“Your car is having trouble and will need repairs at a cost of around $1,500. How would you handle that situation?”
Scientists from the University of Warwick led by professor Anandi Mani stopped customers at a New Jersey mall and asked them that question. Next the subjects took an IQ test and the results was stunning: For financially well-off participants, this question did not affect their IQ scores in any way. But people who were struggling financially underperformed by 13 IQ-points simply because their money worries had been brought to their attention.
This experiment is described in the excellent book ”Scarcity – Why Having Too Little Means So Much” by professor of economics Sendhil Mullainathan and professor of psychology Eldar Shafir, in which the two scientists clearly lay out the negative cognitive effects of scarcity.
When we have too little of something that is important to us we become a little dumber, less disciplined and we make poor choices. This helps explain - among many other things – why poor people keep taking out pay-day loans, even when they should know better and even though those incredibly expensive loans just put them deeper in the hole.
And this is not only about lack of money; the book gives plenty of examples of how time scarcity has the same kind of effects, making us dumber and worse at managing what little time we do have effectively.
So, knowing this, why is it that so many workplaces mercilessly keep putting their employees under massive time pressure? Why do leaders consistently create time scarcity?
This happens when:
- Employees are routinely expected to increase their productivity year after year with little or no additional support, training or resources.
- A manager commits to their team doing more work with the same staff.
- A company is growing and taking on new clients/projects without a commensurate increase in staff and resources.
- An organization lays off staff but expects the reduced staff to the same amount of work.
- Schedules are filled to capacity with meetings and tasks before the work week even starts, leaving no time for ad-hoc or unexpected tasks.
Some leaders think that these situations create a burning platform that pressures employees to work effectively and creatively towards the company’s goals, but the truth is the opposite: Time scarcity reduces employees’ cognitive resources and makes it much harder for them to do their jobs well.
And what’s worse, this can become self-reinforcing. Here’s an example: An organizations reduces headcount leading to increased time pressure and scarcity among those left. This weakens their cognitive capacity and productivity drops, leading to even more busyness and scarcity.
Is this something you see happening in your workplace? Here are 5 things we can do about it.
1: Take time pressure off employees
Instead of giving employees hard-to-reach productivity goals and filling their work week to the brim (and beyond) we need to give them more realistic goals and leave some slack in their schedules so any ad-hoc task that comes along (as it inevitably will) does not topple the whole load.
Most employees actually get more work done when they have productivity goals that are reasonable and within their capacity.
Here’s a great example: The IT company Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor only lets employees work 40 hours a week and then only schedules 32 hours of work per employee per week. That way there is no time scarcity and always time for unexpected tasks. This is described in the excellent book “Joy Inc” by Menlo’s CEO Rich Sheridan.
2: Celebrate good performance
We also need to constantly praise and appreciate people and teams for the good work they do. This give employees a sense of accomplishment and purpose that goes a long way towards combatting time scarcity.
Some workplaces do the opposite though: First giving people unrealistic goals and then hitting them over the head for not reaching those goals.
3: Leave time for learning and development
Every single employee must have time to get better. To learn new professional and personal skills. To reflect on what is working well and what can be improved in the workplace.
This becomes near-impossible under time scarcity, preventing employees from getting better at their jobs.
The IT company Next Jump in New York give each employee significant time every week to develop their skills with a mentor, in weekly meetings or on their own. That way employees always have time for growth and development, which they deem essential to their success. Here’s a great article on how they do it.
4: Maintain good workplace relationships
One of the first things to go in a workplace facing time scarcity is the workplace relationships.
When we are very busy it becomes exponentially harder to care about other people, to help and support co-workers and to maintain a habit of helping each other. Needless to say, this just makes the effects of busyness that much worse.
Instead we need to make sure that there is always time to create and maintain relationships between employees. There should always be time for a coffee break and a chat with a co-worker. No one should eat lunch alone at their desk. Even something as simple as saying a cheerful “good morning” to your team mates in the morning can make a positive difference – and can be neglected and forgotten under time scarcity.
5: Avoid permanent overwork
Some companies try to solve this by making people work more hours. Don’t!
First of all – overwork can kill you:
… those working a 55-hour week face 33% increased risk of stroke than those working a 35- to 40-hour week.
And to make matters worse, all those extra hours don’t even mean you get more work done:
[Overwork] … doesn’t seem to result in more output.
So overwork is killing employees while not improving business results. Can we stop it already?
It’s a topic I’ve talked about a lot on this blog.
Simply put, many workplaces put employees in a situation of near-permanent time scarcity, thinking this will pressure them to work harder. The truth is the opposite: It makes them more stressed, more sick, less happy and less productive.
Instead, we should do our very best to reduce time pressures because that way, the organization will be more successful.
Do you see any of this happening in your workplace? Is time a scarce resource and how does it affect you?
Write a comment, we’d love to hear your take.
- 5 ways to stay happy at work when you’re very busy
- Top 10 reasons why happiness is the ultimate productivity booster
- Why every workplace must give employees “slack time”
- Never measure employees on metrics they can’t control
3 thoughts on “How always being busy kills productivity – and 5 ways to avoid it”
Unfortunately not shared by my company, where everything is time pressure, too much work, etc., and ‘down time’ is frowned upon!
I have personally found over the years that any training is a good thing, regardless of if it fits your current work situation, or not – it always ends up benefitting the workplace as you take what you learned and apply it to your decisions.
No partner in an accounting firm has ever read this article. If they do, they add this site to a blocked list.
Wise words, especially for the self-employed. I think to implement these changes to a persons approach to their productivity requires faith, otherwise as the Warwick University researchers demonstrated it is so easy to sink in the storms of life and paperwork.
The upcoming generation is having to buck the prevailing Gordon Gekko mentality that drives one to work continually in expectation of greater gains – however with the current economic outlook globally it may be wiser to think more and act less.