It was the second day of the training session I was giving at a large technology company in Hong Kong, a city so electric it makes Times Square look like Topeka. I had found some time to work privately with Ted, one of the lead managers on the marketing team, who was struggling to keep up with his workload. No matter how much he worked, he always felt behind, and he had to keep extending his hours to keep up with it all. "I don't do anything except work now," Ted confessed, "and it's still not enough."
I told him that he wasn't alone. I hear this same story, almost word for word, no matter what country I'm in or whom I'm talking with. Regardless of our job description, we never seem to have enough time to get everything done. Eight-hour workdays turn into 12- and 14-hour ones, and still we feel behind. How can this be?
Why do we have so much trouble being productive? After listening to Ted describe, from start to finish, how he went about his day, two important answers suddenly clicked into place: (1) Ted was working all the time, and (2) Ted was almost never working. When Ted arrives at 7 a.m., the first thing he does is open his Internet browser. His home page is CNN, so he starts reading up on the day's breaking news. His intent is to scan the major headlines and move on, but invariably, he ends up clicking through the other links that catch his eye. Then without even thinking about it, he opens two different websites where he checks his stocks and investments to see how they fared overnight.
Next, he checks his e-mail, which will continue to stay open throughout the day, alerting him every time he receives new messages. Once he wades through his in-box, clicks on a couple more links and attachments, and fires back a few responses, he's ready to get to work. Sort of. Turns out, Ted generally gets about 30 minutes of real work done before he takes a quick coffee break. Then he sits back down at his computer, where he can't help but notice that his home page has a whole new batch of headlines to scan. And what's this? Ten new e-mails? He'd better read them. Then he checks his stocks, again, just to be sure financial Armageddon hasn't kicked in. Finally, Ted refocuses and gets into a groove writing a new marketing plan... which lasts for about 10 minutes until his concentration is broken again by the arrival of new e-mail. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, "and so it goes."
Does this sound at all familiar? After a few quick calculations, we concluded that Ted probably checks his stocks three times an hour, his e-mail five times an hour, and news websites about once an hour. And that's actually quite typical. The American Management Association reports that employees spend an average of 107 minutes on e-mail a day. A group of London workers I spoke with admitted that they checked stocks about 4 or 5 times an hour; that's 35 times a day. And I suspect that if most office workers tallied up all the minutes they spent each day on blogs, social networking sites, Amazon.com, and so forth, it would paint a very alarming picture indeed. No wonder it's so hard to get anything done!
And that's not even the worst of it. The actual time we give to these distractions is part of the problem, but the larger issue is that our attention hits a wall each time we stray. Research shows that the average employee gets interrupted from work every 11 minutes, and on each occasion experiences a loss of concentration and flow that takes almost as many minutes to recover from. Yet in today's world, it's just too easy for us to be tempted. As a New York Times article put it, "distracting oneself used to consist of sharpening a half-dozen pencils or lighting a cigarette. Today, there is a universe of diversions to buy, hear, watch and forward, which makes focusing on a task all the more challenging."
The first step is a seemingly counterintuitive one—disable many of the shortcuts that were originally designed to "save time" at the office. For example, I encouraged Ted to keep his e-mail program closed while he worked, so it would no longer send jarring alerts whenever he received new mail. Any time he wanted to check e-mail, he'd have to actively open the program and wait for it to load. While this reduced involuntary interruptions, it was still too easy for him to click on the little Outlook icon whenever his mind wandered, so to protect against habitual checking, we made it even more difficult. We disabled the automatic login and password for the account, took the shortcut off the computer desktop, then hid the application icon in an empty folder, buried in another empty folder, buried in another empty folder. Essentially, we created the electronic version of Russian stacking dolls. As he told me one day at the office, only half jokingly, it was now "a total pain in the ass" to check e-mail. "Now we're getting somewhere," I replied.
We did the same for his other distractions, disabling his stock widget, changing his home page from CNN to a blank search page, and even turning off his computer's ability to process cookies so it couldn't "remember" the stocks and websites he usually checked. Every additional button he was required to click, even every additional address he was required to type into a web browser, raised the barrier to procrastination and improved his chances of remaining on task. I pointed out that he still had complete freedom to do what he wanted; just like in an opt-out program, his choice had not been taken away at all. The only thing that had changed was the default, which was now set to productivity, instead of to distraction.
That first day in Hong Kong, Ted was not only skeptical, but a little annoyed with me. It seemed to him (and to the other executives on whom I had inflicted similar miseries) that I was only making their busy lives more difficult. Who was I to disable their cookies? (I don't even know what cookies are!) But a few days later, once they realized how much more work they were getting done (and in less time), they had come around.
Excerpted from The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success And Performance at Work by Shawn Achor © 2010 Shawn Achor. Reprinted by permission of Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.