“All high performance requires focus.”
– Dan Rockwell, author of the LeadershipFreak Blog
Defining Efficiency is the First Step to Higher Performance and Greater Productivity
When the topic is organizing your work day, blurring the distinction between the terms “efficient” and “effective” is a widespread practice – especially when the objectives are improving business performance or increasing individual productivity. But any discussion about organizing your time should follow the familiar management maxim: “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”
So, if you wish to become more efficient– in the office or otherwise – your first step should be defining the meaning of the word in the context of your personal and professional goals, which we believe means defining the term effective, too. In our post “How to Make Collaboration Efficient and Effective,” we started this process by sharing these definitions from organizational psychologist and leadership guru Roger Schwarz:
"To be efficient means performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste.
To be effective means accomplishing an intended purpose and/or producing an exact result."
From Schwarz’s perspective, efficiency and effectiveness are related but not the same. You can’t achieve one without taking the other into account. We agree, and so does management consultant Dan Rockwell.
“Chasing urgencies dilutes success,” Rockwell writes in a recent post to his LeadershipFreak blog . “Choose what matters. Ignore what doesn’t matter. (You can’t have it all. You can’t do it all.)”
His advice for organizing your work: “Create focus.”
“Distraction is the enemy of high performance,” Rockwell believes, which is why he and so many other productivity experts discourage multitasking.
Research Shows Multitasking is Counterproductive for Humans
Multitasking as a concept rose to prominence with the rise of digital tools. In fact, the word originally applied to the work of computers, not people. And as the digital transformation of business progresses, neuroscientists are demonstrating that “concurrent performance of several jobs ” at one time is a notion that should remain confined to the realm of hardware, not humans.
“What actually happens when you think you're multitasking is that you're mentally switching back and forth between tasks,” explains business technology writer Mike Elgan in a recent column for Baseline Magazine. “It feels like you're beating the clock by doing two things at once. But the excess mental energy it takes to disengage from one thought process and re-engage with the other one is wasteful.”
In his piece, Egan summarizes studies from respected institutions such as MIT to assert that multitasking is counterproductive in three ways.
3 Ways Multitasking is Counterproductive
- “It drains your mental energy. The inefficiency of rapid task-switching increases the cognitive load above what doing both tasks serially would entail.”
- “It degrades the quality of your work” by leaving you less time and energy for “real work.”
- “Multitasking misleads you into thinking you've done more work than you actually have. At the end of the day, you feel like you've worked 10 hours, but you've actually accomplished an amount of work you could have accomplished in far less time.”
So, in Egan’s view, the key to organizing an efficient work day is planning to curtail multitasking.
How to Organize Your Work Day for Minimal Distraction from Multitasking
Radio journalist Lesley McClurg reviewed research by neuroscientists from Stanford, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and others for a recent KQED Science story. During the process, she visited Neuroscape, the lab of UCSF researcher Adam Gazzaley . He shared with McClurg his “Tips for Productivity at Work.” Here are five that pertain to diminishing multitasking for a work environment conducive to focus – and hence efficiency:
- Clear your work space by removing mobile devices and extraneous papers.
- Use one computer screen and close unnecessary programs and apps.
- Open one browser and use only one tab.
- Turn off email.
- Signal that you are in a “no interruption zone,” alerting others you will be “offline” for a set period by closing your office door and setting auto-response messages to emails and texts.
Organize Your Time for an Efficient Work Day by Creating Digital Boundaries
Gazzaley told McClurg that reducing distractions by lessening multitasking is not about “opting out of technology.” In fact, there may be times when distracting yourself with occasional texts or YouTube videos may relieve boredom and help you stay engaged.
“But if you’re finishing a business plan, or a high-level writing project,” she counsels. “Then it’s a good idea to set yourself up to stay focused.”