The Financial Services industry has received the dubious honour of being UK’s most stressed industry[i] In a sector driven by high performance, tighter regulation and constant change it is not surprising that this is increasing the pressure on employees. Nearly two-thirds of Financial Sector employees report that they are working longer hours than contracted, sometimes up to 30 hours more a week. Over half report that they feel they lack the time to do the job to their best of abilities and are troubled by job security[ii]. Fears about job security lead many people to feel they must put in longer hours at the office.
But longer hours do not increase performance or productivity. The added value in the finance sector relies on the applied knowledge and intellect of its people. Spending more hours does not improve the performance on intellectual tasks such as assessing the risks in a transaction or managing a challenging negotiation with a high-value customer. What does improve performance is having the headspace to apply focused and concentrated mental energy.
Information Overload and Technological Change
Our world has changed massively in the last 30 years, but our ways of working have not changed as rapidly. Two areas that have had a huge impact on our personal productivity are information and technology. The sheer volume of information is increasing exponentially, with the amount of information available doubling every 12 months[iii] and the amount of business email increasing by 25-20% annually[iv]. To keep up with all the information is impossible, but ways to manage the overload are possible.
Say the words technological change’ and we often think of new enterprise-wide systems. But our daily work is more impacted by the smartphone that sits by our side, almost permanently. On average we check our smartphone once every 12 minutes, over 80 times a day[v]. With a smartphone it is possible to be working 24/7. One in three people check their smartphone during the night, including work emails[vi]. Taming the smartphone will help improve productivity.
Focus to improve productivity
Focus and attention are rare commodities in the information smartphone era. Too often the workday is a constant rush of emails, meetings and jumping between small tasks. There isn’t the head space to think deeply about an issue, plan well or review. To improve personal productivity we need to have a work environment that gives the opportunity to work in an intense and focused manner on one value adding task at a time. This requires managing the information overload and smartphone technology.
Four ways you can give yourself the opportunity improve your personal productivity and performance are:
- Deal with Digital Distraction
It is surprising irresistible, and eventually addictive, to check every ping, beep and ring of your smartphone. It takes willpower to resist responding immediately to these alerts. Willpower takes your mental energy and focus away from the task you want to be working on. So take away the temptation, take control and turn off all your alerts. You decide when you want to respond to your emails or review your twitter feed.
- Single Task don’t Multi-task
Multi-tasking is a misleading phrase. Multi-tasking is not working on two or three tasks simultaneously, but quickly shifting attention from one task to another. Humans have limited capacity to process information. Multi-tasking has a negative impact on tasks that require concentration and problem solving. If the tasks are not important then you might get away with it e.g. watching TV while skim reading the newspaper. But if you want to be productive on some challenging work then you need to focus on one task at a time.
The fragmentation of your attention is also not very psychologically satisfying. It leaves you feeling like you haven’t achieved much by the end of your day as you’ve jumped from one task to another. Leaving tasks unfinished means they’re hanging in the back of your mind making it hard to relax or shift attention to the next task.
- Get into an intense concentration zone
Our attention spans are typically about 20-50 minutes. Like a muscle it can improve with training. Every day set aside one or two chunks of time (20-50 minutes) in your diary to do focused work on your value adding tasks.
Make sure you deal to your digital distraction first. Put your phone in airplane mode. Shut down the email on your PC. Then set the timer on your phone for somewhere between 20-50 minutes. Then focus on the task. At the end of the time, think about what you’ve achieve and feel that buzz of progress on an important task. Pure motivation.
- Set Boundaries
The technology gives the ability to be on 24/7 but it doesn’t mean you have to be. Setting boundaries between work and non-work restores your mental energy for work. Checking emails during the day and night leads to work always being on your mind. High performance on intellectually challenging tasks requires a refreshed brain. With work always on your mind then there is not the space to come back refreshed to a task, see it from a new angle or explore options.
Productivity in sectors like finance and banking is not about hours. Productivity is related to the people applying their knowledge and intellect to complex and challenging tasks. To perform well requires periods of intense focus and attention. This is hard to find in our current work environment of information overload and digital distraction. Create a personal work environment that allows you to perform to the best of your abilities while at work. Then get out of the office, switch off and take a break. Longer hours are not the answer to adding more value to your career or organisation.