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What’s the number one time management problem that people experience?

Interruptions

InterruptionsBased on our in-house clients and public seminars to date, interruptions is the number one time management problem that most people experience. That’s probably not too surprising since we have so many ways of being interrupted – email, cell phone calls, text messages, voice mail, faxes, paperwork, drop-ins, and of course, self-interruptions
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When I refer to an interruption, I mean an interruption is anything that prevents a start-to-finish completion of a task.

A study mentioned by Vince Poscente in his book The Age of Speed, involving 36 office workers found, that on average, they spent only 11 minutes of a typical workday focused on a given task before they were interrupted – and once interrupted, it took them nearly half an hour to return to the task, if they did at all.

Another study of more than 11,000 office workers revealed that interruptions caused more than 2 hours of lost productivity per day – that’s 25% of the workday wasted.

Interruptions has always been a problem. It has been among the top ten time problems for close to 25 years. A 1998 issue of the Toronto Star indicated that on a typical day, the average office worker saw or received 52 phone calls, 18 pieces of interoffice mail, 15 faxes, 18 pieces of mail, 22 voice mail messages, 11 sticky notes, 30 email messages, 3 cell phone calls, 10 telephone message slips, 4 pages on a beeper and 7 overnight packages or courier-delivered items. That’s a total of 190 interruptions. A study reported the same year in Fast Company magazine indicated that the typical businessperson experienced 170 interactions per day – not that far off the other study results.

A more recent study conducted by Industrial Engineer magazine (quoted in the 2002 Every Managers Desk Reference published by Alpha Books, indicated the average length of an interruption was 6 to 9 minutes, yet the recovery time was anywhere from 3 to 33 minutes. A more recent statistic, quoted in the book, The Overflowing Brain, put interruptions at every three minutes and indicated the typical American worker had an average of eight windows open at the same time.

It’s not just the interruptions, but the recovery time that causes the time problem. Timothy Ferriss, in his book The 4-Hour Workweek, published in 2007, says there is a psychological switching of gears that can require up to 45 minutes to resume a major task that has been interrupted. He claims that 28% of the 9 AM to 5 PM workday is consumed by interruptions.

A study mentioned in Vince Poscente’s book, The Age of Speed, involving 36 office workers found, that on average, they spent only 11 minutes of a typical workday focused on a given task before they were interrupted – and once interrupted, it took them nearly half an hour to return to the task, if they did at all.

In the same book, another study of more than 11,000 office workers revealed that interruptions caused more than 2 hours of lost productivity per day – 25% of the workday wasted.”

A type of interrptions not mentioned in the majority of these studies is self-interruption. Stefan Klein, in his book The Secret Pulse of Time, reports that psychologist Leonard Giambre has documented our mind’s tendency to wander. He asked people to solve a puzzle. At random times he would remind them of their task with a beep. If they were daydreaming or thinking of something else other than the task at the time of the beep, they were to push a button. In the course of the half-hour experiment, they pressed the button an average of over 40 times.

A similar experiment had the subjects read Tolstoy’s War and Peace with similar results. Their eyes followed the text and the words were sounding in their heads, but their thoughts were miles away. When they were given a comprehension test, it was found they had retained next to nothing of the plot.

When the brain is underutilized, its activity turns to daydreams or internal monologues or anxiety. We are incapable of complete idleness.

Our brains are meant to keep alert for danger, not concentrate on one task. If you hear your name at a party, your mind immediately picks up on it – and then turns its attention to that conversation. So when it comes to interruptions, even your own mind works against you.

And with work now becoming a state of mind rather than a place, traditional suggestions such as a closed door, screened calls, departmental quiet hours, and office layout simply don’t apply. Two things that are still important are the environment in which you choose to work and the length of time you spend on a task. The longer you work on a specific task, the more chance you have of interrupting yourself. So schedule priority tasks in chunks of two hours or less. Preferably less.

Consultant Marcia Yudkin claims that concentration rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. The most productive time of the day is 10:30 AM for most people so mornings should be reserved for priority work. The environment should be free from outside interruptions, Use you ingenuity. Coffee shops, an unused boardroom, your kitchen table – anywhere that you can concentrate on the task at hand.

If you work from an office, you may have more options such as flexible hours, a different lunch hour, intercepted calls, a closed door and so on.

Regardless of where you work, it is important that you control the technology. Turn off your smartphone or place it on airplane mode, engage the voice mail and ignore email while you work on your scheduled project. And focus on the task, jotting down ideas that pop into your mind without being distracted by them.

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Remove the filters and have a clear view of life

lens-filters

lens-filters

After my cataract surgery I saw things more clearly. At least I thought I did. But it was only from the perspective of clearly viewing objects like road signs and eye charts. Those things weren’t fuzzy anymore.

Many of us have fuzzy thinking or reasoning or decision-making because our reality is seen through filters as murky as cataracts, remove the filters and have a clear view of life. For example, if someone tells you a certain restaurant is terrible – with poor service and tasteless food – the comment tends to influence your own experience at that restaurant. You view your own experience through the filter of another person’s judgment.

Similarly, you may hear part truths from others when you receive news secondhand, distortions of the facts when someone passes on information from the Internet, or when you receive someone else’s interpretation of an event they may have witnessed.

Filters can be formed by other people, your own past experiences, impressions formed in childhood, the environment, the media or whatever. But we owe it to ourselves to see life as clearly as possible.

This involves accepting the comments of others as their opinions; but finding out for yourself whether that restaurant is really so bad or whether a person is actually conceited or if the information from Wikipedia was reported accurately.

Of course, many things have to be accepted at face value. For instance, you’re not going to return to a burning house to confirm that the gas tank is really about to explode.

But where people’s reputations or character are at stake, your own decisions about to be affected, relationships in peril or your own reputation threatened, you will want to do the research yourself by viewing situations with your own eyes and not simply filtered through the eyes of others.

In cases where you cannot check the veracity of something you read, at least check the original source. If you are a trainer or speaker or consultant or writer, and other people rely on the information you pass along, it is particularly important to check your sources.

I have been guilty in the past of passing along erroneous information simply because it appeared in an article or book or newsletter. For example, the infamous Yale study that supposedly showed that written goals vastly increased earnings, the research attributed to Maxwell Maltz that indicated it takes 21 days to form a habit, and the faulty interpretation of Mehrabian’s work on the importance words, facial expressions and the way words are spoken when communicating.

As technology and research methods become more sophisticated, older research findings may be proven inaccurate or incomplete. We have no control over that. But we do have control over reporting facts as they are, and not as others may see them.

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Where are you focusing your attention?

Multitasking

Multitasking

Can technology actually waste time?

Regardless of what people may say about their priorities and what they value most, it is where they focus their attention that reveals whether they are really ‘walking their talk.’

Whether inadvertently or not, the Internet and social media such as Twitter and Facebook may be consuming their lives, where are you focusing your attention? Their so-called priorities, goals and dreams are being put on hold to a time in the future that may never materialize.

As Marshall McLuhan warned us in the 1960s, the medium is the message. We may have started sending tweets or posting to Facebook or writing a blog with an end result in mind – whether it were to promote a seminar, sell product, or whatever. But we soon became captivated by the medium, and feel compelled to continue daily or weekly tweets or posts for the sake of tweeting and posting – with no particular objective in mind.

We may have originally used technology to save time; but over the years it has become a time consumer – with insufficient value from much of it to warrant such an expensive input of time and energy.

Time is life – and a life well lived does not necessarily include a large portion of it being dedicated to surfing the net, accessing YouTube videos, posting tweets and providing Facebook friends with play-by-play updates of our every move.

Social media, like TV or anything else, is fine in moderation. So spending an hour a day online is probably not excessive – especially when it includes useful information that will be put to good use. And TV is great for news and entertainment.

But five hours a day watching TV is a little much, and even 40 minutes a day of social media may be excessive – especially since it reduces the time and energy available for real, live, human interaction.

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Poor memory or attention problem?

memory

memory

Is it poor memory or simply poor memory skills?

Some of us have poor powers of observation. We may be uninvolved, passive, and inattentive or distracted, day dreaming or preoccupied with other things. We could be short-changed in a store and not even notice it. We could glance at our watch and still not be able to tell someone the time. Some of us wouldn’t be able to direct a person to the nearest service station or tell someone where a coffee shop in our neighborhood was located – even though we had passed these places hundreds of times.

Have you ever been at a party and by the time you’re introduced to the second person, you had forgotten the name of the first person you had already met? Have you ever keyed in a number and before they answer you had forgotten who you were calling? Have you ever waited for a chance to interject something into a conversation and by the time you were able to do so, you have forgotten what you were going to say? These is not necessarily examples of failing memory.

They might be indications of weak working memory skills, but you could also be victim of what memory expert Hermine Hilton calls the Seven-Second Syndrome. When a person fails to “lock in” new information, it can be lost in as little as 7 seconds. A good memory is when you can recall things accurately at will. But don’t expect to recall something you never really paid attention to in the first place. Not being able to recall something may not be a case of bad memory. It may simply not have been transferred to long-term memory. Through faulty listening, preoccupation or distraction it may never have registered in your brain.

Many of us are poor listeners. Some of us have a problem hearing things in the first place. We forget 75% of what we do hear within two months. We forget between a third and a half of what we hear within 8 hours. If someone is not observant, a poor listener, fails to concentrate, and lacks interest in the topic in question, he or she has little chance of remembering much a few weeks later. And this is exacerbated by the digital age of speed where everything seems to be happening at once, and where many people seem to take pride in the self-defeating behavior of multitasking.

Let’s use names as an example. Many people have trouble with names. Not faces. You don’t hear people saying “Your name is familiar but I can’t recall your face”. The most important thing is to listen carefully to the name when you are first introduced. Then immediately say the name aloud. “Glad to meet you John.” Repeating the name aloud right away is very important. In fact you should say the name to yourself several times while you’re with the person. At the end of the conversation, repeat the name aloud. “Hope to see you again, John.” According to the book, You Can have a Near-Perfect Memory, by Mort Herold, researchers have found that people remember names about 30 percent better when they repeat the other person’s name at the time of introduction.

As soon as you’re able to, enter the information in your smartphone or on an index card. The act of writing things down also helps to get them into your long-term memory – as does reviewing them periodically. And above all, be mindful of where you are and what you are doing at the time. Whenever you are talking to someone, make sure your mind stays with you.

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Go ahead and worry a little

Worry a littleMost people would probably prefer a worry-free life. With little to worry about, we would reduce anxiety and stress, improve our relationships with others, sleep better, live happier, and increase our personal productivity.

Worry normally refers to having negative thoughts about a future event that may or may not happen. We all know that worry is a waste of time; because it does nothing to change the current situation or influence the future situation – other than to negatively impact our health and well-being. And we have all heard the suggestions that we should get sufficient sleep, exercise more, adopt a positive attitude, use humor, volunteer, obtain social support, remind ourselves of all the good things that happen to us and so on in order to deflect the tendency to worry.

But trying to put a negative thought out of your mind only tends to make it hang on that much harder. It’s like trying to ignore a song that replays repeatedly in your mind. It makes more sense to spend a few minutes accepting the fact that you are worried, mulling it over, assuring yourself that you would be able to survive even if the worst were to happen, and then getting on with the next item on your “To Do” list. According to an article in the December, 2009 issue of Scientific American Mind, research showed that “the more we dwell on negative thoughts, the more the threats feel real, and the more they will repeat in our skulls, sometimes uncontrollable.”

We cannot both worry and take action at the same time. It seems the brain is not as good at multitasking as most of us seem to think. So it makes sense that taking action dissipates worry.

It seems the old suggestion that action dissipates worry is gaining more scientific backing. As John Ratey describes it in his book, Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain, a technique called “active coping” is a way of telling the brain that we can survive in spite of the real or perceived threat. Developed by neurologist Joseph LeDoux, “active coping” is simply a matter of doing something in response to the problem rather than passively worrying about it. This action, in the face of anxiety, activates the brain’s motor circuits, by-passing the amygdala, which was creating the negative snowballing effect.

So go ahead and worry a little; it’s a natural product of your concern. But don’t dwell on it. Take whatever action you can in order to change or avoid the worrisome situation. And if nothing can be done, assure yourself that you will be able to cope with whatever happens. After all, you have survived so far, haven’t you? A little worry never killed anyone. Take advantage of the fact that effective multitasking is impossible. You can’t worry and get on with your life at the same time. Worry will lose by default.