Updated: Sep 24
“Productivity of the knowledge worker is not - at least not primarily - a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.”
-Wikipedia / Drucker 1966 (1)
Peter Drucker has been thinking about this already in the sixties - and the magnitude of the problem has been growing fast in hand with the growing number of knowledge workers. There were over 1 billion knowledge workers in 2019 (2).
As Drucker suggests, the productivity of a knowledge worker is a combination (at least) of the quantity and quality of the output. Thus mental workload needs to be optimized to be able to deliver high productivity. I’ve been optimizing my physical exercise load to optimize my performance for quite some time and found that similar principles can be applied to mental work as well.
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 are measuring activities and their efforts and reporting the balance of those which makes it easy to manage. With knowledge work and mental workload, it is not that straightforward, but one can get some insights about those when measuring stress levels based on heart rate variability. For example here is a view on my Garmin:
How to optimize mental workload on a personal level?
In sports, one cannot be training with full efforts all the time. Training with too high intensity without enough recovery will drop performance level: you end up doing exercises that increase training load massively and feel hard but are not that hard and give any more speed. Timewise, the most focus should be on low aerobic base training which is used to recover and prepare for the higher intensity ones.
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?
This would lead us to a point where we would have:
5 hours of “normal/base” work
0.5 hours of lunch break
1.5 hours of high intensity work
1 hour of extreme intensity work
How I’m using that time then:
Extreme intensity: Full focus on meetings and workshops where the time of multiple people is used. Active listening, thinking and problem-solving. No multitasking or email at the same time.
High intensity: Focus on your most important work. Find a good time slot for that or split it to two 45 min sessions. Get things done that have the highest impact. This kind of working seems to lower the risk of burnout too (3).
Normal/base work: communication, preparations for extreme and high intensity activities, learning new stuff, social activities etc.
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 practicalities a person might have if the organization around is going in a different direction. Culture should encourage smart ways of working, not the opposite. I think there are three quickish wins how to steer the culture to a direction that enables a smarter way of working and supports mental workload optimization by individuals:
Automation culture: 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). Many times I see people jumping from one task to another without thinking or knowing what are the priorities of the company. Each jump eats almost 30 minutes of productivity. This is naturally a flaw in working habits encouraged by company culture. One good way is to implement OKR: “a goal-setting framework for defining and tracking objectives and their outcomes” (5). This drives a culture with visibility of goals and focused and aligned efforts.
Focused meetings: People join meetings for many reasons: getting information, having a break from the routines, planning activities and meeting other team members. Typically all these activities are combined to the same one hour slot and then none of the objectives are done well. How to improve that? A few simple things: have a clear agenda with instructions on how everyone should be prepared, take meeting notes and assign action points. For social gatherings, there are many better ways to spend time together.
* 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.
That is also covered in a post by Kustaa last week: https://www.workfellow.ai/post/what-is-the-future-role-of-an-rpa-coe
(1) Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_worker / 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) Objectives and key results (OKR): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OKR