Does your day look anything like mine? Email. Meeting. Reading email in meeting. Eating in meeting. Grab coffee. Check email in queue. Need I go on? I hazard a guess that many of us are seemingly trapped in this cycle of ‘doing’.
As work mounts up and time flies by, our addiction to back-to-back working and multitasking has us operating at an unsustainable and unhealthy pace. To some extent, we’re fighting our own biology, as each time we tick off that small to-do task or fire off that email, we get a gratifying shot of dopamine in our brains. This reward hormone creates habits like doing multiple things at once and allocating our valuable time to completing less impactful but more doable tasks first.
If you’re one of those people who think it doesn’t apply to them and that your superior skill of multitasking is what makes you effective, it’s worth taking note of research from Stanford University, which showed that heavy multitaskers – people who multitask a lot and believe it helps their performance – are actually less productive than people who do a single task at a time. Heavy multitaskers are shown to have more difficulty organising thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, making them slower at task switching.
It gets worse. All of this short-term speed may be damaging our brains for the long term. Research shows it lowers our IQ and may even reduce brain density in the region responsible for empathy, cognitive and emotional control.
But let’s be realistic. We all work in a highly reactive profession. Slowing everything down may not be achievable, especially if the environments we work in are part of the problem. There are, however, some moments in our day and intentions we can set that can create space in our diaries and minds to pause, reflect and refresh.
Slow down when you start up
If the first thing you do in the morning is your email, you’ll being sucked into the dopamine-reward cycle before you know it. The average person spends 28% of their work week managing email, with the morning habit setting that intention for the day.
Force yourself to make it the second thing you do. Create a small window to do something more expansive before you dive in. Read. Write down ideas. Reflect on the day before or the day ahead.
My current focus is to read a chapter of a book or listen to a podcast before I dive in to the ‘noise’ of my inbox. There have been no negative consequences of this – only new ideas and a more inspiring start to the working day.
Slow down when you meet up
In meetings, it’s very easy to plough in without considering the objective of the meeting and the desired outcome of all participants. The result is a lot of unfocused chat, discussion and debate, which doesn’t enable action and is actually a time-consuming distraction. Agendas are generally too formal for the majority of meetings we’re likely to be in with team members, but making time up-front to ask what people want to cover and what ‘good’ looks like significantly increases the value of the time spent in the meeting.
In our quest for speed, we also become less conscious about who is invited to a meeting and what their role is, despite research showing that the more people we have in a meeting, the lower the quality of engagement there is and the more instances there are of ‘social loafing’. I’ve also seen effective ‘slow down’ meeting strategies where people schedule 45-minute meetings to disrupt the assumption that all meetings last for 1 hour, thus creating a more focused conversation and time between meetings to reflect and plan for the next.
Slow down when you finish up
My experience with my teams and people I coach is that it is the last meeting or the last email that marks the end of the day. We don’t often make time for reflection, because it doesn’t intuitively stack up in terms of the value we attribute to where we spend our time. However, a study from Harvard shows that just 15 minutes spent at the end of the day reflecting on that day’s work actually improved individual performance by over 20%.
This is a relatively simple practice to bring into your working day with questions like: What did I do today to bring me closer to my goals? What did I struggle with today? What am I looking forward to tomorrow?
There are some great tools that exist like Day One, which can help you to keep these reflection notes in one place and complete them on your computer or phone. Or you can just keep them in a notebook you save for this purpose. I’d recommend allocating a specific time in your day for doing this, to create a habit of reflection
The rhythm of your day is unique to you and so too is the intervention you’ll need to make to get the balance right. For me, it’s the start of the day where a small adjustment in my approach has a big impact on my work and energy. The first step for all of us is to recognise that our need for speed may not be serving us well and could actually be impeding our long-term success. Taking action now will create more sustainable careers in the future.