Achieving More in the Lab

Achieving More in the Lab

A productivity specialist explains how working smarter could help improve efficiency in the workplace

by Sara Goudarzi

Ask a lab manager what they would like to improve when it comes to running their operations, and boosting productivity is an answer you’re likely to get. With limited staff members, finite hours in a workday, and a plethora of tasks to complete, lab managers are always looking for methods to make their practice more efficient.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs.

Pushing employees to work harder and asking them to increase hours in the lab are ways to try to boost productivity. However, research has shown that longer hours can lead to mistakes in the workplace, burnouts, and even health issues for employees. So, how should lab managers approach such a goal? For some ideas, we turned to Anne-Laure Le Cunff, founder of Ness Labs and a productivity specialist whose research studio offers training and a support system to help workers achieve more without losing their sanity.

Le Cunff is an entrepreneur and MSc of Applied Neuroscience candidate at King's College London. Her company, Ness Labs, is an award-winning research studio focused on mindful productivity, providing content, community, and coaching to thousands of mindful makers. Prior to Ness Labs, she was a lead in the digital health team at Google. Her work has been featured in Forbes, WIRED, the Financial Times, Rolling Stone, LifeHacker, and more.

Q: What do managers get wrong when it comes to productivity?

A: Unfortunately, many managers think that working more equals working better. This is why there is a presenteeism epidemic in the workplace, where people work longer hours than needed and keep showing up when they should really be taking a rest. Instead of asking people to work more, managers should encourage their team members to work more mindfully. It means taking the time to think about the best way to approach a task: are you the right person to tackle this particular challenge? Are you in the right frame of mind? Can you work on this on your own or do you need someone’s help? Is the timeframe realistic? It may seem like a waste of time, but asking these questions saves time in the long term.

Q: What are some methods to increasing productivity?

A: I’m a big fan of time blocking. At the beginning of each week, I map all the important items I need to tackle before the end of the week, and I block time in my calendar to ensure these are addressed. Everything else happens between these essential tasks. It also makes it easier to prioritize and to say “no” to additional, non-crucial work. If I have a conflict between two pieces of work, I just go back to my weekly commitments and figure out which one is the most important one.

Q: How can a manager keep the staff’s attention, and help maintain their interests, on their work?

A: It’s all about letting people own their work. When a manager dictates exactly how things should be done, people lose interest. Instead, managers should foster their team’s curiosity by doing research, experimenting, and letting them figure out the best approach. But this only works when there’s a culture where people feel psychologically safe. It means failure is accepted as part of the learning process, and it’s expected that mistakes will happen.

Q: There’s a lot of focus on increasing productivity and we’re always learning about tips and tricks. Are we looking at productivity wrong? Are we too focused on it and in fact compromising some other important aspect of running businesses and labs?

A: There is definitely a lot of what I call “productivity porn” going around where people focus a lot on supposedly miracle productivity hacks. This is why I advocate for mindful productivity. Lots of the traditional productivity strategies are all about getting things done, but they never encourage people to ask themselves: “should I do it in the first place? Am I the right person to do it? What do I need to make this as successful as possible?” Mindful productivity is about having a more holistic approach to work performance and team collaboration. We need to acknowledge the fact that we are not machines. We can’t expect to apply a rigid formula, a one-size-fits-all trick, and expect for it to just work.

Q: There was an article in The New York Times that mentioned how we should be focused on attention management versus time management. Is re-gearing our philosophy in such a way better to increase productivity?

A: I actually read this one very recently. It’s a great article, and I agree with the author even if I keep using the term “time management.” We need a shift in the way we manage our time, and we need to understand that time cannot be considered in a vacuum—energy levels, mental states, etc. are all important factors to consider when managing our time.

Q: What are your thoughts on the number of hours people work? Is there a diminish in return when working past a certain number of hours?

A: Some people think that the more they work, the more productive they are. But we only have about four hours of truly creative work in us every day. For instance, many of the best writers only work for four to five hours a day. Ideally, we should have four hours of focused work, maybe one hour of admin work, and then use the rest of our day to recharge both our physical and mental batteries. This could include reading papers or books in a relaxed environment, going for a walk, or chatting with colleagues, friends, and family.

Q: How does communication factor into productivity and time management?

A: Communication can be extremely disruptive to productivity and time management. Every time a notification for a new email pops up, or someone walks up to you and taps on your shoulder, you get out of the flow and it takes a while to get back to your focused state. That's why I like using time blocking for emails, too. Having one hour per day where I check emails and answer them has made me much more productive.

Q: You authored a piece on the illusion of productivity, can you expand on the idea a little?

A: This article about the illusion of productivity is based on a very interesting piece of research, which shows that, as humans, we tend to do whatever it takes and to use any justification to keep busy, even if the task is meaningless. As the researchers put it in the paper: “Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.” It’s absolutely fascinating. We are not busy, we keep busy. Since I have read this paper, every time I hear myself saying “things are crazy busy at work,” I make sure to block some time to figure out why things are so busy. Very often, there are quite a few things I can cut out.

Q: What are some tips for managers to help them stay productive?

A: Very often, what kills productivity is the endless list of mind-numbing and unimportant tasks we don’t even remember why we have to do. The best way to stay productive is to focus on tasks that are aligned with the overall objective of the team. To achieve this, I like using the Eisenhower matrix of prioritization, which helps you classify tasks based on whether they are urgent and important; important but not urgent; urgent but not important; neither urgent nor important. The urgent and important tasks, managers should do now. The important but not urgent ones can be scheduled to be done later. The urgent but not important activities should be delegated to someone else. Finally, if a task is neither urgent nor important, it should be deleted from their list.