I hear many people saying that work is crazy busy right now. It usually is this time of year. On top of the end of year frenzy, many of us struggle with pressure to deliver more with less resources, often with less clarity.
I listened to a talk by an emergency physician about Triage – a sorting system to allocate limited resources to do as much good as possible. The criteria differ between country and situation, but in essence: when disaster hits, there should be no doubt about whom to treat first.
Without in any way comparing corporate pressure to emergency care, wouldn’t it be great to have a clear-cut way to allocate our personal resources (time, energy, and cognitive capacity) when things get ‘crazy busy’?
As a starting point, ask yourself:
1️⃣ What are my top 3 priorities? (the easy part)
2️⃣ How are they reflected in my calendar? (the painful part)
3️⃣ How can I design my work, so that my most productive time is spent on my top priorities? (the game-changing part)
Or as Steven C would say: When you have too many top priorities, you effectively have no top priorities.
If my business had a muse, it would be Louisa in Encanto 🏋♀️
I watched the movie again with my kids the other day. The lyrics really speak to my mission of helping high achievers perform sustainably.
❓❓ What would you say to Louisa, to the ‘Louisas’ in your team, to yourself if you identify?
“I’m the strong one, I’m not nervous
I’m as tough as the crust of the Earth is
I move mountains, I move churches
And I glow, ’cause I know what my worth is
I don’t ask how hard the work is
I take what I’m handed, I break what’s demanded…
Under the surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service
Under the surface, I hide my nerves and it worsens
It’s pressure like a drip, drip, drip that’ll never stop, whoa
Pressure that’ll tip, tip, tip ’til you just go pop, whoa, oh, oh
Watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks, no mistakes
Who am I if I can’t run with the ball?
Who am I if I can’t carry it all?”
Pulling an all-nighter, doing 80-hour weeks, burning the midnight oil.
There are countless cultural references and expressions of overwork, most of them talk about the number of hours we work.
The 8-hour workday can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution and was introduced as a way to give workers enough time to rest from heavy manual labor. In a knowledge based society, where many of us mainly work with our brains, what would be the equivalent rule? How should our workdays be structured to optimize and protect our cognitive muscles?
We have all experienced days or meetings that left us completely spent, barely able to hold a conversation with our family at the dinner table. Some tasks are just more cognitively demanding than others. A 30-minute disorganized Teams meeting with conflicts can leave us mentally drained while a whole week of working on a passion project can even add to our energy depot. These insights are particularly important when you’re in a billable hour practice or run your own business.
Or as George Orwell might have put it, had he been writing LinkedIn articles in 2023:
‘All hours are equal, but some hours are more equal than others.’
I find human capacity and performance management fascinating and I’m not surprised that it’s a well researched topic. There are numerous behavioral science studies and psychology papers exploring human endurance and how we maximize performance. From looking at what world record holding athletes have in common to analyzing iconic chess games.
I recently came across Samuele Mancona’s study about how mental and physical fatigue are linked. It was described in Alex Hutchingson’s book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, which I can really recommend. In the study, Manconaasked volunteers to be part of two time-to-exhaustion tests on a stationary bike. Basically, the participants were asked to cycle until they were too exhausted to continue. Ahead of the first test, the volunteers were asked to spend 90 minutes on a mentally draining computer game that required their full attention. Ahead of the second test, the participants were instead asked to watch a bland and emotionally neutral documentary.
After the mentally draining computer game the volunteers gave up 15,1% earlier on the bike test.
There were no physiological explanations to the time difference – their heart rates, lactate levels etc. were the same. They were similarly motivated in both the tests as the best performance was rewarded with a $50 prize. The difference was that when the participants were mentally fatigued, they reached their perceived point of physical exhaustion quicker.
In the study, they used the Borg scale, after Swedish psychologist Gunnar Borg, to measure perceived exertion. In his view perceived exertion is the best measurement of physical strain since it’s based on signals not only from muscles, joints and the cardiovascular system but from the central nervous system as well.
Here’s more from Orwell:
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.”
The results of the study might make sense to us instinctively even if I for one can’t explain it. But it does make me wonder why so many workplaces are still organizing work based on hours, as if all hours were indeed created equally. Surprisingly often I meet managers who expect their team to clock 40, 60 or 80 hours per week, regardless of the kind of work the employees have done or the results generated.
Our jobs are more cognitively demanding today than ever before. The value we add, as simpler tasks are AI’ed out, is often about solving complex problems, managing change or generating ideas – mentally expensive work. Add to that all the distractions we expose our brains to every day.
I believe managing our cognitive resources will be a critical skill going forward, both for achieving meaningful work goals and for important social interactions.
So how would we organize and measure work if LinkedIn-Orwell had a say in it?
USE COGNITIVE RESOURCES WISELY. Since attention is a scarce resources, be mindful what you spend or waste it on. Do a cost benefit analysis for the things you spend a lot of time on, like meetings and emails. A study published in MIT Sloan Management Review 2022 found that by implementing just one meeting free day per week companies improved autonomy by 62%, cooperation with 15% and engagement with 28%. Avoid powering through when you feel exhausted, it’s counterproductive.
AUTOMATE. We make thousands of decisions every day and each decision uses a part of our cognitive capacity. To focus your decision-making energy on the things that really matter we need to automate as many decisions as possible. Barack Obama allegedly only had one type of suits to eliminate that decision every morning.
HAVE STRIPED DAYS. Mix more challenging tasks with easier throughout day. Balance physical and cognitive tasks. Take frequent breaks and longer breaks. Change the environment you’re in – go work in the office canteen for an hour. Avoid de-prioritizing rest, exercise or sleep. Avoid back-to-back meetings and tasks.
LEAD THE WAY. As leaders, you need to role model this way of viewing work. Be open about what you need to do your best work and what boundaries you have. As organizations we need to start rewarding and promoting responsible energy management. In business planning or when resourcing projects, make sure you are crystal on the cognitive capacity you have and how to prioritize it. Call out ways of working that misuse people’s energy.
Over to you:
How can you organize your work to get the highest ‘ROCI – return on cognitive investment’ or ‘bang for the mental energy buck?’
Last month I celebrated my 3rd anniversary as a fulltime entrepreneur. Happy birthday to me!
In some ways you can compare starting a business to parenting a child. It’s an exciting idea to bring a child into the world but few of us were prepared for the toddle tantrums and a 3-year old’s talent for accidents. (My youngest son went through a period of putting peas, sweetcorn, and anything small enough up his nose 😫).
What parents learn, often a bit too late, is that their toddler isn’t trying to drive them crazy nor kill themselves. They are simply learning and developing by testing boundaries.
A small business goes through similar growing pains. It can be equally challenging, unpredictable, and full of ups and downs. Just as parents can draw strength from watching their cherubs sleep peacefully after a day of food attacks, entrepreneurs can find energy from reflecting on their experience.
– We need to remind ourselves of why we set out on the journey in the first place.
So, as my ‘third child’ turns 3, here are my reflections:
🎂 My BS ratio (Nonsense work/ Meaningful work) has dropped from about 10-1 to 1-10 since I left my corporate career. Back then my days were filled with ineffective meetings, impression management and producing endless amounts of PPT presentations. Today most of my time is spent on what I consider meaningful work, things that help me achieve my mission.
🎂 The freedom that comes with being your own boss is even greater than I imagined. Perhaps the greatest freedom for me is being able to choose whom I want to collaborate with.
🎂I’ve grown and developed a lot in these years. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to use all your talents and experience to create something of your own.
A big thanks to my supporters, clients, partners, and the amazing fellow entrepreneurs I’ve met along the way.
Here’s to the next 3 years, hoping they will be as fun and rewarding, but perhaps a bit less crazy.
First up in my series of blog posts on psychological safety is the dimension of open conversations and dialogue.
‘the degree to which difficult and sensitive topics can be discussed openly’ –
open conversations help your team take advantage of opportunities. It gives you invaluable insights into each other and can help you move past challenges. Quality dialogue is necessary for the team to learn and stay engaged.
In contrast, if the quality of the conversation is low it can stop you from speaking up about risks or challenges. As an organization you might lose out on business-critical information and miss opportunities. One of the symptoms can be that your meetings are very short or often rescheduled.
“The quality of your conversations will determine the quality of your outcomes” – Amy C. Edmondson
Here are some tips for encouraging open conversations:
Share your learnings or take-aways from conversations
Ask twice as many questions as you tell. Replace “I think” statements with “what if” statements to invite voice and limit self-promotion
Make yourself available and listen with curiosity & empathy
What meetings do you reschedule regularly? What is causing that change and what is the impact on the team?
Next up: Attitude Towards Risk & Failure
Photo: Janine Laag
colleagues went the extra mile for each other, and
you capitalized on everyone’s differences?
Then you’ve probably experiences the potency of psychological safety.
Defined by Amy C. Edmondson as “a belief that the context is safe for interpersonal risk-taking – that speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes will be welcomed and valued”, Psychological safety is a critical ingredient for groups to be engaged, to learn and to succeed.
Why psych. safety matters more than ever
Today the work many of us do is highly cognitive. It requires us to solve complex problems and find creative solutions to new challenges. Collaboration and the ability to get the best out of a diverse group is one of the biggest leadership challenges we face. In this uncertain and fast paced world, everyone’s voice could be business critical. Leaders who fail to create a climate where that voice can be raised freely, without fear of the consequences, risk missing out on opportunities and disengage the organization’s best people.
Employees who are not engaged or who are actively disengaged cost the world $7.8 trillion in lost productivity, according to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Report. That’s equal to 11% of global GDP.
On this flipside companies that report high psychological safety experience:
76% more engagement
50% more productivity
74% less stress
57% workers more likely to collaborate
“No one comes up with a good idea when being chased by a tiger”
How to build Psychological Safety in a team
Psychological Safety is gained over time through intentional actions. It is something that is built in drops but lost in buckets.
I work with vastly different teams who want to improve their collaboration – from leadership teams to startups and global HR teams. In my experience, teams can significantly improve their level of psychological safety in just a few months by making it a priority.
I’m certified in the Fearless Organization tool – a method for measuring and developing psychological safety, based on over 30 years of research.
The work I do with teams usually follows these 4 steps:
1. 1-1 meeting with the team leader
2. Team completes the online Fearless Organization Scan
3. Debrief workshop when we look at specific areas for improvement and develop an action plan. The team then works intentionally with the identified behaviors.
4. A follow up online scan after 2-4 months followed by a new workshop to discuss and learn. Regular measurement, support and dialog.
“Start with the common goal. Then make psychological safety a common project.” Amy C. Edmondson
In the coming weeks I’ll post about the 4 dimensionsof psychological safety, highlighted in the Fearless Organization book by Amy Edmondson, and tools to improve them:
Attitude Towards Risk & Failure
Willingness to Help
Inclusion & Diversity
I hope you’ll join me in discussing ways we can build open, engaged and effective teams.