In the past, employees worked when they were at the office and, for most part, disconnected after hours. Rapid technological advances and digital convergence have changed that. Employees use devices and tools that were unknown as of 15 years ago. The rise of technology has made possible working from anywhere and leaves our attention scattered.
Not only do we work later on weeknights, we also stay connected during weekends and vacations. Science shows that this leads to decreased productivity and, even worse, to mental and physical health problems like depression, anxiety, and burnout. The key to recovering your productivity is attention management.
Because of the constant barrage of communication and information, most employees spend their days in a state of constant distraction and task-switching. The results are perpetual stress and being “busy” instead of being productive. More than a quarter of the time someone switches tasks, it’s two hours or more before they resume their original task.
This distraction takes a toll on the quality of work. Workers who poorly manage their attention are constantly reacting to external distractions, which leaves them no time to be proactive—to reflect and thoughtfully apply their knowledge and experience in meaningful ways. In addition, single-tasking produces higher-quality results because we have time to marshal our brain power in the service of our important work. I think of attention management as “unleashing the genius” of those who practice it.
One way to start helping your employees with attention management is to provide them with clear guidelines for email. A study from Virginia Tech found that dealing with after-hours emails produces anxiety. One particularly striking finding of this study was that it’s not just the amount of time taken up by reading and answering emails after work that’s stressing out employees (and their partners) but just the expectation that an employee will be available for work outside the office.
The constant pressure of answering emails leaves one with little to no mental recovery time. Without recovery time, employees become less creative, focused, and thoughtful and instead feel stressed and out of balance, all of which leads to burnout.
A manager can alleviate employee anxiety by clarifying email expectations. What managers expect can differ greatly from what employees believe their managers expect. Say something like, “We believe that downtime is important, and we expect you to disconnect from work email on evenings, weekends, and vacations. If something important comes up, we’ll communicate via phone or text.” Leaders must model this behavior.
When technology lengthens your workday, the time you spend working after hours is time that could be spent cultivating other interests and pursuits that would make your life more balanced. Activities such as socializing with friends, engaging in a creative project or hobby, or even just relaxing in front of the TV can create opportunities for brain processes that will be beneficial to your work. Games, hobbies, and other activities stimulate creative thinking, encourage single-tasking, clear your mind, and improve your confidence.
There is a growing body of evidence about the benefits of vacation to our physical, mental, and fiscal health. Employees’ success depends upon the wisdom, experience, and unique perspectives that they bring to work. Our supply of motivation and creativity is not endless. A vacation renews the perspective, creativity, and clarity of thought that gets buried by the fast pace of everyday life. Productivity ultimately suffers when employees skimp on time off or work during vacation.
Without evenings, weekends, and regular vacations to recharge and proper nutrition to sustain energy, burnout becomes more likely. The path to burnout increases distractibility, further suppressing knowledge workers’ ability to engage in deep thinking and to finish meaningful work. Operating at peak productivity requires good attention management skills. Productivity is lower if the conditions above are present. Attention management is the antidote to distraction and facilitates employees’ ability to manage their distractions, maximize their focus, engage their flow, be present in their moments, and, ultimately, “unleash their genius” for their satisfaction and engagement and for the benefit of the organization.