Four Misconceptions Most Companies Still BelieveMay 1, 2012
#1: Multitasking is critical.
(Actually, it’s making your work take 25% longer!)
People have literally been laboring too long under the assumption that human beings are capable of doing two cognitive tasks at the same time. We’re not. What we actually do is learn how to move rapidly between tasks. Whether people toggle between browsing the web and using other computer programs, talk on cell phones while driving or read email while on a conference call, they’re using their “executive control” processes. And executive control involves two distinct, complementary stages: goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that“) and rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both stages help people unconsciously switch between tasks.
Rule activation itself takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second–which adds up when people switch back and forth repeatedly between tasks. Switching time increases the total amount of time it takes to finish the primary task you were working on by an average of 25 percent. Thus, multitasking may seem more efficient on the surface, but may actually take more time in the end.
#2: A little bit of anxiety helps us perform better.
(Actually, it reduces creativity and increases turnover.)
Think for a moment about how you feel when you’re performing at your best. What adjectives come to mind? Positive words, right? And anxiety probably isn’t one of them. Anxiety may be a source of energy, and even motivation, but it comes with significant mental and physical costs.
The more anxious we feel, the less clearly and imaginatively we think, and the more reactive and impulsive we become. That’s not good for anyone. And it has huge implications if you’re in a supervisory role.
As a boss, your energy impacts your employees, by virtue of your authority. Any time your behavior increases someone’s anxiety–or prompts any negative emotions, for that matter–they’re less likely to perform effectively.
The more positive your energy is, the more positive their energy is likely to be, and the better the likely outcome.
#3: Creativity is inherited, not able to be taught.
(Not true! Creativity is a process.)
In a global economy driven by unprecedented competitiveness and constant change, nearly every CEO is seeking ways to drive more innovation. Most CEOs don’t think of themselves as creative, and they share with most people a deeply ingrained belief that creativity is something you are born with.
The truth? Researchers have come to a surprising degree of consensus about the stages of creativity and how to approach them. As it turns out, the creative process moves back and forth between left and right hemisphere dominance. While our educational system and most company cultures reward the rational, analytical, deductive left hemisphere thinking, creativity is actually about using the whole brain more flexibly. And this process unfolds in a far more systematic–and teachable–way than you might think. People can learn to access the hemisphere of the brain that serves them best at each stage of the creative process–and to generate truly original ideas.
#4: The best way to get more work done is to work longer hours.
(True, if you want more mistakes and less quality.)
This is the most destructive of all workforce myths. Human beings are not designed to operate like computers–at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.
Instead, we are designed to shift intermittently between spending and renewing energy. Enlightened leaders recognize that it’s not the number of hours people work that determines their value, but rather the energy and quality they bring to whatever work they create.
Rather than systematically burning down our reservoir of energy as the day wears on, as most of us do, periodic renewal makes it possible to keep our energy steady all day long. Strategically alternating stages of intense focus with periods of renewal, at least every 90 minutes, makes it possible to get more done, in less time, more sustainably.
Want to test the assumption? For the rest of this week, choose the most challenging task on your agenda at the end of each day. Set aside 60 to 90 minutes at the start of the following day to focus on that activity. Choose a designated start and stop time, and do your best to minimize interruptions. If you succeed in getting your 60 to 90 minutes of uninterrupted time and focus, it will almost surely be your most productive period of the day.
As a manager, it’s time to let your employees know the truth about these lies. You need to help your people set priorities and avoid giving them too many projects that are due all at once. You need to be a cheerleader, not a drill sergeant. Set the bar high, but not in a way that creates constant stress. Give your employees the chance to learn and implement creative processes in their daily work. And help them better plan and organize their days so they can focus their most productive time on their most important tasks.
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