When it comes to productivity, my 18-year-old self thought she had it down. I went to a university where class sessions were 50 minutes each. Never one to waste a moment, I often registered for classes back-to-back, just like in high school (8:30-9:20, 9:30-10:20, 10:30-11:20). I ran like the dickens across campus to make it to each one in time. That way, I thought, I could be totally efficient with both my class time and my study time.
Ah, the follies of the young.
By now, I have learned that switching too quickly from one subject to the next is terrible for the brain. It feels more productive, but it’s not. In fact, while task-switching can trigger a release of dopamine (hint: this is why Buzzfeed is so addictive), it actually overloads your pre-frontal cortex – reducing your ability to solve problems, think creatively, and understand an issue in its full depth.
The answer? Stop thinking in terms of time, and start thinking in terms of space.
Technically, as an undergraduate sprinting across the University of Washington campus, I had time to get from one class to another. What I did not have was space. I could neither process what I had learned in my first class nor make an efficient mental switch to the next subject. Instead, I took meticulous notes and wasted hours of study time later re-reading what my brain could have processed then and there had I simply shut off inputs and gone for a walk.
Through experience in several crisis-driven environments (and an obsession with brain science), I learned that working harder gets in the way of working smarter. In fact, it backfires. The emails you send while tired and out of mental space? They often result in miscommunication, wasting energy, time, and even more precious, goodwill. Back-to-back meetings throughout the workday force employees to do the real work during the day’s most unproductive, mistake-prone hours. Yet most firms still operate on “billable hours” or treat employees like they’re somehow slacking if they don’t stay in the office until at least 7:00 pm.
I may be breaking the rules by running my company differently, but I am the one with science and centuries of human wisdom behind me. My previous employees can attest: Unless we really were in crisis, I wanted them out of the office by 5:30 pm. I said no to projects that we could not execute with professional excellence. If we were maxed out all the time, what reserve would we have when a real crisis hit? It took far too many 70+ hour work weeks for me to figure out that the rules also applied to wanna-be-superhuman me, but I am glad I did.
Now, when people ask me if I “have time” for something, I step back and look at my calendar’s white space. I might technically have time to meet with a client, but if it’s too close to work I need to do for someone else, I do them both a disservice. Similarly, I never turn a report around immediately if I don’t have to. Having at least one night to “sleep on” something dramatically improves the quality and depth of my work. I am not a receptionist whose job requires her simply to be somewhere for a set number of hours. Each project I take on occupies significant mental space. If I do not have time to prepare for and process something, there’s no point in doing it.
Of course, my inner monkey still wants her dopamine fix, so I have had to make the following rules:
1.) Never stack clients back-to-back.
2.) Limit myself to five projects a week that require significant thought.
3.) Don’t let myself or anyone else think of my value in terms of time.
That last one is tricky. We are trained to think about work in terms of hours instead of productivity, and in the services world, clients (especially startups) want to feel like they’re getting a great deal. They don’t want to imagine us sleeping, going for walks, or – God forbid! – going on a vacation that’s partly at their expense.
All I can do is ask them to look at their own venture from the outside in. The final evaluation of our joint efforts is not how much time we spent on something but how well it turned out. When an investor looks at a company, or a donor evaluates a project, or a customer considers buying a product, those people are not thinking about how much time others put into making it happen. They care whether the end result is worth something to them. Then I ask clients to look at my work the same way.
Radical? Maybe. But there’s a reason I named my company Whoa! The term indicates interest and surprise, but it’s also a signal to slow down. It’s an invitation to take a second look. A pause creates space in your mind for something that needs your attention. That’s the only way to cut through the constant buzzfeed and make real change.