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Friday, September 4, 2009

Trivial and Strategic Interruptions

According to Wendy Cole (Time Magazine, 10/11/2004) office workers are interrupted approximately seven times an hour each day, 80% of the tme with trivial matters. That totals 56 interruptions in an eight-hour work day. If the average interruption is only 5 minutes long, that adds to over 4 1/2 hours a day!

Basex, a New York research firm, discovered that employees worked on a project an average of 11 minutes before being distracted. Once interrupted, workers took 25 minutes to return to their original task, according to researchers Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the University of California at Irvine.

Franck Tetard's research at the Institute for Advanced Management Systems Research in Finland, found that the more complicated the interruption, the more time it takes to recover from the interruption. He also discovered that in-person interruption take longer to recover than from phone interruptions.

At this rate, how does anyone ever get any work done?

Eliminating Trivial Interruptions

If you are plagued with trivial interruptions, it's time to take control! Make a list of these trivial interruptions - papers to be signed, questions from co-workers or those reporting to you, phone calls, emails, unimportant chatter - to name a few. Once you have categorized your interruptions, determine how to eliminate these interruptions. Here are a few suggestions:

- If you must frequently sign papers, attach an envelope or file on the outside of your office or cubicle wall where papers can be deposited for your signature. Attach another one for signed papers. If they are confidential, ask recipients to place the papers in an envelope. Post a notice stating when you will be signing papers each day and when they can expect to collect them.

- Create a time(s) during the day when you are available for questions. If your most productive time is the first thing in the morning, wait until mid-morning to field questions. You'll need a break by then anyway. Since in-person interruptions are more time-consuming than phone or email interruptions, request that simple questions be emailed to you.

- Speaking of email, disable the option of being notified each time you receive an email. Even if you don't look at it, it's a distraction, therefore an interruption.

- Designate specific times when you read email, preferably not at the beginning of your day. Focus on your highest priority task at the beginning of the day without allowing email to distract from your goals - unless emails are your highest priority.

- If your job requires a fair amount of concentration, determine specific times during the day when you will answer phone calls. State those times on your voice mail message, so those calling will know when to expect to hear from you. Turn off the volume if you can hear messages being left - another distraction.

- Notify those with whom you work when you will answer questions, email and phone calls.

- Also,
educate your people on how to determine what priority level their interruption is - high, medium or low. Determine how each priority should be handled and communicate that to them.

- If possible, have your back toward the opening of your cubicle or the door/window to your office to prevent being distracted by what is happening around you.

- Create a notification system of your availability. For example, when you are not available, attach a red card to your wall or door. Change it to green when you can be interrupted. Suggest that your entire team or office institute this system to create more productivity and less interruptions.

- Wear headphones to muffle the sounds if you are working in a cubicle or open office.

Using Interruptions Strategically

- If you work with a team or are a supervisor, schedule touch-base meetings to answer questions, communicate information, etc., rather than be deluged with interruptions. If your people know you'll have these meetings regularly, they can save their questions until then.

- Suggest that your entire team or office schedule "do not disturb" times. For example, start the day with a "do not disturb" time until 10 am, at which time your team meets for 15 minutes to touch base with one another. Make it a stand-up meeting. If necessary, schedule another touch-base meeting time inthe afternoon so everyone can be ready for productive, uninterrupted time the next morning.

- Schedule meetings, phone time, and appointments to compliment your energy level. For example, If you know your energy is high in the morning, work on your high priority tasks at that time. Schedule appointments or meetings in the afternoon. Plan your touch-base meeting when you need a break.

- If meetings and/or appointments are your primary work, schedule the most important ones during your high energy times. Do mundane tasks during your low energy times.

- If you do a lot of paper work or computer work, interrupt your work by returning phone calls or more social duties throughout your day to energize and restore yourself.

- Do not schedule intense work or important meetings that require creative thinking right after lunch, when most people struggle with drowsiness. Strategically use that time to handle phone calls, emails, etc.

A sample schedule that controls and strategically utilizes interruptions:
8- 10 am - Highest priority task
10-10:15 - Touch base meeting
10:15-10:45 - Phone calls
10:45-11:15 - Check emails
11:15-12:00 - Highest priority task
12:00-1:00 - Lunch
1:00-1:30 - Phone calls
1:30-2:30 - Highest priority task
2:30-3:45 - Appointments/meetings/touch-base meeting
3:45-4:15 - Check email
4:15-4:45 - Phone calls
4:45-5:00 - Prioritize to-do list and schedule for tomorrow

As you can see, the above schedule is for those who must spend a considerable amount of time at their desks. Those with more active and/or unpredictable jobs will need to adjust accordingly.

Interruptions aren't always negative. By strategically planning when to allow interruptions can increase your productivity and possibly that of your co-workers.

How do you handle interruptions at work? Subscribers click the title to comment on the original blog.

More on Productivity:

A Dozen Tips for Efficient Appointments
Conducting Time-Worthy Meetings
Three Steps to Time Management at the Office