Is the thought of your workload keeping you awake at night? Try a change in working practices to ease the burden, argues Uwe Richter, vice president and general manager for Mindjet International.

The “always on” society

The internet and all that it has brought with it means we now have access to a whole host of products and services at our fingertips almost wherever we are – if we want to shop on the bus or see loved ones who are thousands of miles away we can. It does not stop there; accessing information is much the same. Whereas twenty, even ten years ago we turned to newspapers and magazines for the latest information and opinions, there are now forums, Twitter and blogs – just to name a few – that have been added to the mix.

Having more connected devices, from smartphones to tablets, does mean we are “connected” around the clock, but a side effect of this is it’s difficult to switch off. It is all too easy to quickly (and this is often not the case) check our work emails when we’re watching television, about to go to bed or even on holiday. We now have terms like “bleisure” to describe the blurring of business and leisure and the ever popular “information overload” – I would challenge anyone who says they haven’t experienced this at one point or another.

The question is, does all of this result in an efficient way of working? Most of us will admit to being bombarded with information at work meaning that before we have time to really think about where a project is going or whether a certain strategy is working another email pops up or we’re called into a meeting. There is little time to stop, take in all that great (or discard the not so great) information and see the overall picture; we just end up feeling more confused and overwhelmed than ever. In fact we carried out research last year that confirmed this feeling amongst UK office workers and worryingly it is leaving 14 per cent of us unhappy at work. Echoing this, mental health problems such as stress cost the UK economy an estimated £26bn a year in absence, a fall in productivity and staff turnover.

The situation will only get worse as more data is created each year – IDC found that 1.8 zettabytes of new data was generated in 2011 alone – enough to fill 115 billion 16GB iPads and 0.6 zettabytes more than was generated in 2010. The answer is finding an effective way of handling all this information and getting the best use from it.

Distinguishing the vital from the insignificant 

We recently worked with psychologist Dr Lynda Shaw and she explained that while the human brain is highly adaptable, it is not good at multi-tasking. It is a common myth that brains act like a localised filing system – they simply can’t. Whilst we may adapt over time to better manage this huge volume of information, we need something to help us cope now. This should come in the form of a filtering mechanism that can separate the important pieces of information from the unimportant, organising it in a logical way, and I believe this comes from adopting a more visual approach. Mindjet is based on this belief and provides information visualisation software (think of the format a spider diagram or mind map takes) to help businesses and their employees better collect, structure and consolidate ideas and concepts and turn them into action. This essentially makes it easier to see the connections between different pieces of information and get that all important ‘bigger picture’.

But does it make a difference to how we handle information? Well, we’ve tested it and yes, it does. Partnering with neurological research experts Mindlab International we monitored the brain activity of a number of office workers as they completed a series of everyday tasks using a visual (Mindjet’s visualisation software) versus linear (traditional office software such as Word and Excel) approach. The experiment found that by using visual mapping techniques, we use an average of 20 per cent less cognitive resources to complete a task (compared to using the equivalent traditional, linear software), perform the tasks 17 per cent more efficiently in terms of time and when working in a team can recall 6.5 per cent more data after the task is completed.

These findings show that we need to adapt to our current working environment and find new, better ways of working. Continuing to plough on through, hoping that at some point things will quieten down for long enough for us to catch our breath, is not the way to deal with the ever increasing amounts of information. At a time when productivity is key to every UK business, large or small, visual techniques can help ease pressure for workers, improve employee and team satisfaction and in turn performance at work.

Survival of the fittest

Since we entered the new millennium, digital advancements have taken place at break-neck speed. Organisations are only just starting to face up to the challenges that “Big Data” brings on an infrastructure and operational level so workers and their teams are still struggling to adapt. What worked well for an employee in 1990 does not necessarily work today, and although technology may be causing us sleepless nights it also has the very real potential to help us work in a more natural, smarter and positive way. It is the businesses that realise and embrace this that will be on the front foot as we go through an uncertain economic time. Let’s not lose any more sleep over our workloads.