Posted on

Don’t work in isolation


What most workers need are more quality interruptions

The trend towards cocooning – squirreling yourself away in a home office with a laptop to get your work done – can have a negative impact on both your effectiveness and your health. You need the energy, experience and input from others in order to perform at an optimum level. The Internet and social media will not compensate for a lack of personal interaction with others.

30 years ago most managers had private offices with floor-to-ceiling walls and a closed door to protect them from needless interruptions and socializing. But without the benefit of even the Internet, and only intermittent interaction with others, their output was limited to what they could accomplish with their own limited experience and learning.

Later, the open-office concept with cubicles as offices allowed more input from the outside world, and although this included needless interruptions, even those incidents added the change of pace so necessary for optimum brain performance and creativity. The real advantage was a healthy and beneficial relationship with other people who had different experiences, viewpoints and ideas.

Several years ago one company eliminated even the cubicles and replaced them with tables and unassigned seating so the more mobile workers could come and go according to their flexible working hours. Although the main reason was to save money on office space and equipment, email traffic decreased by more than 50%, and decision-making accelerated by about 25%. This was due to the fact the staff were able to meet informally instead of shooting emails back and forth. Another company claims that 48% of their work was being accomplished in off hours and off premise.

It seems that for the past 50 years or more we have been trying to avoid the people-interruptions and isolate ourselves for maximum productivity. Yet many of these interruptions were actually opportunities in disguise that afforded a chance to form social relationships.

Our brains are designed to associate unrelated information and ideas to form novel and creative solutions to difficult problems. With limited input from others, we have limited creativity. We would not have been created with mirror neurons, which allow us to emphasize and communicate more effectively with others if we were meant to spend most of our day in isolation. And as Matthew Lieberman claims in his 2013 book, Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, research has shown that our brains are wired to connect with other people.

Hard work usually results in maximum value only when it is enhanced by social connections with others. An article in the September, October, 2012 issue of Psychology Today claimed that “the strength of your friendship is as critical for your health as the lifestyle choices you make.” The article went on to describe data collected by Julianne Holt-Lumsted of Brigham Young University that showed among other things that “people with active social lives were 50% less likely to die of any cause than a non-social counterparts.” Many sources indicate that there is a positive correlation between the extent of your social relationships and your ability to fight infection. So there is little doubt that quality relationships go hand-in-hand with health.

If you do have to work in isolation, be sure to keep in contact with associates, get out to a coffee shop periodically during break periods, keep in touch with others on social media, and build quality relationships away from the job.

Posted on

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


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
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.