During research for The Healthy Workplace, I visited an office that was experimenting with new technology to better understand the health and wellness of their employees, but also to help with coaching. Being the curious type, I agreed to be a guinea pig for one of their new gadgets, the “Optogait.”
The Optogait, developed by Dr. Peter Gorman (inventor of the heart-rate monitor that goes into treadmills and stair master machines) is a device that basically looks like two five-foot plastic bars on the floor, each spaced parallel to each other and five or six feet apart. It has special sensors to calculate when objects touch the floor anywhere between them. It can measure different physical movements like running and jumping, but the test I did was pretty simple. First I marched in place for 30 seconds. Then I marched to a metronome at half of my natural pace, then again at twice my natural pace. After some whirring, the PC attached to this device printed out my results.
This instrument measures “flight and contact time,” essentially your balance and the consistency of your steps. The results determine both the amount of effort expended and performance. Some people perform better at a slower pace, some at a faster pace in this exercise, which is a proxy for how they are likely approach work tasks. According to my results, I performed best stepping slower than my “natural pace” in this stepping test, and, according to the wellness coach, it’s likely that I perform better at work if I am given longer timelines and more flexibility to complete a task, rather than rapid deadlines.
I almost cried. This little test told me what I already knew, and in spades. That working at a breakneck pace, with 15 concurring deadlines, just doesn’t work for me. I used to pride myself in how many projects I could juggle at the same time. But the honest truth, illustrated by this simple stepping test, is that I need time to process when I work. I need less on my plate, not more. I really prefer deeper engagement in a task that I perform at my own speed, not constantly jumping over ever-mounting hurdles. Turns out I’m a tortoise in hare’s clothing!
All this got me thinking. Am I an adrenalin junkie? Or am I just a really bad manager of my time? Being “busy” is clearly a cultural pressure – heck, it’s the default answer when people ask you how you are. If someone says, “How’s work?” these days and you say, “Great! I’m working on one thing and really taking my time with it,” they would look at you like you are from Mars. The acceptable answer is something like, “Oh man, I’m totally swamped, working crazy hours and traveling all the time.” Actually an even better response is to send this answer in an email to someone at 1:00 am. That really shows you’re in the rat-race.
The problem with all of this busy, busy, overloaded work culture, at least for me, is that: 1) work quality suffers, 2) my family and friends suffer and 3) I’m not happy. I’ve been very slowly trying to find the right pace for working and the right number of projects to work on, but one thing is very clear. I have to be the one to figure this out. I have to listen to the voice in my head – or to my very outspoken kids who want me to play with them – and determine if I’m spending my time and energy in the best way possible. Because that’s what we have to give, our time and energy.
Some of most interesting research I’ve done lately is on mindfulness, and its impact on work. It has given me perspective on living more in the present and paying attention to what is happening now, versus stressing about the past or panicking about the future. From a productivity perspective, being “mindful” and focused on your work is an excellent skill. Some of my favorite books on the subject are:
There is also fascinating research on “flow” I’ve found helpful. The concept of flow was first studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes the flow state as one in which an athlete or individual performs at his or her best, seemingly without effort, but with total concentration, feeling totally in control without thinking about it. Csíkszentmihályi identifies the following factors as encompassing an experience of flow. These aspects can appear independently of each other, but only together do they constitute a so-called flow experience.
- Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
- Merging of action and awareness
- A loss of reflective self-consciousness
- A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
- A distortion of temporal experience and subjective experience of time is altered
- Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding
Good stuff, right? I wrote a little more on the subject of flow and group flow in the workplace here if you are interested. Also, here are two other books that discuss flow and what it looks like:
My big take away from all of this reading and self-analyzing is that for me, a deeper focus on fewer tasks leads to better results. I can’t always say no to a project that lands in my lap, but often I can affect the timing, or scope or shaping of the project so that I can give it my best self. And when I can’t, I vocalize that. The cultural pull of “being busy” is strong, but the next time someone asks me, “How’s work?” I hope I’m a little more thoughtful, maybe more mindful in my answer.