There is a hidden killer in your business. You can’t see it or touch it and it isn’t easily recognised as a cause of harm.

Productivity – or rather the lack of it – can kill a business.

That’s no exaggeration and you’ll see later in this post why I say that. But first…being unproductive is not our fault.

Our Brains are Wired to be Unproductive.

Just one caveat before I continue… This is about how unproductive people can be in the office environment – your office staff and managers and you. This is less applicable to your floor staff who must perform several tasks within a certain time.

A major area of your brain, called the pre-frontal cortex, manages, among other things, your personality, behaviour, decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Unfortunately, it loves to be distracted – it has a novelty bias. It is attracted to shiny objects like iron filings are to a magnet.

This bias to being easily distracted would save our lives when we lived in caves and the snap of a twig alerted us to an approaching lion. It fosters curiosity and the desire to learn.

And that curiosity is great but is clearly not what we need when we’re trying to stay on task and be productive.

We live in a noisy world which your pre-frontal cortex loves. When your phone pings, alerting you to a message, your instinctive reaction is to reach for it and check the message. It takes a moment of effort to ignore it and stay focused on what you are doing.

When my school reports said I was easily distracted, it wasn’t my fault.  When someone walks into a room and you look up to see who it is, it’s not your fault. When your phone pings to tell you that you have a text message and you instantly reach for it to see who it is, it’s not your fault.

We’re Rewarded for Doing Lots of Small Tasks

Our brain “rewards” us for completing a task no matter how trivial that task is. It cannot differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t and so you will be rewarded whether the task was to check your Facebook status or fill an empty bed.

When you complete a task your pre-frontal cortex and other areas of your brain receive a reward in the form of a shot of the “feel-good” hormone dopamine.

We love dopamine and that good feeling we get when we complete a task and so, if we’re not disciplined and focused enough, we will naturally stay busy switching between lots of small tasks and feel good and feel that we have been productive.

We are fooling ourselves that we’re being productive and our brain is supporting the lie by rewarding us.

We Cannot “Multitask”

Let’s get one thing straight – regardless of gender – we can’t multi-task. Our brain cannot process two pieces of information at the same time. We struggle to listen to two people speaking to us at the same time.

Millions of neurons rapidly switch from one thing to the next – they cannot independently work on resolving two things in parallel. All this switching has both a cognitive cost and a metabolic cost.

Cognitive costTrying to do several things at once involves, as I said, millions of neurons rapidly switching between tasks, 100 of times a second. This produces cortisol – the stress hormone, which – surprise – increases stress.

Together with the adrenaline you also produce, your brain can very quickly become over stimulated, scrambled and foggy. Decision-making becomes hard.

At an extreme, imagine the tired mum who shouts at her kids to stop because she can’t “hear herself think” as they run around her shouting and vying for her attention.

“Multi-tasking” impairs our ability to think clearly and make decisions.

Metabolic costOur brain weighs around 2% of an average person’s total body weight and yet consumes around 20% of its total energy. It’s a very hungry organ. All these neurons switching 100 of times a second is tiring.

“Multi-tasking” consumes the available energy very rapidly – the same energy (glucose) that’s needed to focus and stay on task.

So, our brain loves shiny objects and is very easily distracted. It is rewarded and therefore wired to complete lots of tasks no matter how trivial rather than stay on one important task where the dopamine hits are fewer and further apart.

And all this switching between distractions and tasks makes us confused, unable to make important decisions, stressed and tired.

Our brain is not on our side when it comes staying on task and being productive, which is why it can be so hard to do.

And as if that wasn’t hard enough, we are surrounded with information overload. There is more information at our fingertips via our mobile phone than we need to make an informed decision.

When given too much choice, research has shown that we struggle to make a decision. There’s a famous “jam stall” experiment. When the market stall was laden with lots of jams of different flavours, people struggled to decide and would walk away. When the stall only displayed a few jam jars, faced with less choice and fewer decisions, more jam was bought.

Ignoring something has its own cognitive and metabolic cost because you must actively decide to ignore it. Ignoring your phone or email inbox knowing that there is an unread message or email is something your brain struggles with because it instinctively wants to see the message or email.

Being productive is hard.

But being unproductive can harm a business in many ways and not least in cost. Even medium-sized businesses can lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost productivity each year.

Research has shown that the average office worker is productive for 2 hours 53 minutes out of an 8-hour day.

There are on average 225 working days a year. Round the average productive hours to 3 hours a day and you have 675 productive hours. This is the equivalent of 84, 8-hour days. 84 days’ worth of productive work out of 225.

Unproductivity is a huge problem and cost to companies. You can see why even for a small to medium sized business, unproductivity can cost it a small fortune.

Then add in all I’ve said about the effects of being unproductive and how that can lead to bad decision-making, missed targets and mistakes and you can see why I said “the lack of [productivity] can kill a business”.

It is a hidden killer. You can’t see it or touch it and probably wouldn’t recognize it as a main reason your business is struggling.

It also has a huge cost at a personal level with raised stress levels and the health implications that go with it.

Being productive and helping your people be productive is a vital element to the success of your business.  If work isn’t being completed on time or is sub-standard and assuming the capability and resources are in place, then productivity is most likely the problem and must be addressed.

Knowing the problem is the first step. Addressing it is that much harder. Systemising your business and the way you and your people work in it will go a long way to improve productivity.

There are many ways you can systemise the way work is carried out and when you do you’ll find that more gets done in less time, the quality of the work increases.

And because work doesn’t drag out and become a slog, those carrying out the work will be less stressed, more motivated and creative.


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