Based 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.