In the blink of an eye, our busyness can become burnout. Despite that, we wear our busyness like a badge, feeding it to signal our commitment to the job and to prove our worth.

But there are casualties in this war of pride: Your work-life balance suffers and along with it your health (as Harvard and Stanford research shows). Productivity takes a beating too, as Cornell University research shows. And this busyness cripples your ability to focus, having a prolonged effect on all three of these things.

When you're busy and you know you're running out of time to get everything done, your attention and ability to focus greatly narrows to one task. It's a phenomenon that behavioral researchers call tunneling, named as such because it's like being in a tunnel where you can focus only on what's immediate or right in front of you. It's all you have the bandwidth to do at that time. 

The issue is that this often happens to be the lowest brain-cell-burning (but not most important) task. Harvard research shows you actually lose 13 IQ points in this state. I've definitely experienced this, where I'm feeling overwhelmed and desperate for a sense of accomplishment, so I start ticking off things on my to-do list that aren't even in the top 20 of importance. I'm busy, but I feel like I'm getting dumber by working on such mindless things.

If this sounds familiar, you also know that to make up for your lack of focus, you begin stealing time outside of normal work hours to catch up -- and the downhill slide begins. Work expands to the time you give it, you become more exhausted, less focused, and so on.

It gets worse. As Matthew Darling of Ideas42 (a behavioral science nonprofit) told Harvard Business Review, "Tunneling and busyness are mutually reinforcing. Focusing on short-term tasks makes you not make strategic plans, which causes you to be busy." This fuels the vicious cycle, which requires a partnership between leader and employee to break. But how?

Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (and a collaborator of Ideas42), shared four ways to dial in employee focus.

1. Create a new ideal employee avatar.

"Right now, the model employee is someone who comes in early, eats lunch at their desk, stays late, emails at all hours, and is always busy and available to put work first," Schulte says. "The ideal worker in the 21st century is someone who does great work, is well-rested, healthy, and has a great life outside of work."

I'd add the ideal employer is one who embraces this and acknowledges the change in how work is getting done and what enables focus -- such as supporting remote work and flexible schedules and ditching open-plan offices. 

2. Watch the signals you send.

Anthropologists from Hobart and William Smith found that the greatest indicator of how much a student drinks is his or her perception of how much other students drink -- which is almost always an overestimation.

The same thing happens at work. You get an email at 9 p.m. from your boss and overestimate that he or she must be working 24/7 (even though they're not). You assume you have to do the same to keep up or project the right image.

Schulte says leaders must visibly role-model nonwork time as just that, talking about their vacations, leaving at a reasonable hour, verbalizing that email isn't a 24-hour-a-day expectation, etc. The ripple effect on focus is simple. If you're not trying to keep up with a false impression, you have better work-life balance and greater ability to focus when it's time to work.

3. Create slack time and hold it sacred.

Human beings consistently underestimate how long it takes to get tasks done (I'm guilty as charged). So schedule slack time on your calendar and protect it. Use it to get you back on track by finishing uncompleted tasks and to help keep you off the gerbil wheel.

Schulte even recommends scheduling "transition days" before leaving for vacation and upon return. It helps prevent the focus-busters of an avalanche of emails and catch-up meetings awaiting you after vacation.

4. Make work plans visible.

I've done this to great effect. If your boss or co-workers have knowledge of your workload, visualized in some manner, ideally, it causes them to think twice before scheduling yet another meeting or asking for some other focus-busting piece of work from you.

Whenever a boss would ask me to add on a big piece of work, I'd visualize my current workload on a piece of paper, and respectfully engage that boss in the "I can meet your request, but what comes off my plate?" conversation.

Net, focus is the crown jewel of productivity and triggers a cascade of related benefits. So polish yours up today.

Published on: May 8, 2019
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