And can’t tell that they ever existed.
I’m a writer, amongst other things. Writing is a great occupation to reflect different approaches to productivity. I tried using post-it notes to enhance my creative productivity because, until I get a PC screen 3 metres by 3 metres, post-it notes on a wall is a superior approach to anything computers can offer but, as the rant above suggests, it worked up until the point that it didn’t. Writers aren’t productive for money. If they were, they wouldn’t be writers.
Productivity might be enhanced by working away from an office without the distractions and interruptions that offices have. Nope, writers don’t have those – just fridges, TVs, radio, FaceBook, kids home from school and the voices in our head.
People get productive when there’s a deadline or when there is a scarce resource being competed for. Things that are running out get appreciated. This is why we hunt for the last chip in the bag and those crunchy bits. This is why we eke out the last of the toothpaste in the tube. I like the experience of the last saline solution for my contact lenses. You shake the bottle and can’t believe there’s still some left but it keeps on coming until the very last which emerges in a fizz. You place your lens in your eye overflowing with tiny bubbles. It’s like champagne for your cornea. And don’t get me started on the challenge of getting your car as far as it can go when the tank says empty. Oh, it says empty but you know it’s holding out on you. Just like the personal trainer at the gym knows your tank isn’t really empty and just shouting at you loudly and repeatedly will extract that last little bit of effort out of you. (Note – shouting at your car as you abandon it by the side of the motorway after it’s literally run out of petrol will not extract any more effort out of it. It does however make you feel better about yourself. I suspect this is also the motivation of the personal trainer.)
The New Zealand Government has a Productivity Commission. It’s great to finally put the word “productivity” in a sentence with the phrase “New Zealand Government.” I suspect this might be one of those political sops to a minor party under MMP to be seen to be doing something but their website has some cool graphics. There’s a 3-panel sketch with a sheep turning into a ball of wool that itself turns into a jersey. I’m assuming that’s all about adding value which is the essence of productivity – not just making more with the same or less resources but creating goods of greater value along the way. The jersey, when you squint a bit, is actually made up of 1s and 0s – binary code. Bit more symbolism there – from the sheep’s back to the digital age. Or maybe we make robot sheep now? I’ve seen that movie. It doesn’t end well.
As the site says, when it comes to kiwi productivity, “New Zealand has slipped from one of the wealthiest countries in the 1950s to now around 26th in the OECD. It is not the case that our productivity has shrunk. Rather, the rate of increase in productivity has been behind other countries and our income growth has been slower.”
We’re well educated and honest but we’re small, far away and over reliant on a few industries. We’re never going to get that much bigger and, major tectonic shifts aside, we’re unlikely to get any closer to major markets.
A PDF available on the website of the agency formally known as the Department of Labour suggests we should “work smarter.” I’ll start by not drafting the main topics of my next book on post-it notes.
I’m not suggesting that employees should be made to be miserable. Ultimately, that’s up to all of us individually. The point I’ve been trying to make for ages and this recent article captures nicely is that employee happiness and employee engagement are quite separate and different things. If you want to gift chocolate fish and back rubs (no non-consensual touching!) that’s up to you and your spare time and resources. Happy employees can be unproductive and unhappy ones can be productive. Engagement is about the observable application of discretionary effort at work that on average leads to greater productivity, revenue and profitability. Who knows how happy people are? (Including themselves.)
Here’s an extract. Note that happiness is cited as one of many components of engagement, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I don’t think they’re in order so don’t get excited that happiness is “number 1.” The article talks about a dashboard which also is an interesting idea. It’s all about trending.
Here are the 10 metrics that are proven to have the biggest impact on employee engagement:
How happy are employees at work and at home?
How much energy do employees have at work?
Are employees getting feedback frequently enough?
Are employees being recognized for their hard work?
Are employees satisfied with their work environment?
Relationships with Managers
Do employees and their managers get along well?
Relationships with Colleagues
Do the employees get along with each other?
Do employees’ values align with the company values?
Are employees proud of where they work?
Do employees have opportunities for career growth?
My family and I have just moved to a 5 acre property just north of Auckland that, by my standards, could be classified as ‘rural.’ I’m definitely a city slicker but I now own a barn so that’s something. Next to the barn was a chicken run and coop. It didn’t take much nudging to set out to get in some chickens and to choose to do so by taking in some rescue hens. And by ‘rescue hens’, I mean hens that have been rescued, not a team of superhero chickens that go around performing rescues. (It’s early days, give them time.)
Everyone has been sharing their chicken stories and advice and given the misinformation about roosters, I welcome the stories but not the advice for the most part.
I’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty intense job interviews in the past but none were as impressive as the hen-rescuing lady who interviewed me for my suitability to adopt 6 of her ‘girls.’ I passed muster, sent photos of my coop and signed a contract.
My next few blog posts are going to draw on the chicken and egg metaphorical comparison to people and productivity. I’ll start with the contract. People have been aghast that I was asked to sign a contract when they perceived that I was doing the rescuers and the hens a favour by showing up at all. While I was initially surprised at the formality, I get it. Commitment. Absolute clarity of understanding of expectations. If the chickens stop producing, I’ve signed on that I’ll keep ’em on regardless. I might not like it but I’ve committed to it. I didn’t have to. I could’ve walked away. (I would’ve driven not walked. It’s rural for goodness sake!)
Sitting can be as bad as smoking. They should print warnings on couches and office chairs. Even if the chair is perfectly primed by a professional Ergonomist and made safe from any posture or health and safety issue, the very act of being sedentary and sitting for long periods is not what humans are suited for. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Between 1945 and 1995, the average adult daily calorie expenditure fell 800 calories. So the amount of moving we do each day has reduced by 800 calories, thanks to cars and machines and washing machines and so forth. 800 calories is the equivalent of a ten mile walk! In 1960, 50% of jobs required at least moderate physical activity. Today it is only 20%. Two thirds of desk workers eat lunch sitting at their desk.
Move it or lose it!
I’m researching for my new book about adding 10 productive years to your life. One thing I’m definitely doing myself now is minimising sugar consumption. It’s insidious how it used to drain my effectiveness, nevermind how it was shortening my life and the quality of it. Sugar is a tough one. Most of us love sugar-based products and it is a primal driver from our starving caveman days.
Things you didn’t even know had sugar in them have sugar in them. One McDonalds cheeseburger has 7 grams of sugar in it. So does a Burger King cheeseburger. 7 grams of sugar is about 2 teaspoons. And who eats just one cheeseburger?
www.sugarstacks.com is a neat idea. I can say 7 grams but what does that look like? You might re-think drinking one can of coca cola if first you saw a photo of one can of coca cola with 10 sugar cubes next to it. Probably not, because you’re addicted to sugar, but at least now you’re operating from an informed position. If you’re thinking that consuming 10 cubes of sugar would make you sick, you’d be correct but fortunately there are offsetting chemicals in soft drinks to enable us to consume and keep down the sugar.
It was once rumoured that cocaine was the secret ingredient in coca cola to addict drinkers to the product. No need.
The World Health Organisation recommends no more sugar daily than:
|Adult Female||5tsp (20g)|
|Adult Male||9tsp (36g)|
And by sugar, they don’t just mean the sweet powdery granules you add to cereal. They mean naturally occurring sugars like in fruit juice. In this sense, a 500ml container of Charlie’s Real Orange Juice contains 11tsp of sugar – 22% more than a grown-as man’s daily need. Of course, if you wanted to lose weight after a lifetime of excessive sugar consumption, you’d need to consume even less.
New Zealanders are the 11th largest consumers of soft drinks in the world. On average we consume 10tsp of sugar daily just from drinks, nevermind however else we consume sugar. Six cans of coke a week at 139 calories per can, all other things being equal, will add five and a half kilograms to your weight in a year.
You probably provide sugar for your staff’s tea and coffee. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. I used to shout highly sugary morning teas for my teams. I shudder looking back at that now. Maybe having a soda vending machine is not a great idea either? Have a read of the nutrition info on the bottles of some of those flavoured waters too.
Alternative sweeteners, be they chemicals or ‘natural’, have their own particular evils too. They make you want more sweetness for a start. They just make you want more everything.
Add zero? Yeah right.
I’m currently researching my next book. It’ll be about adding ten years to your productive life. Expanding lifespans in developed countries are tarnished by the physical diseases and decay of affluence. Retirement for many is becoming a shifting goalpost, a political football or an unwelcome concept from last century. Now seems a great time to write about the topic of stretching out the good and productive years. We’re living longer so we may as well live better and make a few more bucks along the way. Or not – on the bucks front anyways. I’m already reading much about how money, above a certain level, doesn’t make that much difference in terms of quality of life. Though below that level, it will diminish the quantity of life you end up with.
A consistent theme throughout the new book will be overlapping and inter-connectedness – a systems approach. Certainly, when you get to the sections on our bodies and how our physical systems work (or don’t), this becomes incredibly evident.
This next bit might be more of a laugh than anything factually helpful but it is a conversation starter. I use it when MCing conferences to get a buzz going and the noise and enthusiasm levels up amongst the audience.
John Manning studied the relationship between our finger lengths and certain health outcomes. Look at the photo below of my hand and how I’ve marked the difference in length between my ring finger (4D) and my index finger (2D.) Check out your own 4D:2D ratio. They’ve been the same your whole life and they’re not going to change. It’s supposed that their relative lengths are a consequence of exposure to differing levels of testosterone in the womb as a foetus.
So what? Manning’s study of Liverpool heart attach victims’ fingers found a high ratio (like mine) has a correlation with lower heart attack risk. It’s good for sport. It’s bad for depression. It’s terrible for autism. Manning himself describes his findings as, “Persuasive but not yet definitive.” Why am I even bothering to finish this paragraph? You’re too busy trying to stretch your fingers or finding a friend to check out their fingers before you tell them why…
This Harvard Business Review blogpost identifies other benefits of engagement, aside from productivity. Of course, workplace leaders who want productivity boosts may not be interested but they should be. I’ve seen workplace safety enhancements due to greater engagement efforts – just to name one benefit in addition to productivity.
“Improving employee engagement is not simply about improving productivity — although organizations with a high level of engagement do report 22% higher productivity, according to a new meta-analysis of 1.4 million employees conducted by the Gallup Organization. “
The author goes on to specify and quantify some other benefits, including safety.
Jim Harter Ph.D., a chief scientist at Gallup Research explained what engaged employees do differently in an email interview: “Engaged employees are more attentive and vigilant. They look out for the needs of their coworkers and the overall enterprise, because they personally ‘own’ the result of their work and that of the organization.”
And, of course, improved safety means less costs and downtime, which means… greater productivity.
I keep harping on in my presentations and my books that trying to increase the engagement levels of your employees is not about vague warm fuzzy feelings but that it has practical, demonstrable and measurable outcomes, that as part of a wider business strategy, will increase profits – if profits are what you’re into. If not, then it also drives those other results that organisations seek – fundraising or effectiveness or whatever it is that Government departments are trying to achieve.