The Invisible Time Stealers

Most of us are feeling somewhat overwhelmed with work these days. There is more than enough to go around, and each day ends with things undone. What if you could find 2 hours a day of lost work time? Organizational research is measuring the impact of interruptions on our productivity, and it’s big. One study of more than 1,000 office workers showed that interruptions consumed about 28% of the workday –  including not just the interruption itself but the recovery time needed to get back on track. In another report, employees at a high tech firm who were only 11 minutes into a project, and were then interrupted for a mere 3-minute long task, took on average 25 minutes to return to the original project.

Think about how many interruptions – the invisible time stealers – you get each day. Let’s call an interruption any unplanned, unsolicited, non-emergency break in the work you are doing. Here are some Epiphany at Work tips to gain back precious time to  do the work that is important to you and your business:

1.      Make yourself less accessible.  If you have a door on your office, close it when you need to give focused attention to a task. If you don’t have a door, position your chair so your back is to the door when you are working. This will make it harder for the bored or extroverted co-worker to grab your eye, and your ear, walking past. (Get a privacy screen for your computer monitor if it’s facing the door). Find a signal that will let your colleagues know that you can not be disturbed. I’ve seen yellow caution tape across an entrance way, and a tall bicycle flag that can be seen from across an office. Set a stuffed toy lion or crocodile in your doorway facing out! Almost anything can be a signal. If you are able to, book a small meeting room or go to the cafeteria or internet café to work in peace.

2.      Stand and keep it short.  Make a habit of standing up when people come in to interrupt you. If they say, “Got a minute?” consider the question to be concrete and not rhetorical. Answer truthfully. “Yes, I have one minute to talk, but that’s all. Will it need more than that?”  Most interruptions do (and remember the 25 minutes of recovery time.) Better to say, “Now is not a good time, so let’s book our conversation in for later.”  Beware of the opportunist who will answer your question, “What is the topic?” with a very detailed response. Remain standing during your conversation, it speeds things up. If you are a people manager, book weekly one-on-one meetings with your staff so they don’t feel neglected. Ask them to keep a file and save up the things they need to see you about.

3.      Don’t multi-task when people interrupt you. Some people feel it’s rude to say no too often, so instead they let the interrupter into their work space, but continue to email or read a text message or finish getting ready for the next meeting. Your brain can’t concentrate on more than one thing at a time, so either your work is suffering, or they aren’t being listened to. Which is more rude? Better to stop completely, look at the interrupter and say, “I’m busy right now. You’ll have to come back.” Even if you grant access in 10 minutes, you are setting the right boundaries. You are sending a message that your time is important, and that you respect their needs enough to give them focused attention. 

4.      Notice the trends.  It may seem that your colleagues have valid business reasons to interrupt you. Someone trying to make a decision asks for your opinion, or approval. Another person has made a decision, but needs second-party validation. Someone else has a customer on the phone and needs an answer quickly. Sit back and pay attention to the kinds of interruptions you are getting. Then diagnose the reasons. Do people lack the training, or the confidence, they need to do their jobs?  Are processes and frequently asked questions documented, and also easy to find and use? It may be that training, documentation and coaching would all put an end to most of your interruptions. Publicly displaying an organization chart and contact list helps people to go to the right person the first time. Are you always available when someone is feeling down and needs to unload? You may attract complainers if you are a good listener. It’s better to redirect the complainant to the proper organizational channels, or professionals who can provide solid advice and take action.

5.      Admit you like the break. Working for long periods of time, uninterrupted, can be tedious. A person who likes to be informed and know what’s going on, might encourage people to stop by and gossip. If you are social in nature, you might get lonely or feel ignored without human interaction. It’s not hard to create an environment that welcomes interruptions: A full dish of candy, beautiful plants and photographs and a visitor chair turn any office into a tiny sanctuary for colleagues. Assess if you are being too welcoming. You might find you are well-informed, but falling behind in your work. Instead, take small coffee breaks or plan lunch meals for catching-up socially.

6.      Respond less often. Do you answer every email within seconds of its arrival? That small interruption can stall your thinking and your flow. There are a few jobs that require such accessibility, but in many cases it’s simply a personal habit that has become hard to break. Efficiency experts and multi-tasking researchers say it is better to do one thing at a time. It’s more productive to turn off the email notification sound, and then choose certain times of the day to read and respond to your email. If your company culture demands you check your PDA, you might negotiate blocks of times as black-out periods and designate a back-up. Ditto for the phone. Forward your phone to voicemail to stop it from ringing and interrupting you. Use your technology as a tool to become more productive, rather than becoming a slave to its demands.

Through my company, Epiphany at Work, I provide facilitated interventions, coaching and HR project management to accelerate positive work place change. This material is excerpted from my popular workshop: Mastering Your Busy Work Life.  

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