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Don’t “Optimize” Your Way Out of Peak Performance

In the modern world, optimization is king. From athletics to the workplace, figuring out how to be more productive and more efficient is the never ending quest of high performers. The natural evolution of this mindset is to see, and even track, your “on” and “off” task time, with one goal being to minimize the latter. Eat lunch at your desk, cut off communication so that you can do deep work, overly schedule your day to minimize distractions and optimize your time. Yet, it’s precisely in this off-task time where the ingredients that allow you to be meaningfully productive reside.

Take, for example, the time-honored tradition of chatting with your colleagues at the workplace water cooler. Whether it occurs in the break room or on a quick trip to get coffee, this idle time spent with others serves a vital purpose. These in-between periods create the space for connection: a brief moment to see or hear someone’s likes and dislikes, to vent, to share what they’re struggling with.

A recent study tracked workers in an office for 3 weeks to see if such work interruptions helped or hindered job satisfaction. After analyzing the data, work interruptions—a trip to coffee, a co-worker stopping by your office to chat—led to an increase in sense of belonging. Workers felt more connected to those around them. That sense of belonging ultimately led to higher levels of job satisfaction.

In another study, researchers found that group cohesion was vital for workplace performance. When we feel connected to those around us and see them more than just the guy down the hall who does something with spreadsheets, our own performance improves. For the top echelon of performers, we receive as much as a 10 percent bump in performance when connection and cohesion are high.

In the academic world, proximity to colleagues is related to an increase in high-impact research. The likelihood of having serendipitous interactions—such as having offices nearby each other, or attending conferences with colleagues—increases both the knowledge level of a researcher and the number of papers co-authored.

In our quest for optimization, don’t get caught in the binary on or off-task world. As is written in the new book The Practice of Groundedness“building community may be inefficient today but it is highly efficient in the long haul, in terms of both performance and, more important, a meaningful life.”


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