Some years ago, former Harvard Business School professor Morten Hansen tried to understand what works at the workplace. He interviewed 5,000 business professionals in the US and came up with the following highlight: “Employees who chose a few key priorities and channelled tremendous effort into doing exceptional work...greatly outperformed others”.
Entrepreneurs like Warren Buffett have known this all along. In fact, Buffett’s famously advised his pilot Mike Flint that “the biggest threat to finishing the #1 most important task on your list is #2, #3, #4, #5, and so on”.
The rest of us have erred in our understanding of productivity. In pure, capitalistic terms, productivity is about output delivered per hour in the economy. More time. More output. But this definition of productivity needs a renewed, empathetic view.
Hansen’s study concludes the opposite of what most employers hold true. Productivity, to many, is a business that requires people to unfailingly and breathlessly accomplish a string of tasks in shrinking amounts of time. We are hardwired to multitask and fulfill endless responsibilities even if they feel meaningless. But productivity is misunderstood.
People at a workplace aren’t homogenous cogs in a wheel and increasing productivity doesn’t mean increasing tasks. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, multitasking can lead efficiency to drop by as much as 40 percent. The most successful people know this. In fact, Jeff Bezos or the CEO of Levi Strauss & Co. Chip Bergh have come on record to say that they don’t multitask.
The biggest danger lies in chasing perfection, when, in fact, we should be chasing purpose to be productive.
Purpose is the answer to why you’re here and why something exists. Elon Musk himself didn’t find it immediately: “I always had an existential crisis, trying to figure out ‘what does it all mean?’ he said. It would took him a while to come to the conclusion that his purpose lay in advancing “the knowledge of the world”.
Our popular perception of productivity punishes a wandering mind. But neurologist Marcus Raichle, who has spent decades imaging the brain, believes that our minds are meant to wander. His research found that certain parts of the brain seem to turn off whenever we begin a task, but those same regions become active when we are relaxed. Raichle calls this section of the brain the Default Mode Network (DMN), because the brain defaults to this activity whenever we are not doing anything else. But don’t be mistaken - the brain is as active in this default mode as it is at any other time. It is this DMN that is the source of everything, from depression and creativity to productivity.
But there are two problems.
While our minds are meant to wander at will, modern demands of switching activities and endless stimulation through technology can be counter-productive. “Aah,” says the brain, each time there’s a new notification, pop-up or email, “maybe that’s worth paying attention to”. The other concern is where our mind’s resting state leads us. Just as our fingers might try to pick away a scab even as they shouldn’t, our mind can resort to what it has been doing all along. It could be worrisome, anxious, or hopeful, depending on how we are.
The solution? Mindfulness. It can help you train your mind, reign it in like a lion that needs to be tamed, and channel it to take you closer to productivity.
A large part of being productive is being able to think clearly to solve problems. Slowing down, decluttering your mind, and getting eight hours of sleep - traits that are wrongly associated with laziness - are important for productivity. Hear it from Jeff Bezos: “If you short-change your sleep, you might get a couple of extra “productive” hours, but that productivity might be an illusion.”
What meditation for only fifteen minutes a day can do is control your mind’s default state. It can bring in methodical thinking that could, first, help in selecting and identifying a purpose, and then use focus and attention to accomplish precisely what you want to.
Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master, advised people to start by sitting alone, with the acknowledgment that “you are making a fool out of yourself pretending to be meditating”. “If you start from that matter-of-fact level… then you begin to pick up on something more than being a fool.”
It is not easy. It requires practice and persistence. But it is a definite path to channel productivity, along with the understanding that like mindfulness, productivity lies not just in evaluating the final output but also celebrating the richness of the process.
(Dr. Marcus Ranney is the General Manager at Thrive India. This article is from Thrive Global)