Friday, 19 July 2013 10:55

Relax, Don’t Worry: The Brain Science of Productivity

Everyone you meet these days is overworked and out of time. In our tech-enhanced world, we have more timesaving helpers and systems than ever before.

iStock 000004089220IdeaHead 300x224 Relax, Dont Worry: The Brain Science of Productivity

So, why isn’t there enough time to juggle our work, home and health responsibilities? We have an enhanced quality of life, but we’re also adding to our stress levels by taking on more tasks than we have resources to handle.

There’s a tremendous need for new methods, systems and, above all, habits to keep us on track.

Information Fatigue

You’ve probably already discovered that whichever system or calendar you’re using to track projects and priorities is important, but limited. As management guru Peter Drucker explains:

“In knowledge work…the task is not given; it has to be determined. ‘What are the expected results from this work?’…is the key question in making knowledge workers productive.”

We haven’t been taught to think deeply about our work before we undertake it. Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people do. But outcome thinking is one of the most effective methods available for creating successful realities.

Brain Clutter

Many of us have experienced working in the “zone,” where creative processes flowed and we lost all sense of time. This happens when we use our right brain hemisphere. Right-brain thinking is essential for innovation. It functions like an artist, concerned only with the present moment.

In contrast, the left brain supplies logic and linear thinking; it’s concerned with time and numbers. It reminds us of tasks left undone, prior experiences we need to consider and future deadlines. It functions more like a banker.

Instead of allowing our minds to perform optimally, many of us fill our brains with daily life’s mundane details and rules. Worse, we spend endless hours repeating the tasks and projects we’re trying to juggle.

You need a functional system to hold these details until the appropriate time, when you can systematically tick off as many tasks as possible to clear your mind again. Writing things down on a to-do list is a good first step, but it’s not enough.

What’s Wrong With To-Do Lists?

As we struggle to multitask, we find there are too any things that are out of alignment with our current sense of reality. To cope, we put them on “the list,” which can grow to gargantuan proportions. Often, this list is nothing more than names of pressing projects written on numerous pieces of papers, often kept in several discrete places.

Here’s what’s missing from our lists:

  •     A clearly identified intended outcome
  •     A specific next-action step to be taken
  •     Reminders of outcomes and action steps in a reliable system

Some people keep multiple to-do lists of undone tasks. There are notes in their Day-Timers, computer calendars, PDAs, iPhones and all of the other common organising tools to which we cling. When we write something down and place it on a list, we assume we have a surefire way to remember it.

The Myth of Multitasking

Leading internet marketer, Alex Mandossian is all too familiar with the myth of multitasking in his complex industry. In his April 2009 blog post Why Multitasking Destroys Your Productivity, he observes that many people pride themselves of how they can manage the volume of their “to do” lists via “multitasking”. However, what they fail to realise is how much multitasking is actually eroding their productivity and undermining their results.

Wikipedia defines “human multitasking… (as) the performance by an individual of  “appearing” to handle more than one task at the same time”.  In this definition, the word “appearance” suggests that multitasking gives an illusion of producing tasks simultaneously. Author of The Myth of MultitaskingDave Crenshaw argues that multi-tasking is not so much about performing multiple activities simultaneously; but rather that we are switching between those tasks. It is that switching activity that reduces efficiency and effectiveness and increases the prevalence of errors, because mental focus is constantly interrupted.

Multi-tasking is a mis-guided habit pattern many of us have grown used to:

  •     Reading the paper while listening to the news
  •     Having a conversation while watching TV
  •     Checking voice mail, blackberries while speaking to someone
  •     Speaking on the telephone while drafting emails
  •     And a more controversial one: Driving while talking on a mobile phone!!

There is an alternative – Stacking.

Stacking is a like multi-tasking, except that only one of the “multiple activities” demands mental effort. Stacking does boost productivity and efficiency. For example:

  •     Reading while having a cup of coffee
  •     Exercising while listening to music
  •     Eating a meal while watching TV

Stacking boosts productivity; Multi-tasking doesn’t.

Open Loops

But the challenge of achieving productivity is more complex than the decision to stack or not to stack the items  on our multiple “to do”  lists. The left brain keeps its own list and tends to be untrusting. It will continually issue reminders and incessantly interrupt your most creative moments. In response, you will write down the task yet again, blocking your mind from thinking clearly.

All of the tasks for which you haven’t formulated desired outcomes and decisions remain active in what scientists call “open loops.” They will haunt you, sapping your energy and creative powers.

Manage the Mind to Manage Action

The answer lies in managing your actions: what you do with your time, your information, and your mind, body and focus. You must decide how to allocate your limited resources.

Most people haven’t adequately determined next actions in their commitments and projects. They leave key steps undecided and vague, or they try to tackle productivity from the top down:

  1.     Uncover personal and corporate missions.
  2.     Define critical objectives.
  3.     Focus on implementation details.

But productivity expert David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, believes otherwise:

“…The trouble is that most people are so embroiled in commitments on a day-to-day level that their ability to focus successfully on the larger horizon is seriously impaired. Consequently, a bottom-up approach is usually more effective.”

Start with the most mundane activities and commitments. Catch up by taking control of your in-basket and your mind—right now. You will unleash creative, buoyant energy that supports your attempt to reach new heights.

You will experience an immediate sense of freedom, release and inspiration. These rewards come naturally to those who roll up their sleeves, dig in and take care of the little things.

Basic Requirements for Managing Commitments

Here are some basic activities and behaviors you can implement to free up your mind and be more productive:

  1.     Empty your mind. Anything you consider unfinished must be captured in a trusted external system. This “collection bucket” must be reliable, and you must return to it regularly to sort through it.
  2.     Clarify exactly what your commitment entails, its desired outcome and what you have to do to make progress toward fulfilling it.
  3.     Once you’ve pinpointed all of the next-action steps you need to take, keep reminders of them organised in a system you can review regularly.

Employing next-action decision-making results in clarity, productivity, accountability and empowerment. When you hold yourself to the discipline of identifying the real results you want, you will obtain them.

Things that have your attention need your intention. Here are some questions to regularly ask as you go over your list:

  •     What does this mean to me?
  •     Why is it here?
  •     What do I want to be true about this?
  •     What’s the successful outcome?
  •     How do I make this happen?
  •     Which resources must I allocate to make it happen?
  •     What’s the next action?

When your newly adopted behaviors help you organise everything that comes your way, a deep alignment will occur. Wondrous things will emerge. You will become highly productive, achieving your desired outcomes with minimal stress and maximum results.

Di Worrall


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