A Time Management Article by Harold Taylor

In my last blog article, I mentioned our low attention span, and our innate tendency to interrupt ourselves to accept interruptions from others. We are hardwired to protect ourselves, and any potential interruptions could be a threat. So, our impulse is to take a second or two to see what that call is about, or what that text message says, or why someone would be emailing me with a subject line of “Check this out right away.” It is difficult to resist. And that second or two becomes 5 minutes or more and multiplied by the number of interruptions in a day, could add up two hours. In fact, according to Basex, interruptions, plus the time it takes recovering from them, consume 28% of a worker’s day. Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California, found that employees only spend eleven minutes on any given project before being interrupted, and that it takes twenty-five minutes before they get back to the original task.

To reduce the impact that interruptions have on your productivity, you must make it easier to do the right thing. And the right thing is to either ignore those interruptions, or at least delay them until a more convenient time, not while working on important projects or tasks. This requires a strategy that I call the “90-minute Rule.” It is explained in detail in my 20-minute audio published by Bookboon titled How to Get the Important Things Done. But briefly, here’s how it works.

Schedule time to work on your important tasks in 90-minute increments of time with half hour “breaks” in between. The “breaks are not just for coffee, but to check and dispense with e-mail and other interruptions that have been avoided during the previous 90 minutes. You avoid them by putting your smartphone on Airplane mode, engaging voice mail on your landlines, ignoring e-mail, closing your door if you have one, and focusing on the task at hand. There is a half-dozen or more reasons to choose 90 minutes, including everything from it being the maximum time most people can focus, to the way it fits our natural cycles of high and low energy. Most interruptions can be delayed for 90 minutes unless you are the president of your country or the family pet.

Once delayed, they are completely within your control, which is the key to dispensing with them quickly. And as mentioned in a previous blog, you now have the choice during the half-hour break times to either ignore the interruption altogether or take action. (It may be a salesperson making a cold call or your daughter telling you she is staying for basketball practice after school and will be late getting home.) Some calls you may delay to a better time, or even the following day. Others you may decide to respond to at the next break by phone, email, or text message. But in all cases, you are now in control of the communication medium, whether speaking or writing or texting and you can quickly get to the point and control when the communication ends. (It’s akin to going to someone else’s office rather than meeting in your own office. It’s easier to leave than to get rid of someone.) And if you have staff members, you may assign some call-backs to others as well.

There will be isolated cases when you will have to accept an interruption during that 90-minute focus time. When you do, relax. You know that you always have a few minutes to spare because of the extra half hour ‘break,” so remain calm. You will think more clearly as well as faster. We don’t function well under stress. You can’t listen or think straight if your mind is in a panic mode.

Handling interruptions at your convenience, rather than at the time they arrive, will have a huge impact on your personal productivity. The sender does not know your schedule, but you do. And it is up to you to have one. The “To-do” list method of working no longer works.

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