Interruptions are a huge time waster. At the same time, we are exposed to interruptions all the time. And don’t think that this only happens when someone else triggers them. Many of them are determined by us.
Whenever you start to engage into multitasking or stop what you are doing and completely switch to doing something else, you become an interruption victim.
The modern workplace leads you into such a way of working, even if you have a natural tendency to focus. Think about it! You start working on something and then you get a phone call. After ten minutes you get an urgent email and you need to double-check something quickly and reply. Then you go to the department meeting, you finally start working again on the project and your boss wants to talk to you. And then there are some more urgent emails demanding your attention.
There are two big problems with this way of working. First of all it is not efficient, to say the least. If you start doing something, interrupt, start over again, interrupt and so on, you need to spend time several times to remember where you left-off. However, the second problem is that you can’t really avoid interruptions.
So what to do?
Change The Way You Respond To Interruptions
Most people take it for granted that when they face an interruption, they need to stop what they were doing and deal with it. This is indeed one way to manage an interruption and in some cases it is the only way. However, in most situations you can choose from a number of alternative options.
Your aim is to take control. When it’s a must, you do need to stop your activity and shift your attention towards something else. Assess each time if this is really the case though. Even if it’s not the case, you can still choose to allow yourself to be interrupted, if you believe it’s the best thing to do. But the key is to control wether of not you allow a certain event to interrupt you.
Let’s discuss more specifically and expose the biggest offenders.
A lot of people continuously check, sort and respond to emails. This is a never-ending stream that can keeps you busy forever. How many times did it happen to you to wonder what happened for the last couple of hours? And most importantly, why haven’t you significantly advanced with the project you were working on? In most cases, this is due to less than ideal email management!
The answer is to set limits that suit your needs, but put an end to the continuous email management. For example, check your emails only three times per day, at set hours.
Maybe the nature of your activity demands that you react faster. However, try to set at least some blocks of time in which you don’t check email at all. Use them to focus exclusively on the task at hand.
When the phone rings, we all have this unstoppable urge to answer. You don’t have to answer the phone though, if it’s not an appropriate time for you. As with emails, set aside time blocks in which you don’t answer the phone.
Let the people get through to the robot. Of course, you then need to review your voice mail and missed calls and call back, as needed. The difference is that you’ll be able to group together several calls and do this when it’s a better time for you, without destroying your productivity.
If you do need to answer, keep the conversation brief and to the point. If you need to have a long conversation, schedule it for a time that suits you.
If it is really important to finish your current work, you don’t need to interrupt yourself just because someone shows-up. Agree a timing for a separate meeting and continue your work. You need to learn to say no and stick to your projects.
Don’t let external events run your agenda. If you do decide to take a break and have a five minute chat with a colleague, do so. But you need strong discipline. Don’t turn this into a half hour gossip session.
Instant messaging is a great invention that facilitates collaboration. It is a double-edged sword though. The most common mistake is not keeping conversations brief. If you try to work on your project while checking the messenger conversation every one-two minutes, your productivity will be nothing to write home about.
Setting limits is easier said than done, though, so you need to develop an effective approach. First of all, change your status to “busy”. Then, if you notice that you find yourself engaged into long conversations frequently, try to completely turn-off instant messaging, at least for a few hours every day. The world will not crush, I promise!
This is another biggie. Furiously checking Facebook, Twitter and the likes every five minutes is a sure way to burn through your day and do nothing. These are amazing time sinks. Like with emails, set aside two or three times a day when you allow yourself to check your accounts. One time per day is better if you can and it is more than enough. You will see your productivity explode once you get out of this race of keeping-up with every status and message.
Although technically you still continue to work on something, multitasking is in fact an interruption. Your productivity is dramatically reduced by this rapid succession of attention shifts from one project to another.
In reality, there are of course times when you need to multitask. Whenever you can avoid this practice though, do it. Finish one task and only then move on to another.
I know you may actually be proud of your multitasking abilities. However, try single tasking and compare results. If your productivity does not explode, I rest my case.
Looking For Something
How often does it happen to you to look for some lost object or piece of information? This is quite a common time waster. Although each time you do this you may only spend a few minutes to find what you are looking for, think about the compound effect.
How much time do you waste like this in a week and within a month? This is lost time that you can spend in a better way. Try to keep your desk tidy and spend some time to design a system to organize your information.
I’m still working to improve in terms of managing interruptions. I must say that when I do a good job at this, I definitely reap the rewards. I’m able to achieve more of what is important for me, no doubt about it.
Don’t try to attack all these enemies at the same time. Pick one and for a week focus on eliminating that specific source of interruptions. So, which one are you going to address this week?