Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Word "Feedback"

Actions to take: If you or one of your employees have a negative association with the word "feedback" that you cannot overcome, it is fine to stop using that word. Ensure that you are continuing to do all the things that word represents, however. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. Shoot for a 5:1 positive-to-corrective feedback ratio. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

I had employee once request that I not use the word "feedback." She liked the comments on her work and agreed with the process. In fact, she proactively requested feedback on her performance more than any other employee. But the word "feedback" had unambiguously negative connotations for her. She saw "positive feedback" as an oxymoron. Whenever I asked "Can I give you some feedback?" her heart rate shot through the roof, even though she knew that it would be a positive comment 9 times out of 10. 

She screwed up her courage and explained this to me in a one-on-one. We discussed it. I never came around to the idea that "feedback" means something negative. She never quite came around to the idea that "feedback" is neutral. It didn't really matter that we agree with each other on that. What mattered was that we understood one another. I asked her to choose a different standard question that I would ask instead of "Can I give you some feedback?" She ultimately decided on "Can I comment on that?"

Some people, bosses and employees alike, are uncomfortable with the word feedback. The important thing is that you give frequent, actionable comments on your employees' work behaviors, helping them have a clear picture of how to be effective in the future. I summarize that concept with the word "feedback." Feel free to use whatever word or phrasing you like, however.

One caveat: if most of your employees claim to have a problem with the word feedback, that is a red flag. They are probably not scared of the word. They are probably scared of you, or at least scared of the things your position represents. Take a hard look at your organizational culture. Is there low trust? If so, your organization (and remember, you represent the organization) may be engaging in activities that punish frank and honest communication. Take a hard look at your own demeanor. Are your employees responding to your attempts at building a trusting relationship? If not, you may be doing something that leans too heavily on your power as "the boss," making them wary of you. 

Try your best to get away from the idea that "feedback" means something bad. Positive feedback is feedback. In a trusting work relationship, even negative feedback isn't bad. It just means there is something the employee could do a little better next time. If there is just no getting away from the negative connotation, though, then stay focused on what is important—the comments you provide to your employees, not the name you call those comments.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Removing Distractions Series: Email Twice a Day

Actions to take: Only spend time on email at the beginning and end of each day. With practice, you can get your email inbox to zero in 30 minutes or less. Turn off all email notifications. Close the app when not in use. Get more efficient at both reading and responding to email.

This is one entry in a short series about removing distractions from your work, inspired by the Cost of Distractions post from early September. There are both productivity and mental health benefits to removing distractions while working on anything that requires focus.

I have a colleague whose email signature includes the line "Please note: My working hours may not be your working hours. Please do not feel obligated to reply outside of your normal work schedule." As I understand it, her entire workplace uses this line. I wish every organization encouraged its employees to have a similar message.

The best thing about this signature isn't what it says to the recipient. It is what it says about the sender. It says, "Don't expect me to respond immediately either."  It says, "We don't use email for urgent business." It says, "My workplace values thought and focus, not round-the-clock availability." 

It shouldn't be necessary to make these statements, but it is. Most organizations won't come right out and say that you need to check your email constantly. The assumption is there, however. And it is a massive productivity killer. Every time you are notified of a new email coming in, your attention gets pulled from whatever you were doing. It is worse than that. Even if no new emails pop up while you are working on something, you won't be able to focus completely. Because we are so primed to expect email, we have trained ourselves to never get immersed in a task. 

You can work better than this.

When you get into work in the morning, spend enough time to clear your email down to zero. Before you leave for the day, clear your email down to zero. If you are waiting for something important from your boss, take a minute to check it once before or after lunch. Other than that, stay out of email entirely. In the vast majority of workplaces, you can get your email down to zero in 30 minutes. I'm saying, at a maximum, you should spend 61 minutes in your email app per day.

That figure sounds laughable to some of you. In many organizations, there is so much email that you wouldn't even dream of getting through it in an hour a day. You can. You have to work a lot smarter, and you have to ween yourself off the false premise that you need to be available at all times. Here's how to do it.

How to work smarter: 

  1. Set up sorting rules. Outlook (and any email app like it) has a robust set of tools for automatically slotting emails into folders. Set up a folder for email that comes from directly up the chain—that's the important one to check every time you open your app. Set up another for emails that come from your staff—also make sure to check that daily. The rest of the rules are up to you. Virtually everything else is okay to wait a day or two if you run out of time in your 30 minutes. Half or more can likely be funneled into folders you never have to check (e.g. automatically generated emails from the timeclock software).
  2. Scan for the bottom line. Most people are terrible at writing emails. The most important point will be buried in the 3rd sentence of the 5th paragraph. Don't read emails top to bottom. Instead, scan for "the ask" that the sender is making (What type of response do they need, if any? Are they notifying you of a deadline? Are they briefing you on new information?). After you find the ask, go back to the top of the email. You'll be able to read and absorb much more quickly knowing the point of it all.
  3. Respond briefly. You are spending too much time composing your emails. You don't need to do all that explaining. You don't need to re-read it for the third time to make sure your wording is perfect. People probably aren't reading it. Those who do read it are probably getting lost in the message you intend to convey. Just write less.
    • Yes, some emails need a great deal of care. Maybe you are reporting to your boss on a highly sensitive matter. Compose that correspondence outside the email app and outside the 30-minute windows we're talking about here. 
  4. Or don't respond at all. Very little of our email expects to get a response. For the 5 percent or so of emails that do pose some kind of question, ask yourself how likely it is that another person on the team has the same thoughts you do. If there are good odds you'd just be saying the same thing as everyone else, then don't spend the time.
    • If you are only checking your email at the beginning and end of the day, a colleague will probably respond before you. Likely, they'll cover most of the ground you would have. Then you can spend your time effectively by bringing up points that are unique to your perspective.
How to commit to this new method:
  1. Turn off all email notification: The default notification settings for Outlook are wild. You get a little colored envelope on the Outlook icon in your taskbar, a pleasant-but-fairly-long chime sound, and a popup preview of the email that hangs out for 5 seconds or so. Based on how thoroughly you are alerted, you can be forgiven for thinking that email is the most important thing in the world. It is not. If you take no other advice from this post, at least turn off these notifications. Even if you can't help checking email every 15 minutes, at least you won't be getting pinged every 3.
  2. Close the app entirely. This has the same effect as step one, just better. Most of you won't be able to bring yourself to do it though. You will be surprised at the fear of missing out that this act creates. To fight the FOMO, track how often you give in and open the app outside of your morning and end-of-work times. Whenever you give in, mark how often you found something that couldn't wait until your usual email review (prediction: it will be 0% of the time).
  3. Realize most people won't notice. According to a MarketWatch study, senders typically expect a response within 24 hours, but recipients often reply within 15 minutes. Nobody wants you to be that on-the-ball! I mentioned the twice-a-day email method to one of my bosses after almost 2 years working together. Until that moment, she had no idea that was how I operated.
  4. Accept that you'll occasionally falter. It is very difficult to switch to this method after spending years with "always on" email. Even after you see how well it works, you'll find yourself peeking into your email app every hour "just in case." It's okay not to be perfect. (Though I really do encourage you to track how often these cheat-checks end up being anything other than wasted time)

The advice here extends beyond email. Give this treatment to any communication app that has the ability to distract you mid-thought (I'm looking at you, Slack). Schedule when you are going to use it and for how long. Stick to that plan. You'll find that you are much more able to immerse yourself in tasks. When you can focus completely, it virtually guarantees better, more efficient work. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Where Work Goes During a Leave of Absence

Actions to take: When tasks need to be temporarily distributed to others, start by delegating down. Give the work to employees whose routine work is less complex than the work being delegated. Only take on the work yourself as a last resort. Resist the false belief that taking on all the work yourself makes you a team player.

I had a part time job at the Inter-Library Loan Department when I was an undergraduate in college. One summer while I was working, the person responsible for international loan requests took a 3-week vacation. I was asked to cover that aspect of the work while she was gone. 

That decision would be considered insane in some work environments. Some managers and HR professionals will tell you that giving a fulltime person's duties to a part-time college kid is not only irresponsible, but illegal. They would say that it required me to do work outside my pay grade and that I had a case to sue for higher pay. This kind of thinking takes a good idea (don't exploit employees) and swings the pendulum so far in the other direction that it crashes through the wall of the clock.

When someone takes a leave of absence, their work should be delegated down wherever possible. Distribute the work to employees at a lower level of responsibility than the individual in question.  Anything that cannot be delegated down should be delegated laterally (i.e. to peers at the same level). Work should be passed up to the boss only as a last resort. 

I know that this advice sounds like something right out of the "soul-crushing dictatorial manager" playbook. Hang with me for a minute. I think I can convince you why everyone wins with this strategy.

Modern theory of work satisfaction holds that 3 things need to be present for someone to feel that their jobs have meaning: 

  1. Autonomy (do I control my work?)
  2. Complexity (am I getting new challenges?)
  3. Effort-reward connection (is my work recognized?)
Proper delegation maintains and reinforces these three elements. You maintain the effort-reward connection by choosing what to delegate to whom based on their past successes: "You have done such excellent work with your detail-oriented tasks. I'm wondering if you would be interested in taking on this new task, which requires a great eye for detail." You maintain complexity by delegating down rather than up or sideways: "This new task will stretch your abilities a little and help grow your skills." Finally, you maintain autonomy by making it an honest question: "It's totally up to you whether you take on this new work."

For your delegation to be successful, you must be completely genuine about these three elements. The employee has to truly believe that there will be no downside if they choose not to accept, that the new task will be an interesting challenge, and that you are asking them in particular because their past successes relate to the new task. In the opening anecdote, I was thrilled to be given this work. I knew that it meant my efforts were valued. It was a great bullet to add to my resume. And I felt that it really was a question (not a demand) when my boss asked if I'd like to take on the work. 

If you know how to delegate following these rules, then delegating down is to everyone's benefit. The employee wins. They will feel that their work is respected and be excited for the opportunity to try something new. You win. You successfully help your employees expand their skills (a primary purpose of your job), and you are not burning out by taking on every burden yourself.

And the organization wins. The cold hard fact is that, to the organization, some work is more valuable than other work. Bosses get paid more than employees, which means the boss-level tasks come before employee-level tasks. If you delegate work up to yourself, you won't do a good job at that work. Why? Because you've got other, more valuable work that needs doing. You'll do the absent employee's work quickly, which is to say sloppily, so that you can get back to your own work. If you do prioritize your employee's work over yours, you are doing a disservice to your organization. To stick with examples from the library world, it just doesn't make any sense for the branch manager to spend hours doing routine check-in and shelving.

When an employee takes a leave of absence, hard-working, kind managers will instinctually put the work on themselves. You want to be a team player. It feels dictatorial to push it onto others. It seems honorable to take on the burden. This thinking is, frankly, delusional. Your job is not to be a superhero that fixes everything. Your job is to figure out the most effective way to get the work done. When I say that work should be passed to the boss only as a last resort, keep in mind that we are talking about a workplace where the boss is already working as hard as everyone else on the team. We are talking about a workplace where there is constant communication and transparency in both directions between the boss and employees.

In that kind of workplace, people will respect the manager who delegates effectively. They'll roll their eyes at the manager who thinks they need to take on all the extra work themselves.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Conference Announcement

This Thursday and Friday, I will be attending the Engaging Local Government Leaders annual conference, If you work in local government, I encourage you do to the same! 

There is a wide variety of session on offer, from how to support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to problem solving in public finance. For my part, I will be leading a book club on an excellent text about data literacy: Calling Bullsh*t: the Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World. Join me and nearly 400 other local government professionals in attending ELGL's virtual conference this year.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Manager vs Leader Misses the Point

"Are you a manager or are you a leader?"

If you have been in a management role for more than a few years, you are certain to have come across this question. You have may have been in trainings where you learned your "management style" by taking a 15 or 20 question quiz. You learned that different features are important at different levels of management (something like: "communication oriented" is the 15th most important trait for a frontline manager, 8th most important trait for a director-level position, and 2nd most important for an executive). It can be fun to have these academic debates about management personalities. It is useful to philosophize occasionally about "who you are" as a manager. 

We do it far too much. The current managerial culture is 90% thinking about the philosophy of being a manager/leader and 10% thinking about doing manager/leader activities.

That's the opposite of how we should focus our time. No other profession spends most of its time describing how to be that thing. Do computer programmers spent all their time talking about how to embody the core philosophy of a computer programmer? Of course not. They talk to each other about specific strategies for solving this or that issue with the code. Management professionals need to do the same and spend most of our time learning about practical application of effective managerial behaviors.

The "manager" vs "leader" debate frequently shows up as part of professional development. I call it "how to be" training, in contrast with "what to do" training. There are two huge problems with "how to be" training. 

First, it paints you into a box. These trainings about “leader” vs “manager” vs whatever else are always about some kind of essential quality. It tells you who you are. Your results are effectively a personality trait, something about you that is largely immutable. If you don't happen to align with the traits of an executive leader, there is nothing you can do. (This is closely related to the biases that keep an overrepresented percentage of tall white men in CEO roles)

Second, "how to be" training is not actionable. Perhaps the training is not as bleak as I described. Instead of just telling you what kind of manager you are, maybe it purports to transform your leadership style into something (they claim) is compatible with executive leadership. In that case, you get grand-sounding vagaries about how you should act. Here's a quote ascribed to Steve Jobs: "Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could." The quote pits management against leadership, clearly suggesting that the leadership strategy is the one we should strive for. It is beautiful and idealistic. But most work is nuts and bolts stuff, not reaching for the stars. Your business would fall apart in a matter of months if your management team tried to avoid persuading people to do things they would rather not do. Furthermore, it is not clear what one should do to "inspire people to do things they never thought they could."

Given that it is far, far less useful than "what to do" training, how come is there so much "how to be" content out there? 

  1. It sounds profound. I follow "Leadership First" on LinkedIn. It is a page that posts inspirational quotes along the lines of "Become so confident in who you are that no one's opinion, rejection, or behavior can rock you." I follow it because I like many of the quotes. They remind me that there is something honorable about good management. But it is empty calories. Looking for deeper meaning, you might ask, "What do I need to change in order to improve?" There is no substantive answer (The quote I pulled here kind of suggests that you become an uncompromising narcissist if you think about it). 
  2. It is inoffensive. When you provide "what to do" training, you plant a flag in the ground. You open yourself up to criticism in a way that you do not with "how to be" training. Once you claim to have the most effective way to give feedback to an employee, you have created sides. But how can you take sides against the concept of being a "servant leader"? No one would argue with that. 
  3. It is easy. To provide "what to do" training, you have to develop a plan. If you want to claim that it is the right or best way, then you have to work even harder. You have to compare your plan to other plans and make the case that your system is an improvement over another. "How to be" training requires no such work. You can say virtually anything as long as it sounds positive and agreeable. You can even get away with saying two things that are behaviorally opposed and most people won't mind or notice. Here is one I just made up: "A leader needs to be supremely confident and supremely humble."

The debate around being a "manager" and being a "leader" is about as impactful as debating whether a hotdog is a sandwich. It is an interesting mental exercise. It challenges our assumptions about language and categorization. It may lead you to an occasional insight. And after you've gone through it once or twice, it becomes a feel-good waste of time.

I side-stepped this conversation entirely by using the word "boss" on my website. Everybody is uncomfortable with the word boss. That makes it the most accurate word to use. A rose is a rose. The person who controls your paycheck is the person who controls your paycheck. It doesn't matter whether you style yourself Manager or Leader or Grand Poobah. Spend less time thinking about what to call the job and more time thinking about how to do it well.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Feedback: Don't Tell Your Employees What to Do

Actions to take: Resist the impulse to tell employees how to change their behavior when you give them negative feedback. Stick to a generic "Can you work on it" type question. If the situation demands more than that, make it a conversation with the employee, not a lecture. advocates for casual, frequent performance feedback using the following formula: 1) ask if you can provide feedback; 2) provide feedback using the format "when you do X, it has Y impact"; 3) finish with a question asking them to change or an affirmation that they should keep it up. Feedback is short, simple, and can be about any work behavior. All posts about feedback assume this formula and strategy.

You just watched your employee do something ineffective. Maybe they made some mistakes during a presentation that are obvious to you but not so obvious to a novice presenter. Maybe they are struggling to hit deadlines on a particular workflow. Maybe they think they're being enthusiastic about their opinions, but their coworkers feel like they are steamrolling. Seeing it from the outside, the issue is so obvious. The solution to the problem feels equally obvious to you.

Your impulse in these situations will be to give advice on how to do it better next time: "In the future, just do X, Y, and Z. That will make things go a lot better for you." This makes a kind of sense. With negative feedback, we are already telling them that we think they should change something about their work. The natural next step is to tell them exactly how they should change in order to improve. It feels like we're being helpful when we do this.

Unless your employee explicitly asks for it, resist this impulse! Outside of training situations, when you tell your employee exactly how fix an issue with their work, you are at high risk for micromanaging. There are a few reasons why this is the wrong tactic:

  1. The strategies you have for fixing it may be useless to that particular employee. Things that make sense to you may not click with them. Your directions about how to fix the problem are predicated on what would work for you. A strategy that would make you feel more organized might make an employee feel overwhelmed, or vice versa. When you tell employees how to fix an issue (without them having asked for it), you paint them into a corner. They can either use a strategy they know won't work for them, or they can disregard what the boss told them to do. Don't put your employees in that position.
  2. It beats up on the employee. When you are giving negative feedback, every sentence is precious. Every moment spent in that conversation is a moment where the employee's brain is shouting, "I messed up." You want your message to be simple and short. You violate both of those principles when you add specific details about how the employee needs to change.
  3. It removes the employee's autonomy. Good employees want to demonstrate their abilities. When we make mistakes, we want the opportunity to prove to our boss that we can do it better. Think about how you would react to your boss telling you to improve something. Do you want your hand held, your boss telling you exactly what you did wrong and exactly what to do differently? Or do you want them to assume you will be able to handle your own improvement? Most people want autonomy most of the time. An effective boss will make it clear that they are ready to help brainstorm solutions, but they will leave it to the employee to drive that conversation.

Instead of outlining a strict course of action, stick with the yes-no question. If you simply cannot leave it at that, make it a conversation (not a lecture) by asking them what they could do differently.

I realize this sounds like a subtle distinction. We can and must tell employees when their actions aren't as effective as they could be, but we are barred from telling them how to fix it? Managers deal in subtle differences. It is our lot. The sentences "Go tidy the front desk" and "Would you go tidy the front desk" only differ by two words. Those two words matter to many people. Those two words ease the social situation and lessen the dictatorial nature of the manager-employee relationship. 

It is the same here. Average bosses don't give feedback with any meaningful frequency. When they do, they go overboard. Better bosses recognize that frequent, small feedback is the most effective path. Part of "small" is letting the employee decide how best to improve.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Manage Your Stress by Managing Your Workload

Actions to take: Think of your stress like any other workflow issue, not as a personal problem. If you are at or near your stress limit: 1) Don't take on new work without reducing time spent on other tasks. 2) Begin reducing your workload. 3) Temporarily ignore other stress-inducing activities. 4) Take a full week vacation as soon as is feasible.


We live in an extremely stressful time. There are a lot of great resources for coping with stress. I encourage you to seek them out. This post is about reducing your stress through workload management. The following tips, while difficult to achieve in some work environments, apply to virtually any workplace at virtually any level in the organization. 

Discuss new work with the assumption that you already have a full workload

Every time you are assigned new work, have a conversation with your boss about priorities. Ask them what work should be deferred/stopped in order to accommodate the new task. Approach this discussion as if it is understood that you already have a full workload. 

The default assumption in a work environment is that people can take on extra work while maintaining all of the duties they currently have. This is largely true. We get better at tasks as time goes on. You might be able to do twice as much in your 3rd or 4th year as you were able to accomplish in your 1st.

You need to make it clear that this is not case for you right now. Have estimates of how much time various projects and tasks are taking. Be confident and relaxed, but firm in your explanation that you cannot add new work until you make room by removing something else. Don't approach this as a "you" issue. Approach it the same way you would for, say, production capacity on an assembly line. You could overclock the machinery and destroy it, or you can keep production within normal parameters. It is the same thing with you: "Here is my available output. What should we apply it to?"

Confidently begin to reduce your workload

We just said you would approach conversations about new work as if you are at full capacity. If this post is speaking to you, you are probably beyond full capacity. We can get tricked into believing that 10 hour workdays are fine and typical. 

When projects wrap, don't take on new ones. When you figure out how to shave an hour from the time spent creating that monthly report, don't fill it with something else. Have you been the chair of some committee for the past 2 years? Maybe it's time to let someone else get experience with it. Start reducing your workload as directly or as subtly as you think appropriate for your work situation. 

Regardless of how you do it, actively assert the idea that you are indeed overworked, even if only to yourself. In the absence of information, bosses assume that your status is "fine." When we are stressed, we don't have the free mental energy to engage in self-analysis. Without that mental energy, we rely on others' cues about the world to guide us—we just don't have the capacity to guide ourselves. Our stress causes us to take cues from the boss ("If the boss thinks this is fine, it must be fine"), which means more work, which means more stress, which means even less ability to speak up about the fact that we are overworked.

You have to break the cycle. Be positive, practical, and matter-of-fact about it. Again, this is not a "you" problem. It is just a capacity issue that needs correcting.

Take a break from as many energy-draining activities as possible, even if it means letting things go for a while.

Time is finite resource. Start thinking of mental energy as a finite resources too.

Our tank of mental energy gets drained from many places. Under normal circumstances, we barely notice most of them. We have perhaps two or three main sources of stress. We recognize those as the things that eat up our mental energy and monitor them accordingly.

When you are at your stress limit, all of the tiny sources of stress become important. Anything that uses our energy can become the thing that puts us over the edge. Take a break from small stressors. That might mean letting the house go uncleaned for a while, skipping your weekly phone call with your well-meaning-but-judgmental relative, and uninstalling your social media apps.

Taking a break is the easy part. The hard part is using that break effectively. You'll only feel worse about yourself if you pause a diet only to spend more energy reading about world issues. We are temporarily cutting out little sources of stress to gain the energy to do the things described elsewhere in this post. Don't squander it. 

As soon as you can manage, take a full week vacation, Monday through Friday

A full week vacation does much more to reset your stress than anything shorter. It is also significantly better than taking mid-week-to-mid-week vacations. Part of this is getting more days in a row with weekends on each end. 

A subtle but bigger part is that you are fully pulled out of the weekly workflow. When you take vacations, say, starting and ending on Wednesday, you still have to be engaged in both weeks' work. You essentially do a full week's work on Monday and Tuesday before leaving the office, then a full week's work on Thursday and Friday after returning. Even though that would be 6 days of vacation time, it does less to recharge you than a full Monday-Friday vacation. 

Your return is an excellent time to start deferring work. For the first two days you are back, it is easy to take on absolutely no new work: "I'm still catching up from time off. Can we touch base about that in a week or two?" If it was important, it will get shunted to someone else. If it was not, odds are 50/50 that it will be forgotten about for the time being. 

Conclusion: Do fewer things better

Somewhat paradoxically, the more you place your own wellbeing ahead of you work, the better your work will be. It can be easy to believe that you need to take on as much work as you possibly can in order to succeed. The work needs to get done after all, right? 

No. It doesn't. There will always be more things worth doing than time (or energy) to do them. Chose what is most important, and ensure that you have the capacity necessary to do it well.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Day Off

Today is a federal holiday (in the States), and this blog advocates for a work-life balance. So I'm taking a day off. You should too! 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Cost of Distractions

Actions to take: Cut out distractions and interruptions from your work, even ones that come from other parts of the job (e.g. email interruptions). Focus entirely on the task at hand. Use the time you save to rest your brain.

Tell me if you can relate to the following. There have been times in my life where I get home every day completely exhausted. My brain is so tired that I can't even carry on a conversation with my family. I started examining those days where I went home so drained. I eventually realized that my exhaustion wasn't tied to how much work I had done. It was tied to how busy I felt throughout the day.

Invariably, they were days where I never had the chance to focus. One thing and another kept coming up. Through the course of the day, I might end up attending to over 100 pieces of information (emails, tasks, questions from employees, etc.). Sometimes I would have to be actively thinking about 4 or 5 separate things at once because I got interrupted from my interruption. 

The last thing I noticed: The days I felt most exhausted were never the days where I got a lot of work done.

Let's talk about the cost of task switching. Assume it takes about one minute to mentally switch between tasks. Yes, you can be deeply involved in something, get asked a yes-no question, answer, and go back to what you were doing. That may take less than a minute. However, you will lose something in the exchange. When you return to your task, you won't be totally absorbed in the task the way you were before. Thoughts will come just a touch slower. It takes time to get back in the flow of what you were doing.

Call that loss of efficiency a one-minute cost. It is probably much more than that. We'll keep our estimate simple though. If you have two tasks that normally take 30 minutes, doing one completely then the other completely will take 61 minutes (one switch). Now imagine that you switch between the tasks every 5 minutes. With just one minute of productivity loss due to switching, that 60 minutes of work becomes 71 minutes of work (11 switches).

Obviously, no one would intentionally work like that. But almost all of us do something far worse. We leave email on, phone ring volumes up, a bunch of Slack chats and social media notifications and whatever else ready to interrupt us. I took an informal poll of colleagues about their distractions. The average of that small poll was 15 distractions every hour. 25% of our time is used just on the mental energy cost of switching tasks.

Fix it. You'll be happier and better at your job. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Turn off all email notifications. Close the email app entirely. Check it only 3 times per day if your office culture makes this even remotely possible. Your workplace can survive without you constantly checking email much more easily than you think. Do a similar thing with Slack chats and other "always up" communication methods.
  2. Turn down distractions from others. If someone stops by to engage in conversation or ask a question, it is okay to say, "I'm really involved in something at the moment. Can you stop by later?" 
  3. Quit setting yourself up for failure. I bet you are creating at least half of these distractions. Close the social media windows on your computer. Turn off the notifications on your phone. Turn off your phone entirely.
  4. Set your intention when you start a task. Tell yourself that you will work without interruption for however long, then follow through.

Each of these actions could be fleshed out into an entire post on its own. Take a moment to think through how exactly you would do each and how you would benefit from them.

This isn't about making you a more productive cog to improve whatever machine you work for. That is going to happen anyway. The work you produce will be significantly higher quality when you start focusing deeply on one task at a time. You will likely find that "30 minute" tasks are in fact 20 minute tasks when you don't have distractions. It is, however, a side benefit. 

The main benefit is to you personally. I encourage you to claim the saved time for yourself. Work without distraction for 50 minutes. Then take a full, relaxing, totally-for-you break for 10 minutes. Take a walk. Close your eyes and recline in your chair. Let your brain rest for those 10 minutes. I am certain you will be more productive and get more done than back when you were "always" working. Test it out for a week and see if I'm wrong.

So far, we've talked about task-switching as a time cost. It is a mental cost too. When you cut down on task-switching, you use less mental energy throughout the day. You feel better. You feel happier. You are more pleasant to be around. You feel more satisfied with the work you've done. 

When you're in a better mood with more mental energy and greater satisfaction about your work, it comes through in your social interactions. You'll be a better boss.

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