Work Smarter Not Harder or Longer

There is always so much to be done. Today’s society is so fast-moving that it’s hard to accomplish every single thing on a day’s agenda. Working in the laboratory, we know that emergencies happen, stats keep coming in, instruments act up, and colleagues call out. It’s agreed we are expected to do more and more with less and less.

One of my jobs outside the laboratory was as the COO of a hospital. We were evaluated on several formal metrics but one informal metric for COOs was always how much time we spent in our respective hospitals. We were not only expected to be visible but to come in early and leave late. Consistently. Because it was such an expectation, peer pressure also cemented this practice. COOs actually fell into the trap of judging each other’s work ethic by hours worked.

One of the most popular phrases (almost a boast) is that we are multitasking. Recent studies have shown however that multitasking is not only exhausting mentally, but might make us less productive than we have been led to believe.  Paul Atchley, PhD, Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology at University of Kansas has studied this issue extensively.

His research finds that when you multitask you are less productive, accomplish less and are more likely to miss vital information. He found it takes an average of 15 minutes to reorient to a primary task after being involved with a secondary (possibly less important) task. Think of the implications of that finding for a science as critical and exact as laboratory science.

Several authorities and studies not only argue against multitasking, but go further to stress the importance of what some call “single tasking.”

Then there is the whole idea of working longer hours either to make more money or to accomplish all we have on our plate. However work-life balance is important.  Both work and social/family life suffer from working too many hours.

My friends in Europe who routinely receive 6 weeks’ vacation and multiple holidays and casual days off cannot understand the American penchant for working so much.

Studies at various universities have demonstrated that routinely working more than 40 hours a week is counterproductive. The individual who makes that a way of life can become chronically tired and is, in fact,  accomplishing much less (quality) work than they think.

Having work-life balance is important for employees of any age but a recent study has even found that the ideal work week for those over 40 is actually (wait for it…) 3 days.

We know that in a clinical laboratory we cannot work in a merely linear fashion. Life happens. Several priorities present them selves at once. However we can learn to work smarter. We should prioritize work; use technological tools available and organize work teams where we share tasks instead of one person assuming all steps of a particular function.

We need to refresh and take more frequent breaks, even for a few minutes throughout the day. Stand up, stretch, go to the breakroom, look out the window, and even go outdoors, if you can. This needs to be the standard rather than the exception. Rather than making you less productive, such “recesses” will refresh you, cause you to refocus and cause your productivity to skyrocket.

As the profession ages, we might be able to retain- or attract back into part time work- those of retirement age. However they will not be interested in working 40 hour plus work weeks.

We do ourselves, our employers, our patients and our families a disservice by multitasking and chronically working long hours and too many hours per week.

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