Sunday, June 26, 2011

Workplace Myths

I’ve been in the corporate world for over a decade. I started late, so I knew I would have to learn the rules quickly. I soon discovered that many of the rules people took for granted were actually myths. Recognizing these myths has been key to my effectiveness and peace of mind.

Myth #1 – Emails require immediate attention

Truth – If it can’t wait, you’ll get a phone call or an instant message (IM). I’ve often found that by not replying, the sender figures things out on their own, or gets just as good a response from someone else. In fact, by responding immediately, you condition your co-workers to expect instant answers. 

What should you do? Pick 2 or 3 times a day to respond to emails; don’t even look at your inbox in between. (And turn off those pop-up notices.)

Myth #2 – People who work long hours are more productive

Truth – If you know you’re going to be at work for 12 hours, you have less incentive to use your time wisely. When I started on salary, I set boundaries for my work hours. I would arrive by 7:30 and leave at 4:30.  I didn’t want to be the absent husband who spent all night in the office.

I found that as the end of my day approached, I looked at my tasks more critically. Which ones were really important, and which could wait? Was it more important to socialize around the office, or finish a key task?

Every few months there would be something that required me to stay later than normal, which I counted as part of the give and take. But I noticed a lot more socializing took place after 5pm. I realized that people who stayed late weren’t being any more effective than I was.

What should you do? Set a schedule for yourself. Stick to it. Let your team know that you’re going to use the schedule to be more productive.

Myth #3 – Multitasking gets more accomplished

Truth – Multitasking is inherently less efficient than focusing on one thing at a time. You’re not focused on two things at once, like a conference call and a chat session, you’re really just switching back and forth. A lot. Maybe you can time it right and answer the chat questions when you’re not needed in the meeting. Or you’ll time it wrong, and you won’t hear the question that was directed at you, and you’ll waste everyone’s time by asking it to be repeated.

What should you do? Make a habit to focus on one task at a time. If someone interrupts, tell them you’re busy and ask if you can get back to them. If you’re in a meeting that you don’t need to be a part of, excuse yourself.  Most of all, be honest with yourself. If you’re not willing to focus on a single activity, then you’re going to short-change all the activities that you’re trying to multitask. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes it’s really frustrating to the people you’re meeting with or instant messaging.

Myth #4 – Instant Message is the most effective communication

Truth – Instant messages are only effective under very precise conditions. First, the question has to be very clear, and the answer has to be just as easy. Second, IMs have to be limited to times that are not dedicated for focused work. Third, the sender has to be able to type reasonably quickly. The perfect storm is when someone asks a vague question, while I’m trying to create a financial model, and then they’re either not focused on the chat session to begin with (i.e. they’re multi-tasking) or they only type 5 words per minute.

What should you do? Set your IM status to “Do Not Disturb” when you are doing tasks that require critical thinking. When you get an IM that is vague, ask the person if they can take a phone call.

Myth #5 – You get more accomplished if you work without breaks

Truth – You were built for sprinting, not marathons. After 45 minutes, your productivity drops off. You will get more done in two hours by taking a 15 minute break in the middle, than if you worked the full 120 minutes non-stop. Two factors contribute to this. One is the same “time-limit effect” that helps you be more efficient in a 9-hour day than a 12-hour day. The second is the “naïve observer effect.” By walking away from your desk for a break, your mind separates itself from your work, and you come up with new ways of looking at what you’re doing. You’ll see what’s important, what’s not, and what’s related.

What should you do? Set a reminder to stop after 30 or 45 minutes (use Outlook, your phone, or a cooking timer). Get up from your desk and walk around outside (or down the hall). Breathe deeply. Let your mind wander and then come back. Think about what the next steps should be.

This advice should reinforce what you already suspected. So pick one area to test out for a month or so. Don’t try them all at once, and don’t stop after just a few days or weeks. Give it enough time to see if it works for you. Either way, when you’re done, pick another area to try.

What workplace myth have you disproved?


  1. I have had many more years in a combination of corporation and self-employed business world. I think all of these are excellent suggestions on being effective in managing time.

  2. What a great set of Ideas you have put forth. this is some good advise. Absolutely timeless. These are true myths created inside the minds of the unproductive. I'm lovin' it!

  3. Great comments. Keep 'em coming.