Last Monday, I took the red-eye to London. My week had been tightly scheduled months in advance, to ensure the most efficient use of my time on the ground once I landed. Arriving at Heathrow, I whizzed through to the BA arrivals lounge to eat, shower and change in preparation for my morning's meetings.
After my shower I opened my suitcase to get dressed. One problem: no suit pants. In fact: no lower-body covering of any kind, other than the rumpled jeans I'd just slept in.
The next 90 minutes were spent rescheduling that morning's engagements, juggling the effect on meetings later in the week, and navigating the complex maze of gentleman's clothing stores in Central London before emerging with a suitable pair of trousers.
This unexpected diversion to Jermyn Street really bugged me. I'm a frequent traveller — how could I have gotten on a transatlantic flight with no pants? What caused this unexpected absent-mindedness?
I reviewed Sunday afternoon's chain of events. As I had been packing, I remembered that I was interrupted by a request from my daughter to help her with her homework. Twenty minutes of geometry later, I finished packing and zipped up my suitcase. My pants never made it in. While I traversed London, they hung on the back of my door where I'd left them, waiting to be packed.
This translates directly to the work environment, where all manner of interruptions impact our productivity on a daily basis. The problem of interruptions has become so pervasive that most of us are by now familiar with the study reporting that for each interruption, it can take 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand (Mark). There's another, less-publicised known study that estimates it takes only five minutes to recover, but that we get interrupted 50-60 times a day (Wetmore). That's between four and five hours of lost time.
Even as I wrote this piece, a colleague came over to my desk (we are in an open plan office) to show me our company's annual report. After I spent ten minutes looking at the financials with her, I jotted down some of the other times that day I'd been interrupted doing core work: colleagues asking questions or just stopping by to have a chat, email alerts, instant message alerts, a fire drill, and a noisy colleague two desks away. I'd even interrupted myself to checking the latest Facebook share price. Estimated total interruption time: nearly two hours.
While I am clearly not immune to interruptions, I have collected a few strategies to help me minimise distractions, stay proactive in managing my time, and increase my individual productivity over the years. These give me the foundation for creating an ideal work day, and they include:
1. Staying at home. Organising the work you need to accomplish in a given week can allow you to create days where you don't have to go into the office and can work in a highly controlled environment instead.
2. Going off the grid. Signing out of email or even unplugging your computer while you are working on a defined task allows you to maintain your focus. You can sign back on once the task is complete.
3. Measuring your to-do list. Quantifying how much you want to have completed by the end of the day gives you a measurable goal to work towards. I usually start the day by asking myself: "What are the three things I must accomplish today?"
4. Blocking the noise. Converting the unavoidable cacophony of office commotion into a steady background noise can help you concentrate on what you're doing. Consider a white noise machine or noise cancelling headphones to eliminate that noisy copy machine or extravert next to you.
Of course, some noise ends up being a worthy interruption and becomes a priority. The goal is to stay on task, but as additional traffic whirrs around us there are benefits to adjusting your task or timeline. I may have wound up pantsless, but my daughter is closer to an architectural career due to the time we spent together. The trick is balancing these priorities and — as noted in point three — knowing when the task at hand truly takes precedence over all other activity.
How do you manage interruptions?
Jordan Cohen is a knowledge worker productivity expert at PA Consulting Group
He is the recipient of the 2010 Grand Prize at the Management Innovation eXchange (The MIX) for his previous work as creator and head of pfizerWorks at Pfizer Inc.
To read the article online in HBR, click here.
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