Quality Time

When was the last time you took a little break, got away from it all and spent a little quality time with your work?

The amount of time we devote to work is truly impressive, but how much quality do we get with the quantity? If you’ have ever multi-tasked your way through a long, hectic day juggling priority meetings, urgent emails, and unexpected phone calls, you probably know what I’’m getting at. Even if you started the day with a sense of purpose, you probably ended it with a sense of ‘”Get me out of here, PLEASE!”’

Noted psychiatrist and author Dr. Edward Hallowell has seen many people who have lots of days like that. He reports a disturbing increase in the number of professionals who come to him for help with a set of symptoms that are almost identical to those of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He calls the condition ADT (Attention Deficit Trait) and attributes the increase at least partially to the hyper-connectivity and hyper-urgency that permeate most offices. It seems that multi-tasking your way through the day wears down your brain, leaving you frazzled and robbing you of your most valuable resource: the ability to think straight. There are probably some days that do demand a multi-tasking approach; however, a work regimen that is too heavy on quick, shallow, reactive hits may actually be a diet of mental subsistence. (1)

Producing quality work is a high quality experience

Knowledge workers are paid to solve problems, craft strategies, generate visions and turn those visions into plans. We create value with our minds rather than our hands or backs, and we like this kind of work. It gives us a sense that we are making unique contributions to our organizations and customers.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Director of the Quality of Life Research Center and professor at the Drucker School in Claremont, CA, has found that people report the highest quality of experience when they take on challenges that require them to muster and stretch their complex skills and abilities. As we engage in the challenge, we become so focused on what we are doing that we lose track of time and may even lose awareness of where we are or what we are doing. He calls this experience flow, an extended period of deep focus. We experience flow when we read a great book. We also experience it when we throw ourselves into a challenging task or project that we love or consider to be important. (2)

You can probably remember a time when you became so absorbed in some project or task that you lost track of time and your awareness of what was going on around you receded. Once you had built up some momentum (without interruption), you felt a rush of energy or inspiration that propelled you toward your goal. You may have even been pleasantly surprised by the quality of what you had produced when you emerged on the other side of this flurry of focused activity. This is precisely what is remarkable about flow. It not only increases satisfaction but also enhances creativity and productivity. It may even have a salutary impact on your health.

Since we experience flow when we are stretching our capacities in a purposeful way, the degree to which we experience flow in our work may be a good indicator of the degree to which we are taking on challenges that stretch our capabilities.  Choosing to do work that induces flow may even be a formula for triggering a positive upward spiral in which we continually increase our capacity to take on greater challenges which in turn enables us to be more productive. The inverse may also be true. If we are not experiencing flow, we probably are not doing work that stretches our capacity to create value for our organizations and customers.

Which brings us back to the question at the beginning of the post

When was the last time you took a little break, got away from it all and spent a little quality time with your work?

Here’’s where hyper-connectivity and hyper-urgency come back into the picture. It would appear that in order to experience flow at work we need to periodically take the risk of ignoring the incessant stream of incoming mails, requests and meetings. We need to make a conscious choice to be less responsive to others’ demands so that we can engage deeply and extensively in something that we genuinely consider important or interesting. For most of us, though, it is not easy to disengage long enough to focus on one or two truly important things.

As the world has become more inter-connected we have developed multi-tasking skills to take advantage of or at least cope with the onslaught of inbound requests for our attention. To make the most of the opportunities that arise from connectivity, though, we need to periodically disengage and focus deeply enough to create something worth sharing through our connections. Couldn’’t a few of those urgent emails wait for two or three hours while you focus on something that is important regardless of whether others are treating it as urgent?

So how can you create flow in your workplace?

Create a list of objectives or activities requiring flow and block space in your schedule to focus on them exclusively. Do you block off time in your day when you are able to focus on something you really care about?  You can’’t and shouldn’’t disengage from others all the time. Being hooked up to the network can in fact save you time and trouble. Moreover, connectivity is one of the key drivers of organizational synergy.

Still, it can be difficult to think straight if you don’’t open up a little space in your day with no phone calls, email or meetings.  Take a little quiet time at the beginning of the day to ask yourself what the really important stuff is and how you are going to make sure some of it gets done today.  The brain’s runs on cycles of approximately 90-120 minutes.  Why not pick one or two 90-minute cycles and designate them as flow time? That should leave you plenty of time for multi-tasking and meetings.

Manage interruptions wisely. Research shows that it is harder to establish flow than it is to maintain flow once it has been achieved.  If you want to experience more flow in your day, plan your important, enjoyable challenging activities for a time when you are sure you can build up some momentum before you get interrupted. Sometimes when there is something I really need to focus on, I calculate how many hours it will take me to create momentum. Then, I wake up that many hours before the rest of the house wakes up. Once I’’ve built up a little momentum, I find it is easier to re-engage and re-establish flow later in the day after I have taken care of the inevitable interruptions known as other people. (3)

Help your subordinates and colleagues create flow. Recognize when others are in flow and give them the time and space they need to experience and create quality. If you are a manager, do you help your subordinates match their skills to challenges that will enable them to experience flow? Could you integrate discussion of flow into your performance and career discussions? Do you give your subordinates and colleagues permission to block off time in their schedules for activities requiring exclusive focus?

Some people may say it is unrealistic to expect to experience flow on the job. You get paid to create quality experiences for someone else, don’’t you? To this I might reply, quality time begets quality work. If you are not creating time for quality in your schedule, you may be operating at less than your full capacity and your organization may be squandering access to the greater part of your potential. Then again, as we all slip into a state of ADT we may be so distracted that we will never notice what are missing.

Sources:

(1) Edward M. Hallowell, Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform, Harvard Business Review, January 2005. (Also, Diamond HBR, July 2005)

(2) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow and Good Business

(3) Clive Thompson, Meet the Life Hackers, NY Times Magazine (Online), Oct 16, 2005

For more recent research on a similar topic called DEEP WORK, listen to Shankar Vedantam’s interview with Cal Newport on “Hidden Brain, You 2.0, Aug 26th, 2019.” The interview can be found at the following url:

https://www.npr.org/2019/08/26/754336716/you-2-0-deep-work

For more recent commentary on the impact of doing work that is well-paid but not a high quality experience, listen to the “Hidden Brain” interview with David Graeber in “BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down.” It can be found at the url:

https://www.npr.org/2019/10/28/774067928/bs-jobs-how-meaningless-work-wears-us-down

For emerging research on the mechanisms that regulate our attention, check out:

https://www.quantamagazine.org/to-pay-attention-the-brain-uses-filters-not-a-spotlight-20190924/

© Dana Cogan  2009 and 2019, all rights reserved.

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