From Dr. Jacqueline Burnett-Brown’s Diverse Solutions Blog
Imagine you are in the middle of trying to resolve a problem with a project that is due by the end of the day. Your desk phone rings and it is your supervisor who wants you to check on the status of another group’s project. Your mind then has to switch gears from the current project to the previous project. While this interrupting task may only take a few minutes to complete, finding the momentum, the exact “place” you were in your thought processes on the current project may take even longer; as much as 30 minutes.1 Not only that, but the quality of work may have suffered due to the interruption in mental energy, creativity, and stymy the overall mental as well as physical work flow.2
Reports show that numerous interruptions occur throughout the course of most of our workdays.3 We have come to expect them, and in some ways, we are conditioned to them.4 How many times have you questioned yourself about starting a task if you knew there was a meeting scheduled within the next hour or two? You wonder what is the point of getting started if you are just going to have to stop. Having your thought process interrupted while working on a project, purchase order, or even an office memo is like leaving a television show mid-point and coming back to it in a few hours. You need to rewind to remind yourself of what was happening so the rest of the show makes sense. Unfortunately, we do not have that capability, therefore we lose time, energy, and experience an overall reduction in productivity. 5
How Collaboration Can Actually Impede Flow and Reduce Productivity
As an increasing number of work environments encourage or even require collaboration. Whether collaborations take place online with tools like SLACK, or face to face, collaboration means depending upon other people’s time, punctuality, and work ethic; all of which can lead to built in wasted time, or as social psychologist term it, social loafing. Social loafing is what occurs when two or more people are involved on a project. Studies show that the more people involved, the less shared responsibility and productivity.6 It is a mindset that is almost inevitable and anyone who remembers group projects from their high school years can well remember that in a group of four or five, one or two did the bulk of the work.
Generally, there is a lead member assigned to a project. That lead will find that the work flow, time, attention, and productivity will be much more efficient if the work is looked at in segments, rather than the whole. Therefore, one way to combat built in wasted time is to provide each team member or pair of members a specific task with a hard deadline.7 All too often when there is a deadline for a complete project, people tend to look at that projected date which could be weeks or even months down the road often forgetting that there are parts of a project that must be completed along the way to completion. In order to ensure that each part of the project is in progress toward its deadline, check-ins and status reports are a means of keeping team members accountable for their time.8
Maximizing Breaks Through Self-Care
Another problem with mental energy and flow is that many work spaces that do not require direct monitoring of systems or people allow for flexible breaks. For the naturally disciplined, these work out well, but those who lack personal discipline may actually find themselves wasting breaktime to where they feel the need for another break in a short while.9 It is important to not only have routine breaks,10 but also to make sure you are using that time to take care of your physical as well as mental well-being.11
The bathroom break needs to become a personal time break. If breaks are 10-15 minutes, a portion of that time of course will be devoted to bodily needs – the bathroom portion of the break- and the other part should be devoted to mental well-being. Take lunch out. Studies show that a 20-minute walk in the open air, looking at a scenic view, or practicing deep breathing can help to increase mental energy.12 Deep breathing is something that anyone can do at any time This practice supports deep focus on the self, and circulates oxygen through the body and to the brain.13 A well-oxygenated brain is a better functioning and focused brain.
Screen-time and Brain Drain
A caveat to taking built in personal breaks is that many take this time to check in on others rather than themselves. Home, friends, social media, the news, even games designed to increase mental energy,14 are often drains on our mental energy and our time.15 A few minutes absorbed in screen time “catching up” on the outside world often means a loss of self-care, and can be more mentally exhausting than work.16 Additionally, some may even find it more difficult to resume a task after spending even a few minutes checking their social media.17
Strategies for Practicing Self-Care at Work
Interruptions are a part of life. They disrupt our mental energy and workflow, but there are steps we can take on a personal level as well as implementing changes conducive to our overall workspaces to improve our focus and reduce extraneous distractions. Everyone in the work environment can benefit from minimized interruptions and the practice of breaks devoted to self-care.
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