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A New Productivity for the Smartphone Era

A New Productivity for the Smartphone Era

    About a year ago, I published a question in a Blackberry forum asking how the devices had helped to make professionals more productive.

    The responses I received were typified by the one that I remember the most: “I am more productive because I can check my email on  the train to and from work.”

    This seemed like a reasonable response at the time. As a person who gets a bit nervous when I have nothing productive to do, I could relate.  While I don’t take the train, the value of converting “down time” to productive time is a pretty attractive one.

    And apparently, I’m not alone.

    A recent  survey of 1 million users in 34 countries showed that 62% believed that their work productivity was “much better” due to new technology.  75%  consider the opportunity provided by devices such as smartphones and laptops to remain in constant contact with work as a positive development.

    Apparently, “productivity” has been redefined.

    According to our new definition, productivity has something to do with two things: converting “down time” to work time, and  being able to  “stay in touch” with what’s happening at work at all times.  This  kind of commitment used to be associated with  “Type A” executives, but nowadays anyone with the right tools can join in the fun.

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    “Fun” might be a strong word, but many of us like to find new ways  to be effective, and like to feel as if we’re getting better at  managing our time.

    However, what’s actually happening in the life of many  professionals is not amusing at all.  Their companies  have taken the opportunity given them by technology and the recession to convince employees to spend more  “down time” doing work.  At the same time, they send a subtle message that  “staying in touch” with work also means being available 24 hours  a day for 52 weeks of the year.

    Converting “Down Time” Nowadays, it seems, everyone with a smartphone has gotten into the habit of continuously trying to convert “down time” into useful, work time.  Here are some everyday examples of ways in which many professionals are converting their “down time.”

    • – a manager driving on the highway at 70 m.p.h. sends a text to his team  (while spilling hot coffee into his lap)
    • – an engineer in a meeting that’s going slowly, checks her email and replies (missing two action items assigned to her)
    • – an accountant watching his child play baseball on Saturday morning closes a deal in the fourth inning via cellphone (and lies to his  son about seeing him make his first catch ever)
    • – a supervisor attending 3 days of personal productivity training is unable to leave her smartphone untouched for more than 15 minutes (and later complains that  the trainer was ineffective)
    • – a consultant speaking to a client on the phone remembers that  he should have sent an urgent message to a colleague, and quietly does so (even as the client notes the sudden lapse in attention and interprets it as a lack of interest in continuing the relationship)
    • – a hard driving attorney once again takes his smartphone to the  urinal where he can multi-task (… and is noticed by his boss’ husband who happened to borrow his smartphone just five minutes earlier)
    • – a family cheers in unison when executive-Mom forgets her  smartphone at home 5 hours into the annual vacation (and falls into  despair when FedEx delivers it the next day)

    I recently asked a client: “How did your big presentation to the executive team go?”  She responded: “OK… but the CEO spent the entire hour on his (expletive)  Blackberry.”

    This was bad news for my client, whose project was now being viewed by the CEO as another chunk of his “down time.”

    If these are all examples of attempts to convert “down time” into useful time, take note of the way in which “down time” has been expanded.  This  is more than filling in the time that would be spent sitting on a train.  The habit has invaded every nook and cranny of our lives, sparing no-one, and costing us dearly.

    At this point, many of you reading are probably shaking your heads at  some of the poor etiquette on display.  I did the same, until I began to think of the mindset of the employees involved.

    All the habits listed above were developed by professionals who  were well intended — they were trying to boost their productivity by converting “down time” into something of value. Unfortunately,  once we humans are hooked on a habit, it’s hard to stop, and  we end up employing it inappropriately, much to the annoyance of others in our lives.  In that moment, the fun has disappeared and the habit has become an empty, automatic practice that does more harm than good.

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    The worse part is that in many companies, executives are leading  the way by example, as they are often the first users of these devices and the employees most likely to squeeze work into every available minute of their lives.

    They are also the ones who are unwilling to sever the connection between themselves and their colleagues, even for a few hours  each day.

    Staying in Touch With Work A friend of mine once told me the story of a manager of  rambunctious employee who was essential to the organization, but  frequently complained and threatened to leave.  In the space of a few months, he got married, bought a house and had a baby.

    After these happy events, his manager passed my friend in the hall on hearing the latest it of happy news and whispered conspiratorially: “I have him  now!”  In other words, with his new family and financial obligations,  the rambunctious employee was unlikely to raise more trouble, and  would probably settle into a comfortable routine of corporate  service with a steady eye on his pension, benefits and 401(k).

    The point of the story?  There are executives and managers who are blithely offering the gift of smartphones to their employees, and  in some companies it’s seen as a reward, and a status symbol.

    What many of them know, however, is that when an employee accepts the device, they are likely to join the group of the always-reachable, and engage in many of the behaviors that their higher-ups are practicing,  such as: – sending and receiving messages at 2:30 am – using weekends, vacations and holidays to conduct company business – implicitly agreeing to respond to all messages within a short time-frame – interrupting ANY activity to “find out what my boss wants”

    (If the stories told on YouTube and on blogs are true, then  _anything_ can be interrupted nowadays by smartphone use!)

    To put it in more Machiavellian terms, companies have found a way to take time and attention that employees used  to spend on their own, with their families and with their friends, and convert it to company time.  It starts with the gift of a  smartphone.

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    While I truly doubt that there is some master plan, don’t doubt for a minute that a manager doesn’t know the difference between her employees who are always-reachable from those who aren’t. Companies can make big gains in productivity by simply giving away smartphones to their employees, while ignoring the added stress that gets created.

    There are some companies that are noticing what is happening, however.

    Enlightened companies take a page out of the medical profession, which has long realized that it’s important to maintain  some kind of boundaries in their professionals’ lives.  Companies can put in place policies that clearly delineate  time spent “at work,” “on call” and “away from work.”   They recognize that these are three distinct modes that must be  enforced if employees are expected to function at their best.

    Most employees, however, find themselves in un-enlightened companies and  must make their own way, starting with 3 steps they must take.

    Their first step is to identify the unproductive habits in their time management system.  They can do the kind of analysis I describe on my website (www.2time-sys.com) to find the strong and weak spots.

    The second step is to create an improvement plan that outlines the habits to be changed, along with some target dates. This gives  them some realistic goals to heard towards.

    The third step requires them to create an environment to make the habit changes easier to effect.  Unfortunately, most  habits do not change easily or quickly, and the right blend of supports can make all the difference.

    Employees who have begun this personal journey need to make  a plan to enlighten the executive team.  Most smartphone use started with the CEO and her direct reports, and they are the ones who, in  all likelihood, introduced, for example, a culture of 24 hour  availability to the organization.

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    In an effort like this, employees need allies at all levels to  help demonstrate that bad habits  developed in the executive suite can wreak havoc when rolled out to an entire company.  (There  is a growing body of data available that can be used in this effort.)  In an intervention, executives can be asked to imagine an  all-company meeting in which half the attendees spend most of the  meeting on their smartphones, lost in cyber-space.  (Some would  simply argue that they are following the fine example of their CEO!)

    If the executive team can be convinced that these behaviors  are destructive, then the company can move to specify some  specific changes.

    For example, the US Federal Government has banned the use of  cell-phones by its employees while they are driving and conducting government business.  In part, that’s because of obvious safety reasons.

    From a productivity stand-point, however, it makes perfect sense. Other policies can be introduced to limit the use of smartphones and laptops during off hours, for starters.  (In some companies, turning off all messaging devices between 12:00 am and 6:00 am would be a major step.)

    Each company needs to look at its culture, as well as its  strategy, and phase in these changes in a way that makes sense. They need to allow for the fact that habit change takes time, and  that a new culture could not be born in an instant.

    The single employee who decides to change their company has a very difficult task on her hands, however, as she realizes that smartphones have done more to change company culture in the past few years than any vision statement or 2 day retreat.  She needs to appreciate that  some executives may decide that they like the way things are going, and don’t want to change a thing.   Those companies who take this route probably won’t see any  immediate fallout as employees cling to their jobs for fear of losing them, but they’ll  pay later.  At some point in the future, productivity will be impacted on a large scale, as employees burn themselves out and the bottom  line suffers.

    It’s much better to make the small, enlightened changes now, than  to wait until the cost is higher and the effort required seems to  be impossible to garner.

    All it takes to get started is one or two employees who are willing  to redefine what productivity means for themselves and their  companies, in favour of long-term results that are sustainable.

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    Francis Wade

    Author, Management Consultant

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    Last Updated on January 2, 2020

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    How to Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

    Over time, we all gather a set of constricting habits around us—ones that trap us in a zone of supposed comfort, well below what our potential would allow us to attain. Pretty soon, such habits slip below the level of our consciousness, but they still determine what we think that we can and cannot do—and what we cannot even bring ourselves to try. As long as you let these habits rule you, you’ll be stuck in a rut.

    Like the tiny, soft bodied creatures that build coral reefs, habits start off small and flexible, and end up by building massive barriers of rock all around your mind. Inside the reefs, the water feels quiet and friendly. Outside, you think it’s going to be rough and stormy. There may be sharks. But if you’re to develop in any direction from where you are today, you must go outside that reef of habits that marks the boundaries of your comfort zone. There’s no other way. There’s even nothing specially wrong with those habits as such. They probably worked for you in the past.

    But now, it’s time to step over them and go into the wider world of your unused potential. Your fears don’t know what’s going to be out there, so they invent monsters and scary beasts to keep you inside.

    Nobody’s born with an instruction manual for life. Despite all the helpful advice from parents, teachers and elders, each of us must make our own way in the world, doing the best we can and quite often getting things wrong.

    Messing up a few times isn’t that big a deal. But if you get scared and try to avoid all mistakes by sticking with just a few “tried and true” behaviors, you’ll miss out on most opportunities as well.

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    Lots of people who suffer from boredom at work are doing it to themselves. They’re bored and frustrated because that’s what their choices have caused them to be. They’re stuck in ruts they’ve dug for themselves while trying to avoid making mistakes and taking risks. People who never make mistakes never make anything else either.

    It’s time to pin down the habits that have become unconscious and are running your life for you, and get rid of them. Here’s how to do it:

    1. Understand the Truth about Your Habits

    They always represent past successes. You have formed habitual, automatic behaviors because you once dealt with something successfully, tried the same response next time, and found it worked again. That’s how habits grow and why they feel so useful.

    To get away from what’s causing your unhappiness and workplace blues, you must give up on many of your most fondly held (and formerly successful) habits. and try new ways of thinking and acting. There truly isn’t any alternative. Those habits are going to block you from finding new and creative ideas. No new ideas, no learning. No learning, no access to successful change.

    2. Do Something—Almost Anything—Differently and See What Happens

    Even the most successful habits eventually lose their usefulness as events change the world and fresh responses are called for. Yet we cling on to them long after their benefit has gone.

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    Past strategies are bound to fail sometime. Letting them become automatic habits that take the controls is a sure road to self-inflicted harm.

    3. Take Some Time out and Have a Detailed Look at Yourself—With No Holds Barred

    Discovering your unconscious habits can be tough. For a start, they’re unconscious, right? Then they fight back.

    Ask anyone who has ever given up smoking if habits are tough to break. You’ve got used to them—and they’re at least as addictive as nicotine or crack cocaine.

    4. Be Who You Are

    It’s easy to assume that you always have to fit in to get on in the world; that you must conform to be liked and respected by others or face exclusion. Because most people want to please, they try to become what they believe others expect, even if it means forcing themselves to be the kind of person they aren’t, deep down.

    You need to start by putting yourself first. You’re unique. We’re all unique, so saying this doesn’t suggest that you’re better than others or deserve more than they do.

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    You need to put yourself first because no one else has as much interest in your life as you do; and because if you don’t, no one else will. Putting others second means giving them their due respect, not ignoring them totally.

    Keeping up a self-image can be a burden. Hanging on to an inflated, unrealistic one is a curse. Give yourself a break.

    5. Slow Down and Let Go

    Most of us want to think of ourselves as good, kind, intelligent and caring people. Sometimes that’s true. Sometimes it isn’t.

    Reality is complex. We can’t function at all without constant input and support from other people.

    Everything we have, everything we’ve learned, came to us through someone else’s hands. At our best, we pass on this borrowed existence to others, enhanced by our contribution. At our worst, we waste and squander it.

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    So recognize that you’re a rich mixture of thoughts and feelings that come and go, some useful, some not. There’s no need to keep up a façade; no need to pretend; no need to fear of what you know to be true.

    When you face your own truth, you’ll find it’s an enormous relief. If you’re maybe not as wonderful as you’d like to be, you aren’t nearly as bad as you fear either.

    The truth really does set you free; free to work on being better and to forgive yourself for being human; free to express your gratitude to others and recognize what you owe them; free to acknowledge your feelings without letting them dominate your life. Above all, you’ll be free to understand the truth of living: that much of what happens to you is no more than chance. It can’t be avoided and is not your fault. There’s no point in beating yourself up about it.

    Final Thoughts

    What is holding you in situations and actions that no longer work for you often isn’t inertia or procrastination. It’s the power of habitual ways of seeing the world and thinking about events. Until you can let go of those old, worn-out habits, they’ll continue to hold you prisoner.

    To stay in your comfort zone through mere habit, or—worse still—to stay there because of irrational fears of what may lie outside, will condemn you to a life of frustration and regret.

    If you can accept the truth about the world and yourself, change whatever is holding you back, and get on with a fresh view on life, you’ll find that single action lets you open the door of your self-imposed prison and walk free. There’s a marvelous world out there. You’ll see, if you try it!

    More About Stepping Out of Comfort Zone

    Featured photo credit: teigan rodger via unsplash.com

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