Thinking Is Physical - Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (2015)

Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes (2015)

3 Thinking Is Physical

My business school students occasionally get to watch TV. It isn’t a treat. I show a clip from a financial news channel—Bloomberg, CNBC—and ask them to retain as much as they can. With scrolling subtitles full of stock prices, a right-hand box of weather forecasts or sport scores, there’s little space left for the hapless CEO breathlessly explaining quarterly results. When the clip ends, I ask what anyone recalls. A few prices, tomorrow’s temperature in Barcelona, the CEO’s company’s name—that’s about it. When I ask for a critique of the corporate strategy, they are dumbfounded: You mean we were supposed to follow all that information and think about it? But that’s impossible!

It is impossible. Higher-order thinking—argument, skepticism, doubt—is cognitively expensive, requiring more of our brain’s capacity. The brain’s resources are limited and attention is a zero-sum game. When you pay attention to one thing, you have less for everything else. Avid concentration on scrolling data leaves little cognitive capacity for analysis. We may imagine that we can multitask, but no brain is built to do so. Just cultures rely on and reward the highest levels of attention and creativity that we can muster. But distraction, fatigue, and overwork profoundly, quickly, and inescapably undermine these. Culture may feel abstract, but the just culture absolutely requires that the physical demands of work be respected and understood.


Trying to do everything makes multitaskers poor editors. Those who consistently attempt multitasking find it harder to ignore irrelevant information and take longer moving between tasks—in other words, for all their frantic activity, they’re actually wasting time. And because the brain’s competing memory systems store information differently, whatever is retained is harder for the multitasker to recall. While these energetic minds might feel that they’re on top of the world of information, in reality they are at its mercy.

So how we work creates its own feedback loop: the more attention we try to pay to everything, the less discerning we become. But when we focus, we get better at concentrating—and remembering what we did. We feel less exhausted. So monotasking—focusing on one task at a time—isn’t only more efficient; it also leaves us better able to use the knowledge we have gained. This isn’t just a matter of productivity. Distracted people can’t think, which also means they cannot begin to think for themselves. They may make good sheep, but they will never make great leaders.

Engineers talk about asset integrity, by which they mean that systems and machinery must be looked after, serviced, and repaired before anything goes wrong. At industrial sites, asset integrity is the cornerstone of safety, efficiency, and sustainability. But for those of us who don’t work with physical machinery, the machines we use are our brains, and we need to appreciate their limitations as fastidiously as any site engineer. We mostly don’t do that—but we could.


Hours Up/Productivity Down

In 1908, one of the earliest productivity studies, conducted by Ernst Abbe at the Zeiss lens laboratory, concluded that shortening the working day from nine hours to eight increased productivity. Subsequent studies throughout the twentieth century, across industries and countries, have all reached the same conclusion: productivity isn’t linear. We can work well for forty hours a week but no more than that. After forty hours we get tired and make mistakes—so we need extra time to clear up the mess we’ve made.

Industries such as aviation and transport have long paid serious attention to fatigue because when people driving planes, trains, and trucks crash and kill people, it’s impossible to ignore. But industries where disaster isn’t so visible or immediate have proved recalcitrant. Working through the night is heroic; long hours are interpreted as commitment. When companies fail or big deals don’t deliver (mergers and acquisitions have a failure rate of 40 to 80 percent), nobody stops to consider that exhausted brains might be the culprits.


The problem isn’t that we can’t keep working when we’re tired; we can. But exhaustion and distraction create tunnel vision that the Chemical Safety Board explains like this: “It is common for a person experiencing fatigue to be more rigid in thinking, have greater difficulty responding to changing or abnormal circumstances, and take longer to reason correctly.” Tired and overwhelmed, we want problems to go away—we don’t care how—because we lack the capacity to analyze or solve them. With a bad case of tunnel vision, what are the chances of correctly identifying an error, perceiving a solution, or coming up with a good idea? Virtually nil—all you’re trying to do is get through the day.

In 2012, the Finnish researcher Marianna Virtanen built on a forty-year study of public servants to examine the long-term impact of working long hours. What she found was startling. Working eleven or more hours a day had at least doubled the risk of depression. Those working fifty-five hours a week or more began, in midlife, to suffer cognitive loss. Their performance was poorer when tested for vocabulary, reasoning, information processing, problem solving, creativity, and reaction times. Such mild cognitive impairment also predicted earlier dementia and death.

Fatigue is an operational risk, implicated in almost every industrial accident. Sleep deprivation exacerbates the problem. The brain needs seven or eight hours of sleep a night. Deprived of that, the loss of cognitive capacity is roughly equivalent to being over the alcohol limit. Parts of the brain that manage information (primarily the parietal and occipital lobes) become less active while the area of the brain responsible for keeping us awake—the thalamus—becomes hyperactive. This makes sense in evolutionary terms (if survival demands food, staying awake takes priority over creative menu design), but for critical thinking, it’s disastrous. Moreover, after twenty-four hours of sleep deprivation, less glucose reaches the brain, and that loss isn’t shared equally either: the areas we need for thinking lose most. We may feel heroic working through the night, but the machinery we bring to our task is badly—sometimes dangerously—compromised.

Waking Brains

The brain you take to bed is not the same as the one you wake up with. While being very tired and lacking sleep demonstrably reduces our ability to think clearly, it also deprives us of the benefits that sleep bestows. My father-in-law, a scientist, has been known to solve equations in his sleep; I once cracked a fairly simple code that way. Mendeleyev, the father of the periodic table, claimed to have gleaned its underlying principle in a dream. More recently, Larry Page says the idea for Google came to him in a vivid dream. Jeff Taylor says the same about founding

These examples aren’t flukes. When we are asleep, our minds are busy, consolidating, organizing, and reviewing recent memories and experiences—and that generates insights. In experiments in which participants have to organize information that appears random but is in fact presented according to a complicated underlying rule, those who’ve had a good night’s sleep proved twice as likely to figure out the pattern as those who have not. Sleep, the researchers concluded, inspired insight. The restructuring of information that takes place asleep allowed participants to see what otherwise had eluded them.

What is so striking about over a century’s research is that long hours specifically impair the talents we most need in business today: thinking, insight, problem solving, sharp analytic and imaginative skills. Distraction and fatigue deeply compromise our ability to test our decisions, reflect, and think again. Without the capacity to doubt, we will never gain the confidence we need to ask hard questions and articulate the values that define us. It is rested and subsequently focused minds that prove productive and resilient. Time is on our side when we know how to spend it.

Quiet Time Together

When Harvard’s Leslie Perlow studied the usage of time in a software company, she asked engineers to log how they spent their time. The results are sadly familiar: an early start full of good intentions waylaid by interruptions and meetings, “real work” didn’t get under way until late in the afternoon. Out of the twelve hours one engineer spent in the office, he thought only five and a half had been productive—and those had been at day’s end when his brain was already tired.

Perlow had the insight to appreciate that not all of those interruptions were unproductive. People asked for and got help. The engineer was updated on critical changes and also took a break to make his draft pick for Fantasy Football. Ideal working days wouldn’t eliminate these. The social and intellectual capital they built was valuable. The problem was the impact of the interruptions.

The logs revealed two kinds of work, described as “real engineering” and “everything else.” You don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate the difference; all our working days could be divided into real work—which takes concentration and quiet—and the social interaction of meetings, taking or giving help, and jokes and gossip. To be truly productive we need both. What drives us mad is that we don’t feel in control of what happens when—or where.

Perlow designed an ingenious experiment. What would happen if the schedule reflected the two different kinds of work, divided into separate parts of the day? Quiet time would be a designated part of the day in which engineers could work alone, confident that they would not be interrupted—because everyone else would be doing quiet work, too. The rest of the day would be available for “everything else.”

Quiet time was set three days a week, from morning until noon. The engineers loved it. Some reported that their productivity had increased by as much as 65 percent. The smallest thing—reengineering time—had made a dramatic difference. For only the second time in the company’s history, a product shipped on time.

At the beginning of the experiment, the quiet time system was challenging. Engineers had to learn to prepare for the quiet time—to plan ahead to ensure they assembled the information they needed. Now that they appreciated how disruptive interruptions could be, they learned to be more considerate. “The quiet-time study made me think about how I am impacting others,” one engineer noted. “I realize now that it is not just a pursuit for my own quiet time, but others’ quiet time must be considered. It has made me more aware of others’ needs.” And a colleague wrote, “People have begun to respect others’ work time. The focus has moved from themselves to the team. Interruptions still occur, but people take the time to think about what they are doing before interrupting. They are more prepared.”

This didn’t mean that they asked for or received help less—in fact, they became more helpful, confident that the “real work” had been done or that they had time safely available for it. Knowing that the time needed for concentration was protected freed everyone to be more generous the rest of the day.

People crave the time to focus on their most important tasks and they can learn to use time well. Just being able to prioritize tasks—becoming a good editor of what your brain attends to—can increase productivity by more than 50 percent. Those who can clear significant blocks of time for focus get more done faster and feel less stressed doing so.

Moreover, synchronizing the time during which work gets done yields tremendous benefits. It gave the engineers a strong sense of autonomy: they had control over their time that their managers respected. Quiet time reduced multitasking and enabled focused work to get done without incurring social and intellectual costs. It built social capital by teaching people to consider the needs of others.

When I’ve discussed quiet times with companies, many managers are aghast at the prospect of losing their right to interrupt; those who report to them, by contrast, typically look thrilled. But the prospect of delivering on time without exhaustion has encouraged many to experiment with the idea. The consultant Tony Schwartz once persuaded an accounting firm to let just one group work differently, alternating focused, uninterrupted periods of ninety minutes with short breaks. That group stood out from their peers as getting more done in less time, being able to leave earlier and experiencing less stress during tax season.

Other organizations have implemented some variant: At Ocean Spray, there are times in the day and the week when no one can call a meeting. That simple rule provides freedom in scheduling work or external commitments. The Pohly Company designed big, pretty “Do Not Disturb” signs for cubicles and chairs: an easy, individual way to win focus. Other organizations I know have quiet rooms—places without phones where no one is allowed to interrupt you. “I don’t always work in there,” one heavy user confided in me. “Sometimes I just think. Or breathe. Or try to figure out what to do next.” I’d call that work, too.

Creating the conditions in which the best work is most easily achieved is the job of any leader of any group of any size. But even if you don’t work in an organization where big changes such as quiet time feel feasible, you can think about how you organize your own time. When I worked as a television producer, I made an appointment with myself—every Thursday from eleven o’clock until twelve thirty I would leave the office and go somewhere I knew I wouldn’t be interrupted. This was my thinking time, often the most productive of the week.

Giving myself the time to do “nothing” allowed my mind time to wander. Inevitably, I’d remember critical information I’d overlooked. Or I’d suddenly see a simple solution to a problem that had had me stumped. Because I travel a great deal, I now make it a rule to devote time to staring out the window. I can’t always get as much time off as I’d like, but I can use the interstitial moments—going from one place to another—to switch off. Horizon scanning is good for my eyes and my brain. No music, no screens, no podcasts, no radio. Whether I’m on a plane or a train or the back of a car, this enforced leisure is where and when real thinking happens. And it has turned tedious travel into a retreat.


The act of thinking may be what makes us distinctively human and it clearly underlies the creativity, innovation, and productive work on which organizations rely. But that doesn’t mean that people readily choose to think or that they find it pleasant. In a recent study, 83 percent of adult Americans said that they spent no time at all “relaxing or thinking”; moreover, when invited to do so, they didn’t enjoy it.

Yet allowing your mind to wander can prove an effective way to solve problems or gain new insights. When we focus too hard on our work, we can become fixated, inflexible, and unreceptive to new patterns, people, or ideas. When we look away from work, we access other parts of our brain that help us find the information or pattern we need for understanding or resolution. To be truly productive, therefore, means to take time for quiet, focused work but also to find time to let your mind wander.

Many people have experienced the revelation that comes in the shower, while driving home from work, or while cooking dinner. Activity that is automatic (or at least undemanding) frees the mind to do unconsciously what has eluded the conscious mind. And that’s not just anecdotal evidence; controlled experiments likewise show that creativity is enhanced when we take a break and do something simple. Of these, one of the simplest, cheapest, and most effective is walking.

Whether outdoors or on a treadmill, walking has been shown to improve the generation of new, useful ideas. While physical activity generally enhances thinking, walking in particular increases creative output by around 60 percent. Walking outdoors appears to produce the greatest number of new ideas while also restoring previously exhausted cognitive capacity. Before brainstorming, when you’re stuck with a problem, or just because you need a break and some exercise, taking a half hour walk can prove wildly more productive than staying late at work.

For your mind to wander, you need time alone. The CEO of a major global bank once told me that in the past five years, he’d spent just one day alone; the aftermath of the financial crisis had eliminated all his thinking time, just when he needed it most. But how can you know what you think if you don’t have time to think without interruption? How can you move beyond received wisdom and stale assumptions without solitude? If you are going to be able to explain your ideas and thoughts, you need time to explore them first. First thoughts are rarely best thoughts; you need time to wander beyond them. Time alone need not mean introspection—there are better subjects to think about than yourself—but it does mean making room to explore doubts, challenge your own assumptions, and hear weak signals. If you have a conversation with yourself, you had better listen.


Crunch—Then Detox

None of this is to deny that there aren’t times when critical deadlines or opportunities make it essential to move into crunch mode. The term derives from the software industry, where it’s routinely used to push a product over the finish line. Everyone works late, and there’s frequently a great sense of camaraderie being in the trenches together.

Crunch can be great—as long as it doesn’t last forever. In 2004, software teams working for the computer games giant Electronic Arts started by doing eight-hour days, six days a week. But that quickly turned into twelve hours six days a week, then eleven hours a day, seven days a week. Crunch had become standard. Watching what happened to her fiancé who worked there horrified the blogger Erin Hoffman; her public outcry eventually resulted in a class-action suit against the company. “After a certain number of hours, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. Bad things happen to one’s physical, emotional, and mental health. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing. The bug rate soared in crunch.”

Since the lawsuit was settled in 2006, Electronic Arts has ameliorated its scheduling—but other companies have gone further still. SAS Institute, a leader in the field of data analytics, allows its people to work for thirty-five hours a week and no more. The reason is simple: the work requires clear heads and real concentration, and thirty-five to forty hours is the human limit. In a tough and competitive industry, limiting working hours hasn’t constrained the firm’s success but made it sustainable.

Crunch can become addictive. Yet, as with any kind of addiction, you choose your form of detox. Some executives I know build into their working year a very sizable chunk of time—a month, sometimes more—when they stop working altogether. Others who lack that freedom become more disciplined about vacation, commitments that they deliberately make too hard (or expensive) to cancel. Daimler employees are encouraged to delete any e-mails received when they’re on leave, leaving automatic messages saying they’re doing so. Volkswagen turns off e-mail outside of office hours, while the Huffington Post urges workers not to check e-mail outside of work. But everyone I ask, from the C-suite to the reception desk, talks about using weekends as recovery time. Evgeny Morozov’s solution is perhaps the most extreme—he locks his laptop and cell phone into a safe with a timed combination lock so that, however twitchy he may feel, he cannot access the Internet until Monday morning. His mind has time to wander elsewhere.

I make it a rule that in the summer, I read only fiction. Most of the year, I don’t have time for novels or short stories and my reading tends to be utilitarian. So I shift gears by making myself read books that require a different mindset and pace. I do this because I enjoy it but recent research suggests that it is beneficial in more specific ways than changing pace. Reading fiction—excerpts from National Book Award finalists, winners of the Pen/O. Henry Prize for short stories, or even Amazon bestsellers—has been shown to enhance theory of mind: our capacity to appreciate the difference in other peoples’ minds. In one experiment, participants were given the same Reading the Mind in the Eyes test that Tom Malone had used in his study of teamwork and empathy; those that had read just three pieces of literary fiction did better—and literary quality made a difference.

Throughout our working lives—one hundred thousand hours—time is our most precious asset. Once spent, we can never retrieve it and we can never manufacture more. So deciding how to spend it is powerful. When it comes to time, most organizations are very good at measuring its quantity but poor at measuring its value. We need time for quiet, focused work. We also need time to let our minds wander and find the insights and inspirations no amount of focus will ever bring. Synchronizing time for a team, a project, or an entire organization can create a powerful sense of community. But walking away from work can be the greatest contribution we make to it.