Attempting Too Many Things at Once

by Jeff Davidson, MBA, CMC

In our current era of multi-taskers, concentration and focus are underrated. A magnifying glass held up at the correct angle to the sun will quicky burn a whole through a piece of paper. At the same time, no matter how much sun shines through your office window onto your desk, none of those long and tedious memos are going to catch on fire. The lack of combustibility has nothing to do with the way the manufacturer engineered this flat piece of glass.

Multi-tasking is occasionally helpful and seemingly satisfying but, along with the shower of information and communication overload, represents a paradoxical impediment to getting things done. Let’s see why.

Faster and Less Attentive

The term multi-tasking evolved from the computer industry, the early mainframe computers designed with parallel processes is perhaps the prime example of automated multi-tasking.

In many respects, the computer has accelerated our inattentiveness. Personal computers achieved critical mass in 1981 with the introduction of the Apple Computer designed as an alternative to the IBM PC. The affordable technology enabled common folk to engage in sequential kinds of activities and elevated our propensity to become task-switchers. Then for a host of reasons, and some so bizarre that they defy description, over the next 25 years we began to emulate our computers. We multi-tasked while they multi-tasked.

Today, with the typical office professional sending or receiving more than 200 messages a day, counting all forms of communication, and all of them coming and going at shorter intervals, a generation of career professionals are being driven virtually to distraction. A number of the messages are fleeting, the meaning often unclear, and the result a listless and confused workforce.

Against the back drop of information and communication overload, ever-advancing technology, and more choices than anyone needs or even wants, seemingly, an entire workforce generation has been taught to multi-task as if this is the way it has always been, needs to be, and always will be.

Continuous Partial Attention

Multitasking has become a norm giving rise to “continuous partial attention,” where nothing gets your true and undivided focus, and everything is homogenized to the point of carrying nearly equal weight.

We offer our attention here, there, and then somewhere else. Like a one-man band, we get our strokes from strumming the guitar, tapping our foot, and blowing on the harmonica. We equate accomplishment with flapping our wings, stirring up a lot of commotion, and making a lot of noise. We can barely tolerate stillness. For many, silence doesn’t appear to be golden, it seems more like a dark space, lacking productivity, that can yield nothing useful. Undivided attention is a term that has fallen out of popular use.

Generally, we feel guilty if we don’t multi-task! We contemplate our increasing workloads and responsibilities and how they are subject to continual shifts, and justify multi-tasking as a valid response to a world of flux.

Despite the temptation to do otherwise, focusing on the task at hand is vital to getting things done. Whether there’s a handful of tasks confronting you, or ideally only one, give all your time, attention, energy, focus, concentration, effort, and all that good stuff to the task at hand, and then turn to what’s next.

Over-employed, and Undesired

It’s likely that people have always sought to handle many things simultaneously, stretching as far back as cave dwellers. Their multi-tasking effort probably seemed crude by comparison. Someday, somewhere, someone may discover that we are hardwired to continuously attempt to economize our use of time.

Our age old “flight or fight” response to perceived stressors in the environment works well, at intermittent times. The small jolts of concentrated energy and vigilance helps us to safeguard our selves, our loved ones, and our possessions. As a species however, we are not wired to effectively handle continuous streams of two major stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — on a daily basis.

Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., director of the neuroendocrinology lab at Rockefeller University, observes that while we can apparently weather stresses and rapid hormonal changes in the short term, about 3 to 15 days, soon thereafter chronic stress begins to ensue. The result is a weakened immune system, aggression, anxiety and a decrease in brain functioning which results in burnout. Dangerously high levels of cortisol can result in poor sleep patterns and insulin resistance which can open the door to bad eating habits and weight gain.

More Errors, Lingering Effects

Multi-tasking seemingly enables one to achieve time-saving benefits, but does it? While some people remain relatively unscathed by multi-tasking and can get as much done in the course of the workday, most people suffer in ways they don’t even understand.

Rather than increasing their productivity, multi-tasking diminishes it. They make more mistakes. They leave too many things undone. Their quality of work is not what it could be. And the list of potential hazards of multi-tasking is beginning to grow. Are you a victim to any of the following:

* Gaps in short-term memory?

* Loss of concentration?

* Problems communicating with co-workers?

* Lapses in attentiveness?

* Stress symptoms such as shortness of breath?

When multi-tasking, sometimes your brain can go into a crash mode. This is characterized by not being able to remember what you just said or did, or what you’re going to do next! This has been termed “having a senior moment,” but it’s no joke and it doesn’t only happen to seniors.

Professor David Meyer at the University of Michigan has established a link between chronic high-stress, multi-tasking and loss of short-term memory. “There is scientific evidence that multi-tasking is extremely hard for someone to do, and sometimes impossible,” he says. Also, the time lost switching between tasks tends to increase the perceived complexity of the tasks and often results in making a person less efficient than if he had chosen to focus on one task or project at time.

Continually Kidding Ourselves

The most difficult type of multi-tasking occurs when you try to engage the same area of the brain. You run into this all the time, people who are on the phone who are also surfing the net, listening to the radio, or in earshot of someone in the next room. Whether you’re attempting to handle conflicting visual-processing tasks or conflicting auditory-processing tasks, the net result is you’re not going to handle either task as well as you would handle each individually.

Marcel Just Ph.D., co-director of Carnegie-Melon’s Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, conducted a study in which he asked participants to listen to sentences while comparing two rotating objects. These tasks draw on different areas of the brain, yet participants’ ability to engage in visual processing, comparing the two rotating objects, dropped by 29%.

Participants’ capabilities for auditory processing, listening to the sentence, dropped by 53% when engaged in this mild multi-tasking test. Dr. Just says that while we certainly can do more than one thing at a time “we are kidding ourselves if we think we can do so without cost.”

Also, research conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health confirms that when the brain has to juggle several tasks at once or in rapid succession, it has to overcome “inhibitions” that it put in place to cease doing the task to begin with. It’s as if the brain is taking its foot off the break.

Focus and concentration will be your keys for getting things done. Multi-tasking, as it is popularly understood and practiced, is not your answer. It is expensive in terms of the level of stress induced and the rise in errors and, hence, can actually hamper productivity.

Jeff Davidson is “The Work-Life Balance Expert®” and the leading personal brand in speaking, writing, and reflecting on work-life balance issues. He’s spoken to Fortune 50 companies such as IBM, Cardinal Health Group, and Lockheed; and to American Express and Westinghouse. He wrote Simpler Living, Breathing Space, and Dial it Down–Live It Up, among 65 other books. Visit http://www.BreathingSpace.com

A Good Termination

by Bruce Clarke, J.D.

Clarke, Bruce 2014The best job terminations resemble resignations.  The issues are clear and efforts were made to improve.  Dignity is preserved.

The truth is, most firings happen under difficult conditions.  A manager dropped the ball or the employee behaved badly.  How can a difficult firing be better?

The firing manager usually controls the “terms of the termination” and can make a difficult situation better. There is discretion on basic terms like time off payouts, future references, how an unemployment claim will be handled, and even a written release of legal claims.  There is discretion on what others are told and what the employee record reflects.  There is even discretion on the last day of work and whether the employee will stay to finish some projects.  The facts vary widely.

A much more complicated and misunderstood category of discretion is how the employee is fired.  Call it the “human treatment” option.  It is much more powerful than you might think.

The key to “human treatment” is whether the employee views the termination process itself as fair, not whether the decision was correct.  “Was my treatment on the way out the final insult in a long line of insults, or was it something quite different?  Did it recognize my humanity, my need for dignity, my need to tell others why I was fired, and my need to leave this group of work friends without a sudden and public divorce?”

The most important way a manager can make the process fair is to tell the truth.  “This is why we are firing you.  This is how the decision was made.  This is how we investigated the facts. Yes, we value the work you did for us on that, but the failures on this led to your discharge.”  This is not the time to say everything that is true, nor the time to debate, but it can often be a time to establish the basic fairness of the decision process itself.  It is also not the time to destroy the last shred of an employee’s dignity.

The most important way a fired employee can encourage “human treatment” is to be capable of handling his or her end of the bargain.  Can you as an employee de-personalize this firing?  Can you disagree or agree on a point without coming unglued?   Can you show you are ready to move on if the exit makes that possible?  Can you set out your ideas for internal communication and future references, or say goodbye to your team without making matters worse?  Can you be trusted?

Research by a Duke professor and his team found that employees who perceived the process as fair were much less likely to make claims against employers, even if they disagreed with the discharge.  Employees who saw the process itself as unfair became vindictive and made legal claims at a much higher rate.  Giving no reason for firing is not perceived as fair!  Fairness in the termination process itself may be a better predictor of future legal problems than whether the actual reasons for termination were valid or not.

You can make a difficult termination better or worse by how the exit is handled.  Your choice!

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

Safeguard Your Hotel Stay

by Jeff Davidson

You big meeting is approaching. You’ve been planning this for ever-so-long. The day before, or days before, once you get to your hotel and are checking in, here are a few tips to increase the probability that you’ll be at your best for the duration:

* Explain to the check-in staff that you are a hosting and managing a meeting, you have a critical tasks early in the morning, and your sleep is crucial. That alone might prompt them to give you a room that is known to be in a quiet section of the hotel.

* Specifically ask for a room where you’ll have peace and quiet. In general, these are rooms away from elevators, opposite the street side or front of the hotel, and not on the second floor. The second floor is too close to the banquet rooms, lobby, and front entrance, where people come and go, and quite naturally, make noise.

* Ask for a room without a door adjoining another room: Too many supposedly progressive, service-oriented hotels and hotel chains contain this dreaded door. It is all that separates you from arguing couples, insomniac musicians, and those who feel compelled to watch ESPN Sports Center at 3 a.m. If you end up in a room that has such a door, cover the bottom with a heavy towel.

Party in Progress
Before moving to North Carolina, I was in a hotel in Raleigh that shall remain nameless. It was part of a successful hotel chain. At 9 p.m., a disc jockey began playing records in the hotel atrium on the ground level. The sound reverberated up through the open space such that every room in the hotel was subject to an auditory intrusion.

At 11 p.m., when I was ready to go to bed, the party was still in progress. I called the night manager and asked that the noise be turned down, stopped, or moved to a non-public space within the hotel. The night manager commented that it wasn’t within her authority to take such action. I asked her when it would end. She didn’t know.

I suggested that she familiarize herself with the state hotel/motel laws, the hotel chain’s organizational mission, and her job description. She declined. I asked her once more, this time letting her know that I would call the police. She said, “Call whoever you want to.”

I called the police and met them about ten minutes later at the front door. The hotel manager, who was not on duty that night, arrived only seconds later. When she heard the noise, saw me, and saw the police, like a thunderbolt she rushed to the disc jockey and stopped him cold. She then returned, apologizing profusely.

I explained that I carefully, patiently, and politely informed the night manager of her responsibilities, but that she refused to capitulate in the least. I didn’t relish calling the police, but it seemed a better option than waiting until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. or later for the noise to end. From that episode, I learned a maxim that has stayed with me: Never spar with people who don’t need to get good sleep for their living.

It’s your career, your night, and your meeting the next morning. I say you deserve breathing space and the right to a restful, complete night’s sleep. Sweet dreams.

Jeff Davidson is the internationally recognized expert on work-life balance and holds the registered trademark from the USPTO as the “Work-Life Balance Expert”®. He is the author of several popular books including Breathing Space; Dial it Down, Live it Up; Simpler Living; and the 60 Second Organizer. He is an Advisory Board Member on The Organized Executive, a monthly publication of Jeff of the Columbia Books, Washington DC.

Coaching People to Think

Coaching People to ThinkBob & Linda Stinson

As a young co-op student with General Motors, one of my first assignments was to work in the personnel department (we now call it HumanRelations). People would come in to apply for work. We would tell them to fill out an application and we would keep it on file. One day I was standing at the counter talking to a supervisor in the department when an applicant came through the door and asked, “What are the qualifications necessary to work here”. The supervisor replied, “Just a strong back and a weak mind”

Decades ago those were the qualifications for many jobs in the manufacturing sector. But today our requirements for employees, even in the manufacturing sector, have drastically changed. Those simple repetitive job functions have been replaced by robotic or computerized devices. And when automation is uneconomical, the job has been transferred to a low-skill, low wage geographic area of the world. This trend is evident not only in manufacturing, but in all other sectors of the economy.

Employees now need to make decisions, do problem solving, and be creative. Delegation and empowerment are the keys to flatten organizational structures and increasing productivity. The need for a strong back has given way to the need for a strong mind. This drastically changes the role of a manager or supervisor from that of giving intimate direction and control of their staff, to that of encouraging them to think for themselves. This calls for leaders to become the coaches of their team members, requiring new skills and attitudes.

In increasing employee performance, some have adopted the iceberg model, which suggests that although some of behaviors are visible, most of our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings lurk below the surface.

Many employees are highly capable individuals who want to work and be smarter. They are crying for help and it is up to business leaders to learn how to ask the right questions and conduct truly engaging coaching conversations. Dr David Rock, author of Quiet Leadership, Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, suggests the following five-steps for establishing a coaching conversation and enabling self-directed learning:

  • Let the employee think through his specific issue. Avoid telling him what to do or giving advice. Ask questions about his though process.

  • Keep him focused on solutions not problems.

  • Challenge him to expand his thinking and stretch himself, instead of clinging to his comfort zone.

  • Focus on what he is doing well so you can play to his strengths.

  • Make sure there are clear processes behind every conversation. To be truly helpful, a coaching conversation requires permission to ask questions and explore possibilities.

As business and leadership coaches, we are continuously trying to see what lurks below the surface of the iceberg and help individuals achieve their full potential. All business leaders and managers need to develop these techniques. It is a key to business success in the 21st century and coaching can help. 

RLS Focused Solutions works on the development the full potential of organizations and individuals. Lets continue this conversation. Contact at bob@plangoals.com or call (910) 575-1286. Visit our Website: www.plangoals.com

When An Employee Has A Serious Complaint

by Bruce Clarke, J.D.Clarke, Bruce 2014

It happens in every workplace.  The same serious and unlawful misbehavior we see in our communities sometimes find its way to the job.  People are the greatest asset of an employer but can be the “crabgrass in the lawn of business,” as my friend says.

What should happen when harassment, discrimination, abusive treatment and other serious misbehaviors rear their ugly heads?

Managers, please view a complaint as an opportunity to make a situation better AND the long-term relationship with the victim stronger.  Psychologists in workplace studies say that an emotional crisis is a key point where your response can make the employee’s attitude much better OR much worse.  Some even say that the best predictor of whether a problem will end in a lawsuit is how fairly you process the problem, not the problem itself.

Good managers do several things.  They embrace the complaint, rather than avoid it, and focus on finding the right solution.  Neither of you caused the problem, so let the chips fall where they may and avoid prejudgment.  You will create a much better investigation and solution if you remain neutral on the outcome.  If you cannot be objective, ask for help.

Follow through with good listening, appropriate pushback to the victim for the whole story, and appropriate speed and discretion.  Take any quick steps needed to prevent repeat behavior while you work.  Ideally, keep the victim informed of your progress.  Get help from HR or a mentor.  Follow your company’s complaint process, at a minimum.  Precedent can be important to consider, but avoid a foolish consistency as the saying goes.

Employees making complaints have an equally important role.  Follow the complaint policy if there is one, but skip to another manager you trust if needed.  Your manager wants to hear how you feel, but must have facts to investigate.  Focus on the facts.  Who can help support your story?  Bring the problem to a trusted manager sooner rather than later.

Be honest about any part you may have played in the problem or steps you have already taken, good and bad.  Have some discretion and give this time to work.  What is your manager going to hear when he or she investigates?  For example, be prepared to hear some things about your performance you may not like (but need to hear) if work quality is an issue.

An important question that employees and managers often fail to ask is:  “What is the ideal outcome here?”  I am often surprised at how reasonable employees can be even in serious situations.  They know employers cannot guarantee perfect behavior by all.  But they have the right to expect help when they seek it.

Solutions to early-stage problems handled properly by all can be simple and effective, preserving relationships and protecting careers.  Problems that are buried like a bone in the backyard will only get worse with age.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.

Twelve Observations about Work and Life

By Jeff Davidson
Every person on the planet has some knowledge that could benefit others, including the people you work with everyday. Never write off others because they are too old, too young, too rich, too poor, or any other superficial reason. You’ll be surprised by the wisdom you can gain by simply listening with a non-judgmental ear.I could be right or I could be wrong, but my life experiences have led me to the following observations. I hope some benefit you:

1. Stop lamenting the fact that you’re not smarter than you are, or that you’re not as good at something as you’d like to be. You can accomplish nearly anything you want through hard work. Your skills develop over the course of your life, and you can develop new ones. Maybe your association will foot the bill for training, or maybe you have to enroll and pay for yourself. Further, learn to recognize the things you are good at and put these talents to use, rather than struggling to excel in a career for which you have no natural inclination.

2. It is of little use to dwell on the past and wish you could go back and change it. Making mistakes and feeling as if you’ve squandered some of your youth is a natural part of life that happens to everyone. Anew, view your youth with a healthy perspective; while you may have squandered some time, you probably also accomplished a lot and had some fun along the way.

3. Don’t get so caught up in dwelling on your mistakes that you fail to seize present opportunities. You have time left in your life to move on and use it productively.

4. Don’t fear change. It’s a part of life and certainly part of your organization. You won’t be the same person at 30 as you were at 20, or as you will be at 40 or 60. Growing in all different ways is a good thing. If you went through life with the mindset of a 20 year old, you would miss a lot of the joys of adulthood. While change can be disconcerting at first, each stage of life becomes more (or at least as) enjoyable and fulfilling than the previous one.

5. Make a constant effort to grow. Challenge yourself mentally. Explore different means of spirituality. Place yourself in new social situations. Unfamiliar scenarios are usually a little frightening at first, but with time the unfamiliar becomes the familiar, and you’re glad you took the chance. Move out of your comfort zone and explore.

6. In our rapidly changing society, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the technological innovations and information you think you need to absorb in order to function productively at work and even at home. Rest assured that everyone feels the same way. Staying flexible is key to maintaining productivity. Find ways to make the
changes in your work life advantageous.

7. Life is a continuing process, and there is no one point when you become magically grown up and have accomplished everything you want to. If there was such a point, what would you do when you got there?

8. The nature of life is to constantly grow and change, and there is always more to learn and experience. Be wary of feeling as if you have reached the pinnacle of all of your experiences and accomplishments. If you become complacent, that point really will be the pinnacle of you life, since you won’t feel compelled to achieve even more.

9. You only have so much time and energy in your life. To feel fulfilled, you must choose what things you want to spend most of your time and energy doing. Choosing your priorities might take some soul-searching, or they might be obvious. Is family most important to you? Or, do you envision a time-consuming career? Whatever your interests, you must define your priorities in order to be productive. You can try to have 11 different priorities, but they will hardly be priorities, and you likely won’t pay sufficient attention to each. Decide what few things are important to you, and spend most of your time and energy supporting those priorities.

10. Never underestimate the power of your attitude and the effect it has on your perception of the world. In general, people see what they want to see. For instance, if you have heard something negative about a person before you meet them, you are likely to dislike that person right off the bat, regardless of anything they do or say. The same holds true for almost every situation in life. There are both beautiful and horrible things in the world. If you think positively, you’re more likely to notice the beautiful things. If you think negatively, you will pick up on all the not-so-great things that go on.

11. Many people seem to blame the mistakes in their life on some unseen force that constantly brings them down. They think they are just unlucky or that others are out to get them. For the most part, this is not the case. Almost everything that happens to us results from the choices we make, consciously or unconsciously. Not choosing becomes a choice in itself, don’t ignore the tough choices you will have to make.

Blaming fate for your misfortunes will get you nowhere; taking control of your life and the choices you face will. In order to empower yourself, you must recognize the decisions in your life for what they are and consciously make the best decision you can. Every now and then something completely random will happen to you, and you certainly have no control over that. But realize that most of the things that happen to you don’t just “happen to you.”

12. Making decisions is difficult, and the best decisions generally result from careful thought. However, don’t feel as if you have to ignore your gut feeling about something. We have instinct for a reason, and usually your instinct will not lead you astray. Sometimes it is detrimental to think too much about something; instead of over-analyzing, go with what your little voice tells you. You’ll be surprised how much you don’t realize you already know. The subconscious is a powerful thing. When you can harness some of that power and put it to use in the conscious world, you will find that the things your little voice tells you are usually right on.

Jeff Davidson is “The Work-Life Balance Expert®,” and the premier thought leader on work-life balance issues, helping organizations ad their employees make rapid progress in this arena.

Social Media For Job Hunters

Clarke, Bruce 2014By Bruce Clarke, J.D.

Are you seeking a new position in your field? You will be much more successful if you understand the methods company recruiters use to select candidates.

First, HR recruiters will view your LinkedIn account. If you do not have one established, you are at a real disadvantage. If you do have a LinkedIn account, you can depend on potential employers performing a careful review of your online network. They will read every single one of your LinkedIn references, too, so you should ensure that your profile properly reflects your true skills and abilities.

Good HR recruiters, however, do not stop with LinkedIn. They regularly follow and connect with candidates who have a genuine interest in your business and industry. Interacting with candidates via Facebook and LinkedIn accounts provides recruiters with an advantage in finding the best people to fill positions quickly and effectively.

We live in a time when job hunters must be engaged via social media to be viewed as relevant and current.

In the job market, you are competing with students fresh from colleges where faculty and students alike use social networking sites for class communication. Some professors even use Twitter and Facebook to disperse assignments. The Jenkins Graduate School of Management at North Carolina State University is addressing the demand for social-media-savvy employees through courses on social media in its MBA curricula.

Social media recruiting is still in its relative infancy, though. There are no specific laws as yet from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission covering the legal limits of social networks for recruiting beyond what is stated in the traditional Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures.

Many companies have established metrics to calculate the success of their recruiting efforts. They look at page views of their blog, followers on their social media accounts, retweets of recruitment opportunity announcements on Twitter, and discussions on a firm’s wall posts on Facebook. If the results are low for any of these, chances are the smart company will take steps to improve its social media presence overall, not just for recruiting.

Of course, social media is not the only answer for the recruitment process. As a candidate, you will be interviewed in person and/or over the phone to provide the recruiter with a sense of whether you will be a good fit for the corporate culture. But that step only comes after you have successfully made it through the social media process.

The recruiter will more than likely Google your name to see what comes up. You should do this regularly yourself and remove anything you do not want recruiters to see.

A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found that the online tracking of individuals is pervasive.  According to WSJ, the 50 most popular U.S. websites regularly install tracking technology onto your computer.

You may not realize it, but you have been building a reputation since the first day you signed onto Facebook or posted to an online discussion group. Be smart about what you post online. Your next job

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.