The workplace has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. In the 1990s and earlier, many of us had actual offices with doors we could close to block out distractions. Open offices and telecommuting were much less common.
Time management, the technique we used to schedule our days, doesn’t cut it anymore. The strategies we learned in time management training programs — the sticky notes with our “top three most important items,” the way-too-long paper lists we’re supposed to prioritize by “A,” “B” and “C” and the flags we apply to our emails — are failing us.
These days, we can no longer prioritize our tasks by importance. Everything seems urgent and competes for the highest priority.
Distraction Is the Biggest Threat to Productivity
Our problems stem from distraction. As knowledge workers, we rely on skills that are difficult to outsource, such as creativity, insight, innovation and analysis. Our work provides a competitive advantage to our companies, but we find ourselves constantly switching from one task to another, in the continual state of “business” that seems necessary to stay on top of it all. Research shows that when we switch tasks, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours before we return to the first task to complete it.
The pace becomes so frantic that it squeezes out time to stop, think and prioritize. We spend all of our time playing defense (reacting) that we have no time to play offense — proactively move our “important but not urgent” tasks forward. This problem seriously affects our productivity.
Peak Productivity Requires Workflow Management
To be productive and effective, it’s time to evolve past time management training. Peak productivity now requires a comprehensive set of skills — often known as workflow management — that isn’t taught in school. In my work with clients, it’s clear that a lack of workflow management skills creates tangible problems in organizations, such as burnout, missed deadlines and quality control issues. It’s up to organizations to bridge this gap, and learning and development professionals are on the front line.
There are six foundational components to peak productivity. I’ve assembled them into a workflow management process called empowered productivity,” which offers six solutions to these business problems:
1. Attention Management
Attention management is the intentional application of a series of brain states, such as focus, flow, mindfulness, daydreaming and reactivity, in the service of achieving our most important objectives. In other words, attention management facilitates the pursuit of improved productivity. Attention management allows you to recognize all the ways your attention is stolen throughout the day — often by your own behaviors — and to take back control. It is your defense against the damage our fast-paced, technology-rich, always-on environment does to our minds, bodies and souls.
2. Action Management
Action management is necessary because when you scatter tasks through paper lists, multiple apps, flags in emails and sticky notes, you are primarily relying on your memory to manage your workload. Since constant distraction undermines your ability to apply your brainpower in a meaningful way, this “memory” method results in stress, forgetfulness, and a feeling of constantly being overwhelmed and unsatisfied.
3. Communication and Information Management
We now have so many methods of communication, it’s easy for our days to get away from us while we do nothing but react to other people’s problems and requests. Knowledge workers need a logical, repeatable process for communication and information management so we can thoughtfully respond to priorities rather than constantly react.
4. Meeting Management
Successful, growing organizations are victims of a meeting culture that is often excessive, redundant and inefficient. Making meetings work requires an intentional set of behaviors prior to, during and after each meeting. Unfortunately, most employees don’t practice these behavior, and most organizations don’t even educate their workforce about them. We can reclaim an untold number of productive hours with more productive meetings. Therefore, meeting management is an important requirement for peak productivity.
5. Behavior Change Management
For most people, work habits develop over time, out of necessity and without intention. Anyone who has ever gone on a diet or tried to quit something knows that changing habits is hard. As a result, teaching new workflow habits without an understanding of how habits form and how to change them makes lasting impact unlikely. To facilitate maximum return on training dollars, behavior change management should be part of any workflow management training.
6. Culture Management
Lastly, the unfortunate truth is that the biggest impediment to a team’s productivity is often the behaviors of its leaders, who also suffer from these challenges. Leadership behaviors have a strong influence on the culture, resulting in an organizational culture that frequently sabotages employee productivity rather than supporting it. Training staff to improve their productivity without also assessing the culture of the organization provides only a superficial solution. Therefore, culture management is an important component of effective workflow management training.
To most effectively harness our intellectual resources, we need a workflow management methodology that enables us to be thoughtful, proactive and intentional in our work and our attention. Time management concepts are outdated. Comprehensive workflow management, with an emphasis on managing attention, is an updated approach to productivity that helps knowledge workers perform at their best and leaves them feeling invigorated and satisfied instead of frazzled and exhausted.