How to Help an Overworked Team Become More Focused, Productive

Dec 21, 2015
8 Min Read

If you’re not able to self-regulate – to shift gears when necessary – then you may find yourself burned out and unproductive. A new book looks at how to find the right gear at the right time in order to thrive. 

Next time you don’t want to be interrupted while working, try posting a “5” on your office door or cubicle.

If your co-workers are familiar with the idea that this means you are in “fifth gear” and are totally immersed in what you’re doing and shouldn’t be distracted, then they will leave you alone.

Could it really be that simple to eliminate distractions at work and be more effective? According to a new book, “5 Gears: How to Be Present and Productive When There is Never Enough Time,” authors Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram say that if everyone would learn the various gears and what they mean, then they could operate in a communication shorthand and help everyone be more productive.

Much like the gears in a car, the authors say their gears are:

1st gear: This is your time to fully rest and recharge.

2nd gear: You take time to connect with family and friends without an agenda or pressure to work or be productive.

3rd gear: This is your time to socialize. While you may believe this isn’t important at work, Kubicek says that you must be “really, really good at it to be productive.” That’s because if you shut yourself away in your office and don’t interact with your team members, you can make the entire team more unproductive.

4th gear: You’ve now moved into the work gear. This means checking off your to-do list and often multitasking. Most people spend their day in this gear.

5th gear: As mentioned earlier, you’re in the zone and thinking strategically.

The reason it’s important for teams to learn these gears is that it helps them understand when and how they need to shift gears or mindsets to be the most productive – and happy, Kubicek says. It also helps them to support their team members who may be moving into different gears at different times.

Kubicek explains that most Americans spend their days in fourth gear because they’re constantly multitasking, whether they’re at work or at home.  They check their email upon awakening each day, part of a pattern of just “checking in” that dominates their time.

“If you have ever left work feeling tired and wired at the same time, it may not be the coffee or the late afternoon chocolate making you jittery,” the authors write. “Instead, it may be the overconsumption of fourth gear.”

They explain that when you train your mind to multitask for long periods of time, everything starts to get so garbled it’s difficult to find the one piece of information you need at a specific time. That’s why you can’t let yourself get stuck in fourth gear, they add.

When teams get stuck in fourth gear, Kubicek says it helps if they can consciously switch to fifth gear so that they focus on one thing. Even an hour can make a big difference, and teams can learn to post “5” signs on their cubicles or a simple “Go away until 3 p.m.” to let others know they need time to just think.

An added benefit is that simply by finishing projects in fifth gear, fourth gear will begin to feel more productive, Kubicek says.

At the same time, getting stuck in fourth gear also can be helped by downshifting to third gear, which gives you time to interact with others, he says. Spending time in third gear also can help teammates respect the “5” on your office door.

“When you’re checked out socially, then people don’t feel connected to you emotionally. But when they can say, ‘Oh, we really love Tom, then they’re more likely to let him be in fifth gear,” Kubicek says.

However, it can be difficult for some workers to break out of fourth gear, especially if they’re holding onto their smartphone like a lifeline. To give third gear a try, consider ways to:

  • Be engaged. Team members know when you’re only out for yourself—or working against them. Show that you are interested in them on some level, that you’re “for” them.
  • Be curious. Try to talk to different people, and show your interest in them.
  • Be nonjudgmental. People will surprise you if you’ll just take the time to listen to them. Don’t be a snob and think you don’t have something to learn from every interaction.
  • Get off your phone. Having a phone nearby can tempt you to switch to fourth or fifth gear. Dedicate yourself to human interactions and put your phone away.

Kubicek also has a warning for leaders who avoid third gear and “become someone else,” when they enter the workplace, or what he calls the “Clark Kent moment.”

“Sometimes when you’re trying to prove yourself, you turn into someone else. This may be because you’re afraid or you’ve been trained to be this way,” he says. “But you try to mask your true self.”

So, you may fire off nasty emails, forget a team member’s birthday or bark orders as soon as you arrive at work. But such actions only alienate workers as you run over others with your self-absorption and lack of social awareness – and that will ultimately hurt your own ability and that of your team to be productive, he warns.

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