Casey Butler Harwood

Faux Efficiency Part Deux

Back in 2014, Bryan wrote about how the road to inefficiency is paved with good intentions: Sometimes, it takes longer to navigate the shortcut than it would have taken to travel the long way around. And, by the same token, a hastily developed deliverable that lacks in quality will ultimately end up costing more time (and money) when it, inevitably, falls short and needs revisions, or even replacement.

As a small agency, efficiency is something that we think about a lot. Merriam-Webster defines efficiency as the quality of being efficient, or “capable of producing desired results with little or no waste.” Which seems pretty straightforward, but the thing is, efficiency is subjective. To clearly determine what efficiency means for you, you first need to decide what you consider waste and, for that matter, what the desired result is. Right?

As we’ve adapted to a primarily remote work model over the past year, efficiency has become a top priority for our team. Partly because uninterrupted work hours are a precious commodity when you’re working from home, so we need to wring every last drop of productivity from each hour, and partly because efficiency is the hallmark of well-oiled machines and now, more than ever, we want to demonstrate that that’s what we are. The show must go on, as they say.

We achieve this efficiency through an abundance of communication. Perhaps, even, an excess of communication. How do we communicate with our coworkers and clients in this new, virtual era? Let us count the ways: Email, phone call, text, Google Hangouts, Google Meet, Zoom, UberConference, Instagram, and Slack. Technology certainly is amazing. Isn’t it?

On a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, Klein cites author Cal Newport’s work in making the case that “the digital wonder around us has come with a cost. We’re losing our ability to concentrate.” Newport believes that many modern-day workers operate as part of a “hyperactive hive mind.” Klein explains that Newport defines the “hyperactive hive mind” as “a workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools, like email and instant messenger.”

What’s the problem with this? In short, it’s distracting. I’d make the argument that virtual meetings fit neatly into scheduled blocks and email is something that we’ve been trained to compartmentalize over the past 20 years or so. But an instant message, or a text, comes with subtext: Look at this now. Slack, which claims to be a productivity tool, behaves an awful lot like social media. With its brazen notifications and virtual water cooler-like vibe, it’s easy to check Slack 67 times a day. Or zero times a day because it’s basically Facebook for work. But what about the times when it’s where urgent requests are made? Imperative or optional — which one is it? That could be another whole blog post...

For the time being, let’s assume that most people fall into the 67 times a day category. Maybe you spend one second looking at it each of those 67 times, which — let’s be honest — is not realistic, but even if that were the case, here’s the real problem: Multitasking is a myth. As Newport and plenty of neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain can only really do one thing at a time; switching tasks requires your brain to disengage from Task A and focus on Task B. With each switch, or attention shift, your performance slows and diminishes. Researchers at University of California, Irvine even found that each interruption can cost us 23 minutes of productive work time. Those 67 interruptions don’t feel so trivial anymore, do they? So, swap Slack for last-minute requests, meetings, or even wearing multiple “hats” (Newport also laments the death of specialization) and the result is still the same: Changing gears equals decreased productivity.

“The digital wonder around us has come with a cost. We’re losing our ability to concentrate.” - Ezra Klein, The Ezra Klein Show

This feels like a good time to mention that Slack is one of our favorite tools at Drawn. To play devil’s advocate, I work 100 percent remotely these days and many of the things that I miss about being at the Bard are replicated in virtual form, thanks to Slack: The random chats with coworkers. A walk across the street to find some caffeine — and the right headspace for my next task. What’s wrong with a virtual walk around the block if it helps to get us pumped up for whatever’s next on our list? I’ve personally always felt that I work better under these task-switching circumstances, anyway. Which brings us back to the fact that productivity — and, in turn, efficiency — really is subjective. As an extrovert (rare in our office), taking 10 minutes to ask Chyanne about her weekend actually gives me the energy I need to crank out 25 on-brand responses to Google reviews. Mary, on the other hand, prefers to hunker down with headphones on, tuning out the rest of the world and elegantly eliminating items from her to-do list. 

But I guess what I’m realizing is that there’s such a thing as too much when it comes to digital chatter. There’s a difference between choosing to stand up and see what’s going on in the kitchen and feeling hounded by that frenetic clicking sound that’s all too familiar to my fellow Slack users. More than that, though, I personally find that there’s a substantial difference between an in-person water cooler chat and a digital one: When you’re consciously looking, or even stepping, away from a screen to experience a human interaction, it feels a lot more like a reprieve. When you’re turning to Slack for a respite or a headspace reset, it’s not really a break — it kind of just feels like one more thing that we need to do; an even greater load to process. And, of course, the reset never sets in.

Right around the time that I listened to Klein’s conversation with Newport, I listened to an episode of Call Your Girlfriend about burnout — coincidentally. Or, well, I don’t really believe in coincidence, so for me, it felt like a sign from the universe to start paying more attention to the way we work.

As much as I love my job at Drawn and I am passionate about what we do here, I will admit that I have felt burnt out at various points over the past year. I mean, I’m guessing that we all have, what with the global pandemic and major lifestyle shifts, anxiety, and uncertainty that it brought on. But maybe it’s because I’m so passionate about what we do that I also feel compelled to think about this issue of burnout, which I believe is closely linked with the way we work in contemporary society, in a more solution-oriented way.

Yes, we at Drawn wear many hats. Yes, we operate within Newport’s “hyperactive hive mind.” Yes, we have blurred the lines between work and home (sometimes, though, this is a really great thing). Yes, we do have an ever-lengthening list of tasks to accomplish and an ever-shrinking number of minutes in each day to devote to them. Sounds like a classic case of “faux efficiency” to me. So, what’s the solution? How do we change the way we work?

Bryan likes to say that real efficiency takes time. For example, a couple of years back, we created a process to streamline the creation of our case studies. Thinking through that process and setting the steps in place, then testing it out, making adjustments — all of this took a shocking amount of time. However, when we started to get it right, building and sharing case studies started to become a lot smoother, a lot faster. A lot less wasteful. Can we do this with our workstyle? (That’s like a lifestyle, but at work.) I like to think so. Stay tuned.