Daniel Simons, author of the book ‘The Invisible Gorilla‘, wrote something interesting recently.
Simons looked at the evidence that demonstrates multitasking is not all it’s cracked up to be. He quotes that every productivity study in every industry published in the last 100 years has come to the same conclusion: after about 40 hours of work in a week, the quality of your work starts to go down. You start making mistakes.
That’s why working 60 hours may not save you time or money: you’ll spend too much of that time fixing the mistakes you shouldn’t have made in the first place. That may be the reason why software companies that limit work to 35 hours a week need to employ fewer QA engineers: there isn’t as much mess to clean up.
In today’s economy, where management thinking and creativity are seen as the main differentiators in business, brains are assets. They need to be looked after. Managers need to take the evidence seriously that too much work doesn’t make us all productive; it actually causes undue stress and downtime.
Problems are best dealt with when we spend some time away from them and let our brains simmer before solving them. Also, the only thing that happens when people are asked to work in ways that interfere with other parts of their lives is burnout.
As I mentioned in the blog on multi-tasking, it doesn’t make us more productive. Simons mentioned that checking emails while in a meeting does not enhance our efficiency. He was asked whether there was anything we could do to enlarge the capacity of our minds. The answer was simple; “no.” There are hard limits to what our brains will do. Practice, Simons says, will improve specific skills but not general abilities. Carrying out crossword puzzles will enable you to be better at crossword puzzles; it won’t improve your IQ.
Is there anything that managers can do that can help themselves? Yes, says Simons: exercise. His colleague Arthur Kramer showed that walking for a few hours a week led to large improvements on cognitive tasks. Stretching and toning exercises had no cognitive benefits, but aerobic exercise, which increases blood flow to the brain, did.
Older managers who walked for just 45 minutes a day for three days a week showed better preservation of their brains in MRI scans, says Kramer. Exercise, Simons concludes, improves cognition broadly by increasing the fitness of your brain.
That’s an interesting thought for this week. If you want to improve your emotional intelligence or feel better at doing your job, maybe take that 45 minute break at lunch time and actually do some walking or more strenuous exercise.
Build it up during the next few months and see what effect it has. And if you want to get the best out of your team, remember that overwork will not add much benefit to the company. In fact, it will just cause more problems. So avoid burnout at work; your team members are your greatest asset!
Originally published: 16 August, 2010
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