Multi-tasking and busyness – just how efficient are you really?

Two opposing ideas are dominating the discourse about work and, indeed, about life too. The first applauds multi-tasking and admires people who seem able to do many things at once. The second tells people to live in the present. As Maya Angelou says, “Be present in all things and thankful for all things.”

Executive Coach Exchange multitasking catherine burrows
“I did things I did not understand for reasons I could not begin to explain just to be in motion, to be trying to do something …” – Dorothy Allison, Trash: Stories. Photo: Catherine Burrows

We read sensible, helpful articles which give people strategies to manage their emails efficiently, including by only looking at them a few times a day, and promoting the idea of not starting your day with emails but by “eating the frog” of your most difficult and important task.

Then we hear about people whose managers require them to respond to their emails instantly, and be logged onto instant messaging, at all hours. How can a person manage this without multitasking? And what is the cost?

Lisa Quast cites research which found only two per cent of the population are exceptional multi-taskers.

The implication of this, of course, is that the rest of us – 98% –  are not good multitaskers. This won’t surprise anyone who has sat behind someone texting at a green traffic light. In fact, David Strayer’s research showed, “Outside the lab…the multitasking deficit held steady. When Strayer and his colleagues observed fifty-six thousand drivers approaching an intersection, they found that those on their cell phones were more than twice as likely to fail to heed the stop signs,” as Maria Konnikova reports.

What about in the workplace? It turns out that multi-tasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.

David Sbarra has described how he trained himself to be less busy. He realised he had become “…a robot, programmed to obliterate my to-do list…” “addicted to busyness”. He decided that “To get more out of life — more meaning, more joie de vivre — I needed to start doing less and to become more conscious about my choices.”

His strategies were amazingly simple. He started by being outside and walking more. Next, he tried valuing idleness, left Facebook and got “serious about laughing more”. Finally, he focused on the value of friendships. While it’s a work in progress, he says the result is, “I am feeling better than I have in a long time — more deliberate in the choices I make, more connected to the people around me, and more energized for the demands of the day. The surprising irony here, for me at least, is that by doing less, I am getting way more out life.”

Working with an executive coach can help you to overcome mindless multitasking. A coach can help you identify those tasks you are doing from a sense of busyness rather than necessity. A coach can help you build strategies to focus on what’s important. Finally, if you need to have a difficult conversation with your manager about improving your productivity by not answering every email as soon as it is sent, an executive coach can help with this too.

Diversity – part 1 – the challenge

Last week, we celebrated the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, with its theme of Creating Equality, and International Women’s Day 2017 #BeBoldforChange. These significant annual events were leading us to reflect on organisational diversity, when we came across this powerful image.

Photo: State Street
Photo: State Street

The statue of the little girl has been temporarily placed in Wall Street to draw attention to a campaign by State Street Global Advisors to see more women in board roles.

State Street has about $US2.5 trillion in investments under management, and has committed to vote its shares in 3500 public companies against boards which are not taking tangible steps to increase the diversity of their boards.

Why would State Street do such a thing? Are they just “virtue signalling”, to use the latest put-down for those trying to do the right thing as they see it?

On the contrary, Lori Heinel, the deputy global chief investment officer for State Street, has said: “The best thing we can do is be more activist in those companies to improve their performance as a long-term provider of capital” (our emphasis). She has noted the broad evidence that companies with diverse boards perform better on measures including return on equity, average growth, price/book value multiples and profit margins.

Forbes has produced an insight paper looking at the links between innovation and diversity, using surveys and interviews, with all respondents working for large global enterprises with annual revenues of more than US$500 million.

The key findings included:

  • Diversity is a key driver of innovation and is a critical component of being successful on a global scale.
  • A diverse and inclusive workforce is critical for companies that want to attract and retain top talent.
Photo: AP
Photo: AP

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense that those organisations that are not prepared to challenge themselves to look outside traditional sources for board representation, are also less likely to be innovative and adaptive in other areas of their business.

We’ve all heard entrenched board members saying, “We don’t want diversity quotas. We just want to hire the best person for the job”. State Street’s initiative looks like it may be a tangible pivot point towards “We want diversity quotas because we want to hire the best person for the job.”

Next week – part 2 – saying it, meaning it, showing it.

How does short-termism affect performance?

Does managing with a short term view affect performance compared to managing for the long term? McKinsey Global Institute and FLCT Global have recently published the results of their research showing that surveyed companies with a long term view consistently outperformed their short term peers across most financial measures from 2001 to 2014.

The long term companies had the following results by 2014:

  • average revenue growth – 47% higher;
  • average earnings growth – 36% higher; and
  • average market capitalisation – 58% higher.

Executive Coach Exchange pixabay unsplash viewThey also added nearly 12,000 more jobs on average than their peers from 2001 to 2015.

What were the criteria used to judge whether a company had a long term view?

The research focussed on companies that were large enough to be under short-term pressure from investors, boards and others, with market capitalisation of over US$5 billion in at least one year during the survey period. They were evaluated against industry peers in an attempt to remove other factors that would affect performance.

The survey was based on five key assumptions:

  • Investment – ratio of capital expenditure to depreciation – assuming that long-term view companies will invest more, and more consistently.
  • Earnings quality – accruals against revenue – assuming that long-term view companies will prefer cash flow rather than accounting decisions.
  • Margin growth – assuming that long-term companies are less likely to seek unsustainable margin growth.
  • Earnings growth – assuming that long-term companies will prioritise the absolute rise of earnings over earnings per share.
  • Quarterly targeting – the incidence of making, or missing, earnings-per-share targets by less than US$0.02. This is based on the interesting assumption that long term companies are less likely to make an all-out effort to hit earnings targets by small amounts, where doing so will divert resources from greater business needs. They are correspondingly more likely to miss earnings targets by small amounts, which could have easily been achieved with the same diversion of resources.

Indicators of short-termism included:

  • cutting discretionary spending, and delaying new value-adding projects, to avoid earnings misses;
  • higher levels of stock buybacks; and
  • lower capital investment.

The study acknowledges that there are limitations in the methodology, as the assumptions had to be based on hypotheses about how a company with a long term view might behave compared to one with a short term view, and the study showed correlation rather than causation. The study was also based on US companies only.

Interestingly, the short-termists outperformed the long-termists in the financial crisis of 2008, with the long term companies taking greater share price hits, but in the following period the long-termists’ recovery was significantly better as they added an average of $7 billion more in market capitalisation than their competitors.

But perhaps the most thought-provoking findings were about those companies that began the survey period with a short term view, but gradually migrated to the long term category. The leaders of 14% of the companies in the survey were able to shift their companies’ behaviours from short to long term, with corresponding performance improvements.

The authors will next be focussing on finding out what practical steps these leaders took to achieve this turnaround.

Mindfulness and executive coaching

Executive Coach Exchange mindfulnessIn this article, Dr David Brendel writes about how executive coaching can help clients to enhance their capacity to manage their emotions more effectively, particularly when they are under stress.

He comments that emotional outbursts “can render a company’s culture toxic, damage its reputation, and impair its productivity and profitability…” as well as “…derailing their career growth, perhaps irreparably.” To counter this, he proposes that coaches work with executives using mindfulness approaches, “which involve development of non-judgmental self-awareness of mental and physical experiences in the moment.”

“People can only think clearly and positively when they are calm and emotionally grounded. Research shows that mindfulness strategies, such as meditation and controlled breathing, can help clients immensely.”

The research he refers to was reported in the Harvard Business Review, which states:  “The research on mindfulness suggests that meditation sharpens skills like attention, memory, and emotional intelligence. … Multiple research studies have shown that meditation has the potential to decrease anxiety, thereby potentially boosting resilience and performance under stress.”

Dr Brendel notes that “Executive coaching and mindfulness coaching can reinforce each other in powerful ways”, and concludes his article by proposing that executives who can regulate their emotions well have higher prospects of success in meeting the demands of a competitive, globalised economy.