Slow and Steady Wins the Performance and Productivity Race
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
Do you remember the story of the tortoise and hare? The much slower tortoise actually wins the race because the hare interrupts his own journey to sleep, eat or play. The moral of the story is usually written as: "slow and steady wins the race.".
The Aesop's fable turns out to be true in many ways. Even the theory that a man can outrun a horse over distance has been proven in fact. Part of the reason is that a man can keep up a steady pace, but a horse has to have cool down periods. And recently, one of my brothers told me a story about an informal competition between a fast car and much faster motorcycles where they raced over a long distance on limited-access roads. The car won because it had a large gas tank and didn't need to stop and refuel as frequently. It kept going at a steady pace whereas the motorcycles could only sprint and stop, sprint and stop. Wow. Rather like the hare.
Your performance and productivity are similarly affected by pacing and interruptions of work flow.
Individual employees and work groups need organization, systemization, timing and scheduling to keep workflow steady. Those comprise "heart" of performance and productivity management and improvement. They are a core concept behind the idea of "continuous improvement." You can constantly tinker with them to enhance the workplace environment that supports individual performance and productivity.
But no matter how good your organization, systemization, timing and scheduling, you have to include ways to keep interruptions, distractions and downtime to a minimum. If you have to stop what you are doing, it doesn't merely take the exact time of the interruption. It takes the mental time necessary to refocus on what you were doing. It takes the mental time you need to get back to where you were. And it may destroy the line of thought you were engaged in -- a line of thought and attention that was flowing along at the steady pace necessary to get the job done on time or find a solution to a problem in time.
Now, obviously you need to be able to tend to necessities like answering phones, reading email, attending meetings, dealing with employees questions, stopping for rest and meal breaks, and so on. But to the extent that you can do all these with better timing, learn how to do so. Techniques that allow longer attention spans greatly improve timing. Use your knowledge of organization, delegation and automation to allow yourself longer periods of steady work.
For instance, have someone else scan your email and notify you if there's anything urgent and important; if there's not, ignore email until a natural break point gives you leisure to look through it. Let your answering machine or voice mail screen your phone calls. When you need to focus, put a sign on your door (or cubicle entry) that says, "If you interrupt me, your hair should be on fire or worse." And, of course, the old standby: find a quiet place to hide from folks until you've finished what you need to do.
If you take the time to study them, you will probably find that most interruptions or distractions -- including the ones you cause yourself -- are unwarranted. Don't let them send you off the track and end up scrambling like the hare. It may seem glamorous to try to sprint for the finish line, to pull out a solution or a great product at the last minute, but steady pacing actually gets the job done on time.