I’ve been optimizing my physical exercise load for quite some time to make the perfect weekly routine for myself. One might think: “Good for you, but how does it relate to knowledge work productivity?” Well, I had one crazy idea on the back of my mind.
What if I use the same principles from the physical training and implement them in my actual job to see how it affects productivity?
Productivity, efficiency - these important concepts became yet another buzzword in the corporate world that we forgot the real meaning behind them.
“Productivity of the knowledge worker is not - at least not primarily - a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.” Drucker, 1966 (1)
This is especially vital to remember as the number of knowledge workers exceeded 1 billion in 2019 (2). With consultancy firm workers doing 100+ h/week and others following the suit, there seems to be a serious misperception of what efficient work is.
As Drucker suggests, a knowledge worker’s productivity is a combination (at the very least) of the quantity and quality of the output. Thus, mental workload needs to be optimized to be able to deliver high productivity.
Getting back to the sports
In sports, there are basically three types of exercises one can do:
- Low aerobic = base workouts with low intensity lasting 1 to 6 hours
- High aerobic = tempo/threshold training lasting 1 to 1,5 hours
- Anaerobic = anaerobic training / hitting the limits = 0,5 to 1 hours
Many sports watches and devices measure the activities and efforts and report the balance of those making them easy to manage. It is not that straightforward with knowledge work and mental workload, but one can get some insights when measuring stress levels based on heart rate variability. For example, here is a view on my Garmin; some days are better balanced than others...
Physical work principles -> mental workload
In sports, one cannot be training with full efforts all the time. Training non-stop without enough recovery will drop performance level: you end up doing challenging exercises that increase training load massively but don’t bring that much value. Thus, the focus should be on low aerobic exercises, which help us prepare for the higher intensity ones and help to recover.
A good week could be 5.5 hours of low aerobic, 1.5 hours of high aerobic, and 1 hour of anaerobic training. That would be a total of 8 hours of high-quality training a week. Could that be an optimal mixture scaled for a workday too?
Well, translated to knowledge work hours these would be:
- 5,5 hours of “normal/base” work
- 1.5 hours of high-intensity work
- 1 hour of extreme intensity work
How could we use that time?
- Normal/base work: everyday activities such as communication, preparation for extreme and high-intensity activities, learning new stuff, socializing, etc.
- High intensity: focusing on the most important work. As a suggestion, find a suitable time slot for that or split it into two 45 min sessions. Do the things that have the highest impact. This kind of work seems to lower the risk of burnout, too (3).
- Extreme intensity: full focus on meetings and workshops where the time of multiple people is used. It’s better not to multitask during these activities but rather practice active listening, thinking, and problem-solving.
How to optimize mental workload on the enterprise level?
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” W. Edwards Deming
It does not matter how good a person might be at organizing his/her work if the organization around is going in a different direction. Culture should encourage smart ways of working, not the other way around. I think there are three quickish wins how to steer the culture to a direction that enables a more intelligent way of working and supports mental workload optimization by individuals:
- Automation culture
A high load of manual work combined with time pressure creates stress and eats calendar time and energy to do any other tasks. Automate the boring stuff to get time to work smart. Introduce Productivity Hackers**
- OKR - Objectives and Key Results
It takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task after getting distracted (4). I often see people jumping from one task to another without thinking or knowing the company’s priorities. Each jump eats almost 30 minutes of productive work time, being a huge flaw in working habits encouraged by company culture. One good way is to implement OKR: “a goal-setting framework and effective method for planning and measuring success on a team level” (5). That drives a culture with visibility of goals and focused and aligned efforts.
- Focused meetings
For the objectives to be done well, meetings should have a clear agenda with instructions on how everyone should be prepared; notes should be taken and action points assigned. People join meetings for many reasons: to get information, break from the routines, plan activities, and meet other team members. However, since multiple people spare their time on it, it’s better if socializing and casual chatting are done during the other time slots.
To sum this up, the analogy between physical and mental workload was pretty good at looking at the work from the new perspectives. However, no matter how much you optimize your work, a lot depends on the team and enterprise culture as a whole.
Knowledge worker: Someone who generates value through their knowledge. Knowledge worker "thinks" for a living instead of performing physical tasks. Forbes, 2020 (6)
** What is a Productivity Hacker?
Productivity Hackers’ main job is to find productivity holes and fill those with whatever they can get their hands on - in a fast and agile manner - not waiting years for a perfect solution.
(1) Drucker, Peter F. (1999). Management Challenges of the 21st Century. New York: Harper Business.
(2) Gartner: When We Exceeded 1 Billion Knowledge Workers (2019): https://blogs.gartner.com/craig-roth/2019/12/11/2019-exceeded-1-billion-knowledge-workers/
(3) Harvard Business Review. 3 Tips to Avoid WFH Burnout: https://hbr.org/2020/04/3-tips-to-avoid-wfh-burnout
(4) Stacey Lastoe. The Muse: https://www.themuse.com/advice/this-is-nuts-it-takes-nearly-30-minutes-to-refocus-after-you-get-distracted
(5) Harvard Business Review: Use OKRs to set goals for teams, not individuals (2020): https://hbr.org/2020/12/use-okrs-to-set-goals-for-teams-not-individuals
(6) Forbes: The year of knowledge worker (2020): https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2020/12/10/the-year-of-the-knowledge-worker/?sh=7b2264c67fbb
(7) Bonus: Further tips to organize own work better: https://outwittrade.com/work-from-home-tips/