Why Do Many Workers Feel They Are Becoming Less Productive?

The topic of efficiency in the workplace is an interesting one – many leaders, managers, and others feel that they are not working as efficiently as they should. For some of us, our brains work “against us” instead of “with us”, which hampers productivity. Sometimes bad habits creep in and stick with us. For others, energy levels start to decline and need to be rejuvenated. SOS Organizational Services guides companies to reverse this trend.

SOS offers personalized coaching and specialized training programs for executives, sales associates and emerging leaders. There is a psychology to what we do and why we do it in the workplace, and all our programs ensure employees obtain the needed tools to raise their productivity to the next level – science and behavioral economics guide the structure of our programs and our coaching methods.

How To Handle More Work Than You Can Handle

Your phone is blowing up.  Your boss is talking.  Your biggest client isn’t happy.  You have a proposal due today, a forecast presentation in the morning and three more meetings this afternoon…and, and, and.

Even the most productive people get overwhelmed.  But what do you do about it when that happens?  How you deal with it speaks volumes about you, your career and your quality of life.

Three Predictable Approaches

Most of us fall into one of three predictable patterns when we are overwhelmed.  The first is to roll up your sleeves and do whatever it takes to get it all done at all costs.  You will get it all done because no other option seems viable.

With the second approach, you deliver the highest priorities on time, yet accept the repercussions of not completing the others right now.  You minimize the costs, but you consciously choose to risk a loss.

The third approach happens when you are simply overwhelmed and freeze, incapable of turning in any direction.  When everything is a priority, nothing is.  So, you turn out the lights, ignore the consequences and choose to deal with it tomorrow.

Surprisingly, a good case can be made for all three options.  Sometimes the best choice might be to start fresh in the morning when you are more capable of evaluating rational decisions with a clearer perspective.  Other times, delivering the impossible is a career-changer.

Strategies to Handle More Than You Can Handle

  1. Vary Your Choice – Always choosing the all-in approach will eventually lead to burnout, bad decisions, and a lop-sided quality of life. Always choosing the third approach leads to failure both professionally and personally.  Even choosing the middle, more balanced choice every time, will deliver a compromised career and family life.

Weigh and vary the choice you make.  Your colleagues will know that you will absolutely be there when it is on the line.  And your loved ones will know that you can be counted on.  Better to dive in wholeheartedly when the demands require it; balance it all when viable; and relax and rejuvenate when body and soul are in need.

  1. Have a Crystal Clear Big Picture Plan – Invest considerable time up front identifying what is important to you, both professionally and personally before the crisis hits. The best planning tools push you to concisely identify long-term plans and priorities, and then bring those plans into pinpoint focus of what you should be working on now.

Experiment with my one-page 90-Day Personal Strategic Plan to focus your attention on your highest priorities this quarter.  Aligning corporate and personal goals will streamline your efforts to be more valuable and valued.

Having a solid plan at your fingertips allows you to more nimbly weigh a new opportunity or crisis against a well thought out backdrop.  It takes far less time, less stress and gives you and your team the capability to respond with far more agility.

  1. Use Simplistic Tools to Identify Priorities – The absolute simplest tool is also a favorite: The Must-Do, Should-Do and Could-Do list.  It doesn’t get any easier and amazingly reduces stress by breaking things into more manageable sizes.  It is a great offshoot of the ABC time management tool with A representing your highest priorities.

“What is urgent is rarely important, and what is important is rarely urgent” defines another great tool, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix.  It is widely attributed to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th U.S. President.  This now famous matrix puts all decisions into one of four quadrants:  Urgent and Important, Important Not Urgent, Urgent Not Important, and Not Urgent not important.

  1. Look for Creative Solutions in the “Time, Scope, Resources Triangle” – You cannot adjust any of the three legs of this triangle without impacting the other sides to compensate. This long-standing project management tool can be valuable in leading us to more creative solutions.

Rather than pounding out the deliverable at all costs, is it possible to change the scope?  Or add more resources?  Would a higher quality end-product be more valuable than an earlier delivered product of a lesser value?  Brainpower often trumps brawn.  Consider many options.




  1. Good Stress versus Bad Stress – To build muscle, weight-lifters know that there are three important steps: stress, recovery, growth.  Exercise is a process of tearing down muscles.  Recovery is necessary for the new growth.  Without enough recovery time, athletes end up exhausted beyond peak performance or injured.

The same takes place in our brains.  New demanding scenarios that put us on the outer edge of our comfort zone, will cause new synapses to grow and new connections to develop in our brains.  We learn valuable skills and adaptability.  But too little down time will lead to cumulative stress that has the opposite effect.  Individuals suffer the costs of burnout and employers suffer the high cost of turnover.

You can do anything you can think of, but you cannot do everything you can think of today. Grand visions can become reality but only when you can manage through the peaks and valleys.  Use these tools to start creating that pathway, so that you can meet the challenge, overcome the obstacles and deliver the amazing.  The thrill will feel exhilarating.

Are You Connected or Distracted? Improve Your Focus.

Ding! You’ve got an email, better see if it’s important. Buzz! You reach for your phone like Pavlov’s dog, better look at that site. Ring! You’re not going to answer it, but who is calling? Now what were you doing? Which time?

It’s easy to feel frustrated, like you can’t get anything done.  The demands just keep piling up so you come in early, work at home evenings and weekends. If you don’t change the way you work, you may never climb out.

Being connected through these devices is vital to success.  But, often we react to them because it just feels good.  With every ding, buzz and ring we get a shot of dopamine which is associated with the reward system of our brain. If not kept in check, they can be an alluring distraction that doesn’t accomplish your most important work and can zap your productivity.

The real cost, however goes beyond wasted time.  Our ability to focus at deeper levels may be the price we pay, according to Professor Clifford Nass, Stanford University.

However, you can improve with a few simple, but impactful, changes to your work habits:

  • Practice – Disconnect periodically each day for work that requires deeper levels of thought.  This rewires our brain by building new pathways.  The more practice, the stronger those paths, making dedicated attention and focus easier.
  • Begin with focus time – We are most capable of both the discipline, and the actual ability to concentrate, early in the day.  Determine the most important work for tomorrow and begin there.
  • Pivot completely – Switch between deep focus work, and other types of activities.  Interact with colleagues, electronically or in person.  Or take a break and move around.  Even a little bit of exercise or activity can actually change the chemistry of your brain, according to Dr. John Ratey.   When it’s time to pivot again, do so completely.
  • Check email less often – Decide how often you truly need to check and stick to it.  People who thought they were checking every 15 minutes found that when a camera recorded them they were looking 30-40 times per hour.  Whether every 15 minutes, or 3 times a day, minimize the time you self-interrupt.

Turn your devices back into productivity tools instead of tethers.  People frequently say “work smarter, not harder.”  This is where you can begin.  Clarity and a sense of accomplishment may be at your fingertips.

Get Organized this Year! Start here

“Bob” was a top dog in a very competitive industry and he was on the verge of a very big promotion. But his company was worried about the liability risk. His office was a black hole filled with piles on every surface that you would measure in feet. He reluctantly agreed to work with me on the advice of corporate officials, but given his successful career, he wasn’t happy about it in the beginning.

The Cost
It’s hard to argue that the “Bob’s” of the world can’t be successful, because they are. But the toll can be enormous. Watch closely and you will see a constant rifling through paper, emails, and computer files. It is a process of memorization because forgetting something important could be disastrous. Completely relaxing is difficult if not impossible. This is a huge drain of a valuable resource, your brain power.

Peak performance requires well organized, no-brainer systems that you trust. If you are not organized, you simply are not as productive as you could be. When your mind is cluttered with unimportant details, you are not able to give all the focus and mental energy you could be spending on the truly important.

Where to begin?
Getting organized at work will merge into your home life and vice versa. By its very nature order fortunately breeds more order. Small investments of time have big pay-offs. Waiting for a big chunk of time to begin will probably never happen. But spending manageable chunks of time consistently is realistic.

Being organized is an ongoing process and it works in layers or levels. Think of it like moving into a new home. First you put the clothing in the bedroom and the dishes in the kitchen. Eventually you will be separating the knives from the forks, but you begin by getting them in the right room. Finding the level of organization that you desire may change as your systems improve over time.

January’s theme
The beginning of the year is a perfect time to focus on the most important basics of organization. Knowing you have a plan for the year is a simplistic and manageable way to overcome the debilitating feeling of being overwhelmed. Make January’s organizing theme: Health and Planning.

  • Use this checklist to START now:
    o Schedule annual medical visits
    o Pick one up-to-date system to keep all your to-do’s and calendar events
    o Add key meetings, conferences, events and projects to your calendar
    o Create a personal strategic plan, even if it’s a one pager
    o Purge medications
    o Sort and purge athletic wear and gear
    o Schedule vacation time!

Next month we will move on to a different theme. Use this simplistic annual plan to truly get organized throughout the year. It really can be transformational.

Music and Productivity – Do They Work Together?

“I can’t concentrate when the music is on,” complained Gina’s co-worker.  “But I feel motivated and enjoy my work more,” she countered.  Sam stood by listening intently because she had just had this argument with her teenager about music and homework.  Tensions can quickly rise when it comes to such personal preferences.  

Is it a motivator? A mood booster? Or another example of multitasking that interferes with your ability to think?

Teens overwhelmingly listen to music while doing homework, more than 75% of them, according to a recent survey by Common Sense Media. Over half of those teens believe that it actually helps them work and only 6% said that it hurt. Who is right?

The correct answer is, “it depends.” Although the research leans very heavily in favor of the parents’ position, there are some significant exceptions that apply to both homework and the workplace. It all impacts your productivity.

Why is it a Problem?

Numerous studies have shown that multitasking is detrimental to your productivity. One key study at Stanford University showed that those who self-identify as “heavy multitaskers” are far more easily distracted and actually performed poorer than any other group in:

• Filtering irrelevant information
• Managing the working memory
• AND in switching from one task to another

Most importantly, these individuals were actually losing the cognitive ability to focus when they weren’t asked to multitask. Listening to music, texting and using social media while trying to do cognitive work will typically give you poorer results, taking longer and causing more mistakes.

Music and Productivity CAN Work Together

Music has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Sometimes it can actually improve your productivity, your mood and your ability to concentrate. For peak performance, know what helps you get more done and what doesn’t. Experiment with these modifications to find the right balance:

1. Listening to upbeat music that you like before beginning work can be motivational, and enhance both cognitive skills and creativity.

2. In a noisy office, hearing others talk can be an irritating interruption. 48% of office workers said speech is the biggest distraction in one study. Background music or a pair of headphones can have a significant impact on cancelling out those interruptions and improving concentration.

3. Productivity can actually be improved with music if it is highly repetitive work with low immersion, according to a study at the University of Birmingham, England. Think stuffing envelopes or working on an assembly line. Our minds tend to wander when the work is not complex and music with lyrics improves our mood and our ability to focus.

4. For more complex work, however, you should avoid music with lyrics; music that is louder than ambient noise; and any music that might grab your attention because it is new, unfamiliar or highly variant.

5. Music or soundscapes without lyrics can have positive productivity impacts. Baroque music has been shown to improve efficiency and accuracy in some situations. And researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute found that natural sounds like waves and rain can enhance our cognitive function, ability to concentrate and our overall job satisfaction.

Setting an atmosphere or mood, can make work more enjoyable and block out a noisy environment. Video game makers have long been successful at overlaying music that doesn’t detract from high concentration playing. If classical music and wave sounds aren’t your style, try jazz, movie scores or electronica. For the highest productivity, aim for background, ambient music. Your attention can either be on your work or on the music, but not both.

Be Creative. Take a Break.

Joe had a problem. He had cashed in some investments and quit his job to create a new product. Only it didn’t work yet. The technology was ground breaking, but they needed a ridiculously simple communication tool to make it usable. So he went to the beach.

As he sat relaxing in the sun, combing his fingers through the sand, he recalled using Morse code in the army. Dot, dot, dash, he drew lines down in the sand from each. The light bulb came on. Instead of dots and dashes, different widths of lines could represent numbers. In that moment N. Joseph Woodland created bar codes.

Innovation and creativity are coveted commodities in this global and instantaneous economy, but how do we have more of those moments of insight? They seem to come at the oddest times, as we are about to drift off to sleep, in the shower, during a walk in the woods, or on the beach.

1. Relaxing actually does allow you to be more creative. By setting aside the problem and doing unrelated activities we give our subconscious an opportunity to work on problems. One group of researchers at Drexel University found that they could anticipate by as much as 8 seconds who would have a moment of insight. It was based on their levels of alpha waves which are closely related to relaxation. Yes, there is a case to be made for the Foosball table in the lunch room.

2. From Aristotle to Thoreau, many through the ages have believed that taking a walk can boost your creativity. A recent study at Stanford University found that walking, indoors or outdoors, can enhance your creativity by as much as 60%.

3. Many report that simply being in nature can put your brain into the “default network” where creativity is thought to take place. Researcher, David Strayer of the University of Utah, believes that being in green space allows your brain to take a break from intense cognitive function and provides “attention restoration.”

4. Exposing yourself to a diversity of ideas and experiences gives you more experiences to draw from. For creativity to happen we must have either completely new inputs, or connect two inputs that were never combined before. So go to a museum, try a new route to work, experience a different culture, learn sign language or begin playing a musical instrument.

So much of our work requires focused concentration. Pivoting to a different mode of thinking can revive your sense of well-being AND provide meaningful business contributions. Sometimes the most productive thing to do is to take a break.

Find the Sweet Spot of Productivity: The Pivot

Mark had it all. He had an executive suite with a beautiful view in a Fortune 500 company. He was leading a first-class team on a product that was in the news and key to the success or the organization. So when he brought me in to help him be more productive, I was a bit confused. On the surface all appeared to be running smoothly.

Picture a duck, he explained, a duck floating peacefully on a calm lake with barely a ripple in the water. That’s me, Mark said, but you can’t see that just below the surface I am frantically paddling as fast as I can and not moving very far.

There are a lot of Mark’s. To get meaningful work done in today’s business climate requires two primary skills, the ability to work fast and to work focused. The problem lies in believing we can be both at the same time. The sweet spot lies in the skillful pivot between the two, or WorkAgility™.

Daniel Kahneman, the only psychologist to ever win the Nobel Prize in Economics, called it “Thinking fast and Slow” and wrote a book by that name. Others think of it as the difference between a deep-dive and a scan of a large surface area. I think of it as fast v. focused.

Fast keeps you connected, interacting, exchanging smaller bits of information. You are plugged in and responsive. Focused is the meaningful, thoughtful work that will impact your profitability and promotability. It requires your undivided attention.

The most effective use of our brain is to clearly delineate between the two. Carving out “focus time” can be difficult, but essential to your success. Even small blocks of focused concentration can make a huge difference in your productivity. Aim for about 90 minutes before a break and resist the lure of your smartphone-world when it’s time to be focused.

Ideally, get your team on the same page and agree to work uninterrupted for a consistent period of time of the day. Internal interruptions are much more common than external pulls for your attention. Yes, this is a culture shift and yes, there will be emergencies that can’t wait for an hour. But you will be amazed at the productivity shift of a team that will leave each other alone for part of each day.

Developing the pivot between fast and focused is an essential building block to WorkAgility™ and a key component of finding more time for life by getting more done.