No one interrupts a sprinter at work

No work interruptions 

Are work interruptions what work is today? I was coaching someone recently who was having a problem with “disjointedness”. Every time she started a piece of work – usually one that she needed a good run at, her work was interrupted by the usual suspects: Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. It’s how we work today. Work is a series of interruptions to what we’re supposed to be doing.

The solution was absurdly simple. I’ll come to that in a moment.

I did some digging into what effect these diversions have, and was gobsmacked by what I read in this paper – Fragmented Work, which also features in a more user friendly New York Times article here. Both were written in 2005, and I’m guessing things have only got worse in the last 8 years, but here’s what they saw in 1,000 hours of observing Homo Cubiculus.

Average time until interrupted – 11 minutes

Time to restart the task – 25 minutes

Time to get back to where you where – 8 minutes

This is staggering. 11 minutes of productive work. Then 33 minutes on hold. Then THREE minutes (because it took you 8 minutes to get back to where you were) of productive work before you get interrupted again. Rinse and repeat from 9 to 5.  Sisyphus was in a similar line of work. It’s no wonder we feel disjointed.

It gets worse. It’s only a theory, but it feels true to me, that there are two types of schedule: Managing and Making. Managers work in one hour blocks of time, it’s seldom that they need to spend a whole day at one task. Makers, on the other hand, need to get immersed on their work to get in flow. Makers write computer code, they draft contracts, they put bid documents together – they do stuff that takes more than an hour at a stretch to complete. An interruption to a Maker can ruin their whole day.

This is serious shit. It doesn’t even include the self-imposed diversions, or the myth of multi-tasking, to which the same “restart” rules apply. It doesn’t take account of a person’s Time Perspective either. Present Hedonists are renowned for their ability to be diverted from a goal by pretty much any temptation put in front of them, even before cats and You Tube double-teamed them.

How does the coaching story end?

We agreed she try a “sprint” of 45 minutes, free of any distraction, using a desk toy (a stress ball, appropriately enough) to signal to her colleagues that she shouldn’t be interrupted. Email notifications off. Phones diverted to voice mail. Work for 45 minutes, then stop and reflect for a few minutes at the end, to note where the external diversions came from, and what to adjust next time. Anyone can be unavailable for 45 minutes without the business collapsing.

What she found was that colleagues in the immediate vicinity got the signal and cooperated. It was harder to put off more senior people, because their status seems to give them priority. Everyone was sceptical that it would work at all. These are all interesting observations. They tell us how a culture will tend to hold habits in place, however much an individual worker wants to change, and that Time Management is a systemic problem, rather than one person’s.

But look at the benefits:

  1. She stops the disjointedness and has more control  over her work. So she’s happier.
  2. Productivity for that 45 minute sprint went up by 75%.
  3. Doing this twice a day, five days a week, effectively gives her company an extra working day. Everyone’s happy.

Please tell me why isn’t everybody doing this? It’s embarrassingly simple. Why can’t everyone just concentrate for 45 minutes on one task, without interruptions?