How an agitated state of mind leads to decreased productivity
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How an agitated state of mind leads to decreased productivity

How an agitated state of mind leads to decreased productivity

With communication exponentially rising, managers end up discussing work, rather than focusing on doing work

Stressed out executives and managers appear agitated at the best of times. It’s always telling when employees look to the mood of their boss to determine when they should raise a particularly prickly problem, such as lower-than-expected sales figures, a project cost overrun, or the loss of a talented employee to competition.

Leaders at the same time have this unnerving feeling that they are not really leading. After all management is not just about sending emails; it’s also about undertaking a deep reflection on strategy, managing people by energising and developing them, building the team and organisational culture, as well as a host of other elements. Yet too many time-pressed executives appear stuck in first gear, doing one aspect of management only, which is communication – and mostly electronic.

I often hear stories from executives who say their most productive periods at work are either very early in the morning or very late at night. Their day? It’s wiped out by constant interruptions and distractions. We know from research that the average number of email messages sent and received per day has been inclining steadily: in 2005 it was 50 emails per day, in 2006 it rose to 69, by 2011 it had jumped to 92, and a recent study showed that in 2019, the average worker was sending and receiving 126 business emails per day.

Over an eight-hour working day, that equates to about one message every four minutes. In a 2018 report from RescueTime, which they undertook using anonymous data from 50,000 active users of their software, they found that 50 per cent of users kept checking communication applications like email and Slack every six minutes or less. Worryingly, the average was once every minute, and more than 30 per cent were checking their inbox every three minutes or less. In parallel they assessed that the longest duration when workers did not check emails or instant messaging – for 50 per cent of the users – was no more than 40 minutes, with the most common period at 20 minutes. They found that more than 66 per cent of users did not go for longer than one hour without some level of interruption from electronic communications.

When managers resort to this way of working, it leaves the mind agitated and in a state of constant communications dialogue. This absurd way of working shifts the brain of leaders from doing work (such as working on a strategy paper, a financial model or a performance review) to processing work or talking about it. With communication exponentially rising, managers end up discussing work, rather than focusing on doing work, which is why some leaders have resorted to burning the midnight oil at both ends, just so that they feel productive.

Unfortunately, if your organisational culture is one where the agitated state of mind is the norm, then neglecting your inbox will result in colleagues and customers chasing you even more, as well as sending instant messages, and bombarding you with why you haven’t answered their email within five minutes of them sending it. To move away from this bizarre way of working requires a change in culture, which can only begin from the top of the organisation.

But mainly it comes from a realisation among leaders that the way we currently manage is detrimental to the health of our employees, the efficiency of our organisations and the bottom line, as we leak value from the time of talented and well-paid employees.

Rehan Khan is a principal consultant for BT and an author

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