iStock_000015521004SmallHere is something you should try at the end of today, on the way home. Ask yourself: ‘What did I do today?’ and make a list (in your mind will do). Once you have thought about all the emails you read, calls you made, meetings you attended, status updates you received etc., ask yourself another question: ‘What did I achieve today?’ and check how the two relate. At this point many of you may already feel slightly demoralised, but we are not done yet. Take it one step further and follow up with ‘What did I achieve today that was of value to me and the business I work in?’

Hopefully you didn’t end up empty-handed, but we have been observing a worrying trend from results oriented work to busyness/activity in recent years that has prompted this blog post. The environment in most businesses we work with has changed, there is more noise, more information overload, more demands and much more (often unproductive) activity. What is absent is usually a clear plan, focus and clear priorities.

If you allow yourself to think about how this could be, you would have to realise that what counts as productive has changed. Most companies today are in one way or another in the business of generating and processing information, which is a big change from the industrial age. If you think back to the original large-scale business endeavours (railways, oil, car manufacturing), they didn’t even have managers as such. Productive meant producing stuff and (information) overheads were minimal (and moved at snail’s pace).

Today, we are no longer sure what productive means. What constitutes ‘productive’ work in a bank? Answering customer enquires? Much of the actual productive function is automated – like processing transactions and making lending decisions. So it is little wonder that many businesses are pursuing a path of ‘more is more’, until the dust settles and it becomes clearer what constitutes productive information processing. Of course the ease with which we can now share anything instantly is a big contributing factor to the information overload as well.

But this observation does not just apply to large organisations, we have seen the same tendencies in small and medium size businesses. Much of what is happening to us is simply the result of our novelty seeking brain. We are (literally) addicted to checking emails or any other pop-up notification, buzz or call that comes up on our smartphones. Psychologically, this works in exactly the same way as poker machines – frequent, yet unpredictable, intermittent rewards stimulate our brain like nothing else (bar drugs).

So, we have an unfortunate situation where a brain which evolved to respond to sudden, unexpected changes in the environment to keep you alive on the savannah has been tricked into staring at a small screen every time it emits a noise. Those noises are increasing in frequency because its so easy to click share, like, reply all etc. and because we are generating too much information with no clear purpose (as yet).

So far this is of course conjecture, which may match your experience to a greater or lesser degree. Do we have a good data point that corroborates the story? We do, in a recent survey of 50,000+ US managers 78% said they had no time to think! Of course you can’t think if you are permanently interrupted and you can’t plan if your priorities change all the time (or don’t exist in the first place).

If at this point you feel this really doesn’t quite apply to you, please check back to the mental exercise you did at the beginning – What did I achieve today that was of value to me and the business (or business unit) I work in?‘ How did that stack up against the hours you worked and the ‘stuff’ you did? Could you have achieved the same in a fraction of the time? We all have the tendency to excuse busy work on the basis that we see it all around us, everyone else appears to be in the same boat. Like all addicts, we quite happily stay in denial. A simple test will tell you – keep your phone and computer off for 1 or 2 days.

Of course that’s not a permanent solution and no permanent solution can be designed as long as you stay embedded in the system that feeds you the noise and superfluous information and activity. But there are changes you can make. At a minimum, disable all push notifications on your phone. Instant declutter for your brain. If the reward is too infrequent, the brain loses interest. That’s why poker machines provide frequent small wins, to keep the punter hooked. Once you are no longer hooked, you regain the ability to use your prefrontal cortex to think (the reason gamblers can’t quit is because the executive function of the brain is effectively sidelined by the more primitive reward seeking circuitry).

Once you are out of denial and out of this trance like state, you might notice how tired you are. When your brain is anticipating the next ‘reward’, it is working surprisingly hard. You actually remain alert, which consumes energy and increases your cognitive load. If on top of that you are juggling lots of tasks and/or information (even just in your mind), you are really asking a lot of your brain. Some managers we come across in our coaching have reached a point where they can no longer think, no longer make sense of their situation. A bit zombie like, really.

Only once you are off the hook can you ask the important questions – do I still like the work I do? Am I still engaged?  Am I still learning something? What’s my motivation and energy level like in the morning and at the end of the day? What can I drop, park or delegate?

We have had quite a number of executive coaching clients recently where we simply could not have the conversations that needed to be had for the lack of available mental capacity and the sheer tiredness of the person in front of us. In those cases we have to get very prescriptive to help the client make quite drastic changes to their day-to-day in order to stop, park and delegate tasks so that we get a level of mental recovery that allows for considered, rational decision making.

Once you are back in charge, you will have to maintain control of your cognitive load. That requires willpower, which in turn requires mental energy. You can see right here why the starting point has to be freeing up mental capacity. You can’t decide to park certain tasks or ignore certain requests without having spare capacity. You will simply not be able to make such a decision and just continue to do what you have been doing. That’s why using the time after the summer break is your best chance to make changes, if you are feeling refreshed you should use it to decide what you are no longer going to do.

Clarity of focus and productivity is about what you decide not to do. Its about having priorities and sticking to them. We can run our business very successfully by working 15 hours a week, but we spent significant chunks of time over the last 2 years to design out all superfluous activity and unnecessary information. Now we are more productive than we have ever been and have the time to pursue our wildlife conservation work and even start a new endeavour this year (stay tuned, more about this in a few weeks).