School-bus

This post was written by Mike Smith, Director at Jump Associates. You can get in touch with him by commenting on this post.

I had a revelation at work the other day. I needed to build a daily schedule for a team tasked with solving a gnarly problem. It was going to require focused individual thinking, group discussion, and careful execution to solve. But, when I finished planning I realized it looked exactly like something I’d seen before.

If tackling tough problems, keeping people engaged, and making sure things stay on track all while encouraging personal growth doesn’t seem familiar, I’ll give you a hint: it looked a lot like a day at kindergarten.

My method of scheduling tasks has been influenced by Tony Schwartz’s book The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, in which he proposes that the core issue we face in today’s business world isn’t one of time management, but of energy management. By structuring our days around focused blocks of dedicated time with discrete start and finish lines and then periodically replenishing our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states, people get more done and stay happier.

It’s hard to imagine a group of people with greater peaks and valleys in energy through the day than kindergarteners. Some of the same techniques that worked for their classroom will work equally well in your office. Here are five principles you should try.

 

Define bounded work blocks with distinct starts and endings to break the day into a series of discrete, focused activities. 


People aren’t like computers; feeling in the groove may make folks want to work longer, but our work suffers when we run for long periods of time. My local kindergarten (I Googled it) has class periods that are 90 minutes long. Mimic those 90-minute periods and enforce their boundaries as much as possible.


Embed physical renewal periods between focused work blocks to recharge and prepare for the next task. 


Schools put recess between class periods for the same reason: the physical activity resets and recharges kids’ brains. Your team probably isn’t made up of 5-year olds, but this principle still rings true. Take a walk. Run out for coffee with the team. Do a drawing. It helps. Seriously.


Equip your workspace to give folks the opportunity to work movement into the day. 


Schools have learned that PE class helps kids do more than prepare them with lifelong dodgeball skills; it helps them perform better in their academic classes as well. In fact, regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory and thinking skills. Balance balls and chin-up bars can be used to keep focus for those who need to move their bodies to stay engaged. For others, those same tools might be just what’s needed for renewal between work blocks.


Set aside time for folks to go deep on individual work with the support of others, for times when two heads are better than one. 


Whether for independent study in the classroom or solo time for homework in the evening, many kindergartens encourage solo time for kids to do tough thinking on their own with teacher and adult supervision for those tough questions. To mimic kindergarten structures, schedule some of this solo-think time into your day—but don’t forget to ping expertise of others for specific questions or times you need a sounding board.


Set rules about when and where potentially distracting inputs are allowed. 


Recent research has shown that even just a heavily decorated classroom can disrupt attention and learning in young children. No matter how much we like to think we are, people aren’t great at multi-tasking. Need to knock out 100 to-dos? Great. Block it out and do it distraction-free. Need to respond to the morning’s emails? Great, do it. But don’t do it in a way that’s disruptive to other kinds of focused work.


The next time you and your team are tasked with solving a problem and having trouble staying focused enough to do it, think back to your days in kindergarten. Say what you will about the current state of public schools and the lagging state of education, but the basic structure of kindergarten and elementary school does a better job at maintaining people’s energy throughout the day than most offices I’ve worked in over the years.

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photo credit: Stop when... via photopin (license)