Burden of secrecy akin to excess physical weight

Keep your personal life separate from your work life is one of the most common pieces of advice doled out to those entering the workforce. Compartmentalizing your priorities may help you keep your personal life from polluting your work environment, but too much secrecy could dampen your productivity.

According to new research from Columbia Business School, keeping a secret is similar to carrying physical weight, and that weight may be holding you back at work.

Researchers found that a secret preoccupies your mind and the more you're thinking about it, the more you are using personal, intellectual, and motivational resources. In other words, secrets suck up the energy you could be putting towards other tasks.

"Being preoccupied by a secret at work can be demotivating," said Michael Slepian, an adjunct assistant professor of negotiations at Columbia Business School and co-author of the study. "The burden of secrecy can make things around you appear more challenging, and if you're less motivated to tackle these challenges, your performance can suffer."

Recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology the study, "Exploring the Secrecy Burden: Secrets, Preoccupation, and Perceptual Judgements," performed a series of experiments to assess the effect secrets had on a subject's ability to judge the steepness of a hill. Those that dubbed their secrets as preoccupying judged the hill to be steeper than it actually was.

"This is the same kind of outcome we see when people are carrying physical burdens, seeing the world as more challenging, forbidding, and extreme," added Slepian.

A preoccupying secret causes daily concern and may be related to more serious life-altering issues like money, sexual orientation, or a health concern. A less stressful non-preoccupying secret does not cause daily concern. Since the severity of secrets is subjective, workers may be at a loss for how to combat the consequences.

Solving the Productivity Slump

Thankfully, Slepian and his co-authors, Nicholas P. Camp from Stanford University and E.J. Masicampo from Wake Forest University, offer some solutions. According to the study, one of the best ways to gain back your productivity is to simply get the burden off of your chest. Sometimes we have to keep secrets, but if you have the ability to divulge a secret, you are more likely to take yourself off this path of burden.

But, it's important to remember that an individual should only reveal the secret to the right person because revealing the secret to the wrong person could do more harm than good.

If you're not able to share the secret to a trustworthy confidant, there are other ways to remove the burden. For those without a confidant, anonymous hotlines provide a way to reveal the secret, while keeping your identity a secret. Another option if you cannot state the secret out loud is to simply write it down. For example, posting the secret on an online message board or a website that shares submissions confidentially, or hand writing the secret in a personal journal can help.

The key to gaining back your productivity is to ensure that you have a trustworthy friend or outlet where you can share your secrets; otherwise your career may suffer in the long run. Bottom line: get your secrets off your chest.