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Can I interrupt you for a minute?

In his book, the Age of speed, Vince Poscente mentioned a study of office workers that found on average they spent only 11 minutes of a typical workday focused on a given task before they were interrupted. The real problem was that it took them nearly half an hour to return to the task, if they did at all.

Constant Interruptions are a problem for many people. They are not only annoying and disruptive, they can put you behind in your work and cause stress. It’s important to determine why you are being interrupted and take action accordingly.

For instance, if people keep walking into your office to consult you about something, can you have brief stand-up meetings every morning to keep everyone better informed or written policies and guidelines for them to follow?

Do they interrupt you because you have supplies or materials located in your office or work area? Can you relocate them so they’re central to everyone? Or duplicate them. Make sure each person has the equipment and supplies needed.

Are certain people more talkative than others? Probably 80% of your interruptions are from 20% of the people. If so, can you confront these individuals? Do they realize how their interruptions are affecting your work? In a high-tech world, people crave high-touch even more. Can you arrange to have a coffee with them at break time?

Do you work in an open office with no privacy? Can you periodically work in a boardroom or a spare office? Can you work through the normal lunch hour and take a later lunch? Can you work flexible hours, coming in early and leaving early?

Are the interruptions from telephones or e-mail? Can you engage the voice mail when you are working on your priorities and ignore e-mail until specific times?

Some interruptions are inevitable and even essential so don’t get upset when you are interrupted. Just remember that in some cases that’s just your job calling. If you have allowed more time for the task than you thought it would take, you will still avoid the stress.

It makes sense that the longer you work on a specific task, the more chance you have of being interrupted by others and interrupting yourself. So schedule priority tasks in chunks of 90 minutes. Your energy and ability to concentrate rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is the continuation of the sleep cycle and I recommend 90-minute work sessions mainly for this reason.

The most productive time of the day is 10:30 AM for most people so mornings should be reserved for priority work wherever possible. Early birds should start their major products even earlier. If you control your work location, take advantage of it. Some people work at home in the mornings; others work at a coffee shop. Choose a location where you can best concentrate on the task at hand without interruption.

Regardless of where you work, it is important that you control the technology. Ignore the urge to send email or text messages while working on your scheduled project. Maintain focus on the task, jotting down ideas that pop into your mind without being detoured by them. Be sure to put your smart phone on airplane mode.

Self-discipline or self-control, focus, attention, prioritizing and planning are essential if we are to remain effective in this digital age of speed. These are all functions of our executive center in the prefrontal cortex area of our brain. That’s why I claim that the battle against interruptions has shifted from the office to the brain. In my book, Strengthen your brain’s executive skills, published by Bookboon.com, I discuss how we can strengthen these cognitive skills, and in particular, those executive skills that are so critical to the effective use of our time.

 

 

 

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Managing your brain, part 11

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It’s becoming more difficult to focus.

Sustained attention is the capacity to focus on a task despite fatigue or boredom. If this brain-based executive skill is strong, you are able to maintain attention and are not easily distracted or side tracked. You are able to screen out distractions and complete a task even if it is boring and you’re tired. With a weakness in this skill, you are easily distracted and have trouble completing tasks. You probably interrupt yourself frequently to deal with e-mail and often jump from task to task.

Attention spans seem to be getting smaller for everyone. Research shows that the Internet and digital technology can have a negative impact on our ability to learn, focus, pay attention, memorize and relate to others on a personal basis. It also gobbles up our time, encourages busyness and multitasking and stifles creativity. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book, Shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains, claims he has noticed changes in his own reading. He loses concentration after a page or two, becomes fidgety, loses track of the storyline and looks for something else to do.

The ability to focus is one of the most critical brain functions according to Barbara Strauch, author of The secret life of the grown-up brain. And this ability depends on the strength of our executive skills, which are currently under attack by the unrelenting impact of technology. The ever-increasing desire to work faster also exacerbates the problem. For example, in his book Deep work (2016), Carl Newport mentions that IBM staff send 2.5 million instant messages each day to speed up communication.

It’s doubtful that we can avoid our escalating reliance on technology other than to manage it wisely. But we can offset our brain’s decreasing ability to focus by making it easier to do the right thing. You should visualize it as a battle going on in your mind, and you want to help the “good guys” as much as possible.

For example, you could get more immediate results by working on lengthy projects in shorter periods of time – since the longer you work without a break, the more you tend to interrupt yourself. Here are a few suggestions that might lessen the impact of weakened focus and attention:

  • Schedule larger tasks as smaller, 90 minute or less chunks of time in your planner so you can both make a commitment and maintain focus and keep your mind from wandering.
  • Turn off your cell phone, engage voice mail on the landline, ignore e-mail, and close your office door if you have one. It’s only for 90 minutes at the most – and most people can survive without you for 90 minutes.
  • If you are interrupted by some crisis that requires your immediate attention, quickly jot down what you plan to do or write next so you can resume where you left off once the crisis is over.
  • When you call it a day, clear your work area and leave only one thing on your desk – the folder containing your next priority project. It will serve as a reminder of the next day’s priority.

In the long term, you should attempt to strengthen any weakness by developing your executive skills – especially those related to focus and attention. Reacting to a distraction is an automatic reflex; but the reflex can be overridden by the prefrontal cortex area of your brain – the executive center or manager. Using self-control, and being mindful that distractions are likely to occur, you can consciously resist the impulse to go with the distraction when it appears. The more times you resist, the easier it becomes. The habit of self-interruption can be replaced with one of sustained attention to the task at hand.

Several of the executive skills have to do with self-discipline and can be improved through practice. For example turn down desert once in a while – or second cup of coffee. Give up your favorite TV program or sporting event and so on. You could have a glass of water when you really feel like soda, and resist that chocolate bar after golf.

Other suggestions for strengthening executive skills

In stressful situations, your weakest skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding or being able to manage stress is important. Also you should re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills. In fact studies have shown that people who exert themselves mentally, such as resisting the temptation to eat chocolate or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

You should also get plenty of sleep. Sleep deprivation definitely impairs functioning of the executive skills. For example, a student scoring in the top 10% in grades dropped to the bottom 9% after only seven hours per sleep per night and seven hours 40 minutes on weekends.

Dr. Mike Dow, in his book, The brain fog fix, also suggests that we eat brain-healthy foods. For example, use cinnamon in coffee instead of sugar for anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Eat raw or slightly cooked vegetables for high fiber. Drink unsweetened black tea to reduce blood-sugar spikes. And frequently replace pasta with salad (with vinegar and olive oil dressing) – or substitute spaghetti squash. He also recommends a glass of red wine with dinner to lessen intestinal glucose absorption. And of course, plenty of water.

The healthier your brain and the stronger your brain’s executive skills, the more productive you will be, and the more effective you will become at resisting the tempting distractions.

 

 

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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.